You would have no reason to know this (and so you are forgiven for not sending a card), but today is Myrtle Hardcastle’s birthday! In addition to being her her actual calendar birthday, according to information in Myrtle Hardcastle Mysteries #2, How to Get Away with Myrtle (I suppose you do have a reason to know this. Card negligence forgiveness rescinded.), it’s also the day I started writing the first Myrtle Hardcastle Mystery, Premeditated Myrtle, back in 2016.
So to mark the occasion, it’s the perfect time to talk about how the Victorians celebrated birthdays!
Not surprisingly, the celebration of birthdays became a bigger deal as consumer culture grew throughout the 19th century. In 1861, Isabella Beeton of Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management fame makes only fleeting references to birthdays, and only those of the Royal family or in a historical context. Our expert on everything offers not a single suggestion for what to eat, drink, serve, or do on your own big day day!
By Myrtle’s day, however, things were changing in a big way. This graph shows the steady increase in the popularity of the word “birthday,” reflecting the popularity of the idea. By the 1890s, we had birthday cakes, birthday parties, birthday cards, birthday presents—and yes, even “Happy Birthday to You,” that oft-contested celebratory song.
Early in the century, birthdays were intimate affairs, observed at home with family—if observed at all. Letters from friends, a special meal, perhaps even a cake, made up the modest celebration.
But as with the celebration of Christmas, birthdays became bigger events thanks to industrialization and commercialization. Throughout the century, railways linked distant families and friends, consumer goods became more accessible, a new focus on childhood emerged, schedules became more standardized and regimented… and all these changes influenced the new traditions emerging for birthdays.
By the 1880s, Americans had a new household maven to turn to. Frances Owens had published several editions of her eponymous New Cook Book and Summary of Helpful Knowledge and recognized that her readership of middle-class homemakers wanted expert guidance on birthdays (Pinterest was still a few years off).
Owens includes a recipe—and instructions for its presentation—in the 1897 edition, a twist on the traditional “pound cake” called a 1-2-3-4 Cake:
This 1-2-3-4 recipe makes a very nice birthday cake if baked in a dripping pan and heavily frosted. When the frosting is partly dry, mark it off in small squares and put half an English walnut meat on each. Place around it a framework of paste-board cut in little holes for as many small candles as the person is years old. Cover the paste-board with fancy colored paper. Sometimes little candlesticks may be procured that will fasten easily to either framework or edge of pan. This simplifies matters very much. The lights in the room should be put out and the cake brought in with candles lit and placed before the person whose natal day it is and he should cut and distribute it. —Mrs. Owens’ New Cook Book, 1897
Sadly, she did not see fit to include an illustration of the paper candle guide for us.
Children in the 1890s and forever after would come to expect to be lavished with attention, treats, and gifts on their “natal days,” giving the whole family lots to look forward to all the year round.
Many happy returns!