Old-Fashioned Gingerbread Houses Made with Old-Fashioned Ingredients

Photo by Gennie Truelock, Homestead Museum
Photo by Gennie Truelock, Homestead Museum

Hidden away in the City of Industry is one of Southern California's historic treasures, the Workman and Temple Family Homestead Museum. The beautiful six-acre site recounts the history of Southern California from the days of the great cattle ranchos in the 1840s, when California was still governed by Mexico, through statehood and the transformation of L.A. County into an agricultural powerhouse, to the booming Roaring '20s, when Los Angeles became known as "the city that grew."

If you've never been, now is the time to visit. Both the 1840s adobe ranch house (remodeled as a Victorian manor in 1872) and the 1920s adobe mansion (La Casa Nueva) have been meticulously restored and are delightful to visit anytime, but are especially gorgeous now, as they have been embellished with period-appropriate Christmas decorations, such as authentic 1920s tinsel, goose down trees and, in La Casa Nueva, some of the earliest electric Christmas lights.

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It is with this background that I taught a class on gingerbread house building at the museum, using only ingredients that would have been available in the 1920s.
Although gingerbread dates back at least to 10th century in Europe, and was used to make decorated cookies beginning in the 13th century, it is unclear when it was first used to create faux-domiciles. However, building gingerbread houses definitely became popular after the Brothers Grimm published Hansel & Gretel in 1812. Within a short period of time, candy-decorated gingerbread houses were a German tradition, and soon after that the tradition migrated to Pennsylvania along with German immigrants.

Gingerbread baking was definitely a popular Victorian-era tradition in the United States. Indeed, the famous story of the Gingerbread Man was not from the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Anderson but, rather, was first published in an American magazine for children in 1875. The name of the publication? St. Nicholas Magazine, natch.

The timing was actually quite fortunate for the building of gingerbread houses. Candy in one form or another has been available since practically the dawn of history, but for thousands of years remained relatively expensive and only readily available to the rich. Beginning in the 1830s, industrial manufacturing processes, and improved trade in sugar, made candies readily available to the working class for the first time.

Photo by Gennie Truelock, Homestead Museum
Photo by Gennie Truelock, Homestead Museum

By the 1850s, candy making was undergoing a revolution. Traditional candies that had been available for centuries were joined by a wide variety of newcomers, many of which we still favor today. As the Victorian era ended and the Roaring '20s began, the pace of candy innovation only increased. Perhaps the fact that alcohol was illegal had something to do with that?

In any case, all these new candies would have provided a wonderful collection of items with which to decorate gingerbread houses. Indeed, it is hard to imagine gingerbread houses that do not feature many of the candies developed during this wondrous era of candy revolution.

Of course, gingerbread houses can be decorated with more than just sweets. Many other edible items can be used as well, and turn of the century documents reference many other interesting items that lend themselves to decoration. Ironically, Sylvester Graham and John Harvey Kellogg would be incensed that their creations (Graham Crackers, 1829; Corn Flakes, 1895) were being used for frivolous purposes and, more importantly, were being used in conjunction with sugar, which Kellogg believed encouraged people to ... ahem ... nevermind.

Unfortunately, a great many candies and products of the era are no longer manufactured, but I was amazed to learn how many sweets from the era are still available, and many of which still dominate our holiday season. Hershey's Kisses? Silver-wrapped since 1907.

Below is a non-exclusive timeline list of products that can be used to decorate gingerbread houses with a historic twist, as well as some notes on how they might be used. However, your imagination is the only limit.




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