Cup Cake

A version similar to 19th century American cupcakes.

When people talk about the earliest recipe under the name cupcake, they usually point to Eliza Leslie’s 1928 publication of Seventy-five Receipts For Pastry, Cakes, And Sweetmeats. Well, fair enough, that’s the oldest mention of the words “cup cake” in that order that I’ve found, too.

But when you actually look at the recipe, it’s pretty quirky. The name seems to refer primarily to the measurement system and not to the characteristics of the cake. (I’m aware of the theory it applies to both, but it seems a missed opportunity to reinforce that when it says “bake in small tins.”)

I’m not saying it’s not a cupcake, I’m just saying… well, here:

Cup Cake.

Five eggs.
Two large tea-cups full of molasses.
The same of brown sugar rolled fine.
The same of fresh butter.
One cup of rich milk.
Five cups of flour sifted.
Half a cup of powdered allspice and cloves.
Half a cup of ginger.

Cut up the butter in the milk, and warm them slightly. Warm also the molasses, and stir it into the milk and butter: then stir in, gradually, the sugar, and set it away to cool.

Beat the eggs very light, and stir them into the mixture alternately with the flour. Add the ginger and other spice, and stir the whole very hard.

Butter small tins, nearly fill them with the mixture, and bake the cakes in a moderate oven.

See what I mean? If I ask for a cupcake, and you bring me a molasses spice-cake baked in a small tin, I’d think you didn’t understand the request.

But only one year later, we got a cupcake recipe we would recognize in a book called The Frugal Housewife by Lydia Maria Francis Child, first published in 1829:

Cup Cake

Cup cake is about as good as pound cake, and is cheaper. One cup of butter, two cups of sugar, three cups of flour, and four eggs, well beat together, and baked in pans or cups. Bake twenty minutes and no more.

Mind you, her cupcake was about as good as pound cake, in that it had no leavening in it and would be rather dense. (They did use potash as leavening at the time, and other cakes in the book were leavened.) It was cheaper in that, since pound cake involved equal measures of all ingredients, this used the least amount of butter, the most expensive ingredient at the time.

But we should stop to talk about the author for a moment; you might know her name as Lydia Maria Child, the civil rights activist, journalist, and novelist.

Lydia Maria Francis was born in 1802 in Medford, Massachusetts; she attended school to become a teacher while learning the classics from her older brother, a Unitarian minister. This was an interesting time to be a teacher, because the Panic of 1919 and subsequent depression in the 1820s would lead to the development of the public education system as part of a social safety net against poverty. (In theory.)

She started writing as a teacher. At 22, she wrote her first novel, Hobomok, anonymously, attributing it only to “an American.” In the novel, a white woman marries a Native American and has his son.

Let’s just say the novel was not well received. Shall we move on?

Two years later, in 1826, she started a monthly magazine for youth called Juvenile Miscellany. Then, in 1828, she got married to Boston lawyer (and eventually journalist) David Lee Child. Ultimately, both Lydia and David would be deeply involved in the causes of Native Americans’ rights and abolition–but in that early first year when learning to be a housewife, she wrote a cookbook.

Lydia’s The Frugal Housewife: Dedicated to Those Who Are Not Ashamed of Economy was the only cookbook she ever wrote. It was reprinted at least 35 times (usually under the name The American Frugal Housewife to distinguish it from an earlier British book). Ultimately, in the 1850s, it fell out of print, hypothetically in favor of newer cookbooks, although Child’s active work in then-controversial abolition movements was likely a contributing factor.

In part due to being popularized by Child, the 1-2-3-4 cake became a classic American yellow cake: easy to remember, rich, sweet, and always welcome at the table. Here’s a version from the November 18, 1870 edition of the Coshocton (Ohio) Age:

Cup Cake.

Take one cup of butter, two cups of sugar, three cups of flour, and four eggs. Tea-spoonful of saleratus, nutmeg and rose-water.


By 1891, this basic recipe was familiar enough to be repeated in the opening paragraph of a fiction piece in the November 26, 1891 edition of the Friendship (New York) Weekly Register:

A Thanksgiving Burglar


“One o’ butter, two o’ sugar, three o’ flour’n four eggs,” soliloquized Aunt Hepsie Barber, as she measured out the ingredients for the children’s favorite cup cake. “Seems liek that rule is a verse of poetry, it runs off so glib; but, my! it ain’t nothin’ to the way the cakes go off, after the children gets a holt of them. Let’s see, now, how many tinsful did I bake last Christmas? Six, as I’m a livin’ woman, an’ afore night their faces were all puckered down with, ‘Oh, Aunt Hepsie, ain’t there no more patties?’ as doleful as if they hadn’t had one apiece. It does beat all how much children can hold, an’ not hev an explosion. Now, I set out to have enough this year, but I d’no’s I hev. One good thing, that rule’s sure–true blue, like indigo caliker, an’ not light’s a feather one time an’ flat’s a pancake another, like some rules.”

Mmph. “Patties.” Well, yes, that happened. Another name for cupcakes in the 19th century (and still today in Australia) was a patty cake, although it’s not entirely clear that the 18th-century nursery rhyme referred to the same thing.

For example, consider this patty cake recipe from the July 27, 1899 edition of The Waterloo (Iowa) Courier:

A Real Patty Cake.
It Is the Special Delight of a Juvenile Picnic.

Nothing delights a child more than a patty cake. During the June days, when the little ones are going out on picnics, to the park and to out-of-town places, cake of some sort always enters into their luncheons, and the child who has a number of patty cakes in her basket is happy. Here is a receipt for patty cakes which are both plain and good:

Cream together one cupful of butter, two cupfuls of sugar and one egg; grate in a saltspoonful of nutmeg; when these ingredients are properly blended, add three-fourths of a cup of milk; sift two cupfuls of flour in a bowl; add to it two heaping spoonfuls of baking powder; stir the powder well through the flour, and then add it to the other ingredients and stir until the mixture is as smooth as cream.

Butter a patty pan, fill it with the cake batter, and bake it in a quick oven just to test it. If it is all right, bake the other cakes at once. If the batter is not stiff enough, add a little more flour.

Make a light frosting for these cakes by beating the white of an egg to a stiff broth, and stirring in it four tablespoonfuls of powdered sugar. When the cakes are a nice brown remove them from the oven and place them on a folded napkin; before they are quite cold spread the frosting over them with a thin bladed knife.

[Line breaks added for clarity.]

From the box of A.D. from Lutz, Florida, by way of Pennsylvania in the 1940s, and originating in Ohio in the 1920s.

Cup Cake

1 c. butter
2 c. sugar
3 c. flour
4 eggs
1/2 tsp. baking powder
20 drops extract, bitter almond

Rub butter and sugar to a cream. Add eggs. Beat well. Sift together flour and baking powder. Mix into a smooth batter. Bake in well-greased muffin pans in hot oven 20 minutes.

One Comment

  1. Jane Blystone

    Great research, Aaron, love the history part of the recipes, too!

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