The Tell-Tale Tart: Chronicling Campus History with Cake

Birthdays—at my age, they are just another day in our gradual and inevitable march through time, but my one pleasure in marking my incremental increase in years is eating cake. Cake is my favorite food, and I’ve mentioned it in other blogs before, but since I had a blog due on my birthday this year, I decided to exploit the situation for my own advantage and write about this exquisite dessert.

Cake is an iconic, beautiful marker of momentous occasions and our biggest celebrations: birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, and graduations. Birthday cakes have a long history in Europe, where they began as fruitcakes. The modern layered birthday cake became popular in early America where there were fewer bakeries and home bakers used layers to make taller cakes more quickly (Byrn 2016:266). Although bakeries are more plentiful now and bake many birthday cakes, they carry on the tradition of being tall, layered spectacles. Check out the awesome options offered on campus by MSU Bakers!

Bakers along side MSU centennial cake. Image source: MSU Archives

Bakers along side MSU centennial cake. Image source: MSU Archives

Anniversary celebrations also frequently include cake. For its centennial anniversary in 1955, MSU had a large and ornate layered cake made. For MSU’s sesquicentennial (150th) anniversary in 2005, the Dairy Store released an ice cream flavor that remains a favorite today: Sesquicentennial Swirl. It is vanilla ice cream with white cake and green frosting swirls. Cake evokes such feelings of communal celebration that it was incorporated into this celebratory flavor.

Last year I wrote about an 1884 banquet held for the MSU class of 1886. They served ten (10!) different types of cake at this occasion, including chocolate (my personal favorite). My perusals of earlier cookbooks found they rarely included chocolate cake, and it only became popular in the 1880s after companies like Hershey arose and railroads facilitated travel and the spread of ingredients and ideas. The first chocolate cake recipe wasn’t published in the US until 1886 (Burn 2016:68), so these MSU students were ahead of the curve!

Although cake can act as a public symbol of jubilation, it can also play an important role in everyday life. As much as I enjoy birthday and wedding cake, so do I enjoy grabbing a coffee and cupcake with a friend, or enjoying a slice at home by myself when relaxing after a long week. It is these little moments that do not get captured in photos posted in the newspaper, but instead these are moments captured in the memories of students as part of their experiences here at MSU.

The earliest mention I can find of cake on campus is from the diary of Edward Granger in 1858. On Christmas Eve he wrote, “12 o’clock (midnight) Mr. Charley and Bush have just returned from an expedition to the lower regions. The booty consists in about a peck of fried cakes, to a portion of which we have been giving ample justice” (UA10.3.56, Folder 1). Whether these fried cakes were more like donuts or johnny cakes we cannot be sure, but it’s obvious that these scandalously-procured items were a sinful treat for these mischievous college students. Granger also revealed an affinity for ginger treats, which inspired the ginger cake we served at our 1860s meal reconstruction last spring.

Ginger Cake and Charlotte Russe made for CAP's 1860s Meal Reconstruction

Ginger Cake and Charlotte Russe made for CAP’s 1860s Meal Reconstruction

One of the most entertaining accounts of cake come from Maurice Grenville Kains in a memoir from the Michigan State College of Agriculture Class of 1895. He recounts a take from Boarding Club A, when the notorious Joe Bush would sneak into the dining hall before everyone else so that he could position the pie or cake of the day near his seat so he could choose the biggest piece and also assure that he would get a second piece once the dessert was passed back around. His fellow students grew tired of his hijinks and delayed him from entering early one day, and “when he saw his place, the whole room burst into a roar of laughter; for beside his plate was a little pig trough!” (Kains 1945:135).

The Anna E. Bayha Home Management House was one of four buildings on campus built to give women students the task of living in and running their own homes (see Lisa’s post from a few years ago for more information). Each year, the Bayha House residents made photo albums documenting both everyday and special events that went on in the house. In the Fall 1949 Album is a delightful page titled “Char Baked a Cake” with comments such as “frosting is good!” inscribed on the page (UA.15.3, Vol. SB10, Scrapbook 10, 1947-1953). This is a lovely peek into the lives of women on campus, and it appears they enjoyed both baking and eating their culinary creations.

Page from the 1949 Bayha House Scrapbook. Image used with permission of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

Page from the 1949 Bayha House Scrapbook. Image used with permission of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

The Bayha scrapbooks even provided us with a clue to an archaeological mystery on campus. CAP found pieces of distinctive plates with raised edges at the Gunson trash pit. The Gunson house later became the Bayha House, and a photo from the 1946 scrapbook shows the ladies serving cake on the same style plates!  We do, however, know that this type of plate was likely used for serving cake and other desserts, and may have been specially reserved to function as cake plates on campus.

A page from the 1949 Bayha Home Management Scrapbook showing the serving of birthday cake on glass plates. Image used with permission of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

A page from the 1949 Bayha Home Management Scrapbook showing the serving of birthday cake on glass plates. Image used with permission of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

Fragment of a glass plate recovered from the Gunson/Admin Site.

Fragment of a glass plate recovered from the Gunson/Admin Site.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cake has undoubtedly played a significant role in the history of MSU, acting as a symbol of celebration, community, friendship, leisure, and even defiance in both the public and private lives of student and faculty alike. With the popularity of Sesquicentennial Swirl, the vast array of cakes available in the cafeterias, and the gorgeous creations of the MSU Bakers for birthdays and graduations, I think cake will continue to be an iconic treat on campus for a very long time.

Well, that’s enough from me. Writing this blog has made me hungry, so I’m going to follow in the footsteps of my MSU predecessor’s and go eat some cake!

Sources:

Byrn, Anne. American Cake: From Colonial Gingerbread to Classic Layer, the Stories and Recipes Behind More Than 125 of Our Best-Loved Cakes. New York: Rodale, 2016.

Kains, Maurice G., editor. Fifty Years out of College: A Composite Memoir of the Class of 1895 Michigan State College of Agriculture and Applied Science. New York: Greenberg, 1945.

Michigan State University Archives & Historical Collections:

UA10.3.56, Edward Granger Papers, Folder 1
Diary of E.G. Granger, 1859

UA.15.3, College of Human Ecology Records, Vol. SB10
Scrapbook 10, 1947-1953

Holiday Celebrations at M.A.C

As the students scatter home for the holiday break and campus empties I find myself curious about how the early MSU students celebrated the holidays.

Linton Hall, ca. 1900. Courtesy MSU Archives

Linton Hall, ca. 1900. Courtesy MSU Archives

Because the university focused on agriculture, the summer semester was required and there was a longer break from mid-November to the end of February. Even though  there was a long winter break, many students could be found on campus during the holidays. In a 1897 edition of The M.A.C. Record the campus is described as having a “nice Christmas snow, but not enough for a sleighing.” Later editions of The M.A.C. Record report on how the faculty celebrated the holidays; “Mr. Bland Edwards spent the holidays with his parents, at the college….Miss Marshall, stenographer of the farm department, spent Christmas at her home.” The holiday break was also a popular time for alumni to visit the campus; I.W. Bush, of ’04 [class of 1904] was a college visitor one day the past week. Mr. Bush is engaged in accident insurance business” and “on Christmas day, Prof. Kedzie called on Mr. Boyer, former student and instructor in chemistry the past year, in the government laboratory, in the Stock Yard district…on the 24th he met T.L. Hankinson, ’98 [class of 1898] in one of the downtown stores. Mr. Hankinson is now located in Charleston Ill., where he is teaching Biology in the high school.”

Christmas Tree in front of the Union, date unknown. Courtesy MSU Archives

Christmas Tree in front of the Union, date unknown. Courtesy MSU Archives

Although I couldn’t find any record, there are several historic pictures of buildings decorated with lights for the holidays. In addition to decorating buildings, historical records reveal that Christmas trees were decorated across campus; “the day school, as well as the M.A.C. Sunday school…both displayed fine Christmas trees” and “Howard Terrace must have at least six chimneys since Santa Clause visited six homes in the building and bedecked six beautiful and well filled Christmas trees at the same hour on Christmas Eve.”

Morrill Hall, ca. 1890. Courtesy MSU Archives

Morrill Hall, ca. 1890. Courtesy MSU Archives

Historical pictures show that more than just faculty and students occupied campus during the holidays, children were also a prevalent feature. Christmas events tailored to the children of the faculty and staff are evident in the historical records; “Santa Clause was doing double duty in delighting the youngest children with continual surprises and distributing welcome presents.” and “the M.A.C. Sunday School held Christmas exercises in the schoolhouse…and at their close, the lights were blown out…since Santa would arrive soon.”