Monday, January 9, 2012

Horse Cakes

A Civil War treat sold in Alexandria, Virginia stores for a penny was a gingerbread cookie "cut in the flat, rude shape of a prancing horse with very prominent ears and very stubbed legs. 

The horse shape cutter was obtained from a 'tinner' (tinsmith) and a recipe is at the end of the following article...

“They are gingerbread of the ‘round heart’ consistency, cut in the flat, rude shape of a prancing horse with very prominent ears and very stubbed legs, sold in various small shops in Alexandria [Virginia], along with candy balls, penny whistles and fly-specked ballads.  ‘Horse-cakes’ are an Alexandria institution.  You should buy a few for lunch some day in the bakery…” wrote Abby Woolsey to her sister in August 1861.  
A few years ago I came across this letter while researching the gas bake ovens in the US Capitol in 1861, and was intrigued with the Horse Cakes.  A previous letter described the capture of women spies [on August 23, Rose Greenhow was arrested by Allen Pinkerton in DC].  One spy, an “…old woman declared her packets of letters to be [horse-cakes] between her shoulders.”  [Letters of a Family during the War for the Union.  1899]

Bartlett described them as “Gingerbread rudely fashioned into the shape of a horse.” [Dictionary of Americanisms. 1859]  “They had currants for eyes, and the children never knew whether to begin to eat at the head first or the tail.”  [Harrison, Mrs. Burton.  Old Fashioned Fairy Book.  NY: 1884]

By 1845, horse-cakes were sold at a camp meeting in Anne Arundel County, Maryland [NY Herald  8/28/1845]  At a General Muster, June 15, 1838 on a Virginia courthouse green “… there were little tables where men and women sold horsecakes, cup-cakes, round-cakes, and biscuits. We boys went for these and soon spent all our money.”  [Bagby, Alfred.  King and Queen County, Virginia.1908] The cookies were also sold at an 1856 Worcester, Mass. agricultural show.

A short story/article which appeared in various newspapers in 1842 contained “…Thomas, here’s a cent – run down to the baker’s and buy a horse cake…” [Macon Weekly Telegraph.  6/14/1842]  After the Civil War horse cakes sold for a penny.  “Another time he was sent to buy a dollar’s worth of horse-car tickets, [for the Navy Department in DC] and came back with a hundred ginger horse cakes.”  [St. Louis Globe-Democrat.  5/28/1885]


“Many people have a peculiar fancy for these plain cakes, eaten first in early childhood, hence we are glad to give a tried recipe for them, such as can be made at home to please the children, old and young.”  [Southwestern Christian Advocate.  New Orleans, LA  12/4/1884] “Mama has often told us about horse-cakes, and the funny little shop where she used to buy them for a cent apiece.”  [Harrison, Mrs. Burton.  Old Fashioned Fairy Book.  NY: 1884] 

“…horses (which are of cake greatly resembling gingerbread and made in the form of a horse) universally predominates, and not only children but even adults select these as a favorite daily.  It is no unusual spectacle to behold in the northern states an entire court – judge, jury, and lawyers – regaling themselves during an important trial on horse-cakes.”  [International Monthly Magazine of Literature, Science and Art.  NY: 1898]


Ginger Horse-Cakes
One quart of flour, one pint of best Orleans molasses, one cupful of sugar, tablespoonful and a half of ginger, two small teaspoonfuls of soda, half a cupful of sour cream, and a heaping tablespoon of lard.  Sift the flour first, and then sprinkle the ginger well through it, add the sugar and molasses, putting in lastly the soda dissolved in the cream.  Obtain from a tinner a cutter shaped like a horse, for cutting out the cakes.  [The Universal Cookery Book.  NY: 1887

©2012 Patricia Bixler Reber

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