You’ve baked brownies plenty of times, but have you ever wondered about how the brownie was invented or where it came from? Brownies have an interesting history. No, really. I’ve done the hours of research to give you a complete picture of where brownies are thought to have originated. As with every dessert, snack, or popular treat, stories abound regarding the brownie’s beginnings.
Some may even be true.
It seems as though brownies likely began near the end of the 19th century. I had no idea they had been around so long. Believe me when I say, it’s a fascinating story and one I think you’ll enjoy.
But first, what about that name?
- Where the Name "Brownies" Originated
- Brownie Bars Timeline
- Bertha Palmer, Chef Joseph Sehl, and the First Brownie
- The Original Palmer Hotel Brownie Recipe
- The First Chocolate Brownie Recipe Ever from the Palmer House Hotel
- Other Ideas on How Brownies Began
- How Brownies were Invented
- Related Resources:
Where the Name “Brownies” Originated
Stories featuring the fictional Brownies by Palmer Cox first appeared in 1879, then again in 1881 in Wide Awake Magazine.
It wasn’t until the 1883 appearance of the Brownies in the St. Nicholas Magazine (a publication for kids), so says the Antique Toy Collectors of America, that launched Cox’s career and made the brownies a household name.
St. Nicholas Magazine featured well-known writers of the day.
Think: Laura Ingalls Wilder, Louisa May Alcott, and Mark Twain. Edna St. Vincent Millay, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and E. B. White also submitted pieces for the magazine.
It’s no wonder. St. Nicholas Magazine offered up cash prizes for the best work.
This popular publication connected the Brownies with an appreciative audience who couldn’t get enough of the fairy tale beings.
“Brownies, like fairies and goblins, are imaginary little spirits, who are supposed to delight in harmless pranks and helpful deeds. They work and sport while weary households sleep, and never allow themselves to be seen by mortal eyes.”Palmer Cox, author of The Brownies: Their Life
The Century Company, New York, published Cox’s The Brownies book. It contained twenty-four verse stories and just over 250 illustrations. The stories and drawing of the brownies captivated children and adults.
You can read the whole thing right here. Read The Brownies: Their Story by Palmer Cox free below.
For real, yo. This wasn’t some fad over a few months. This was HUGE!
A perfect blend of fantasy and adventure with gentle moral lessons of kindness and virtue made the stories enormously popular for children of the time. Fan mail from children inundated Palmer Cox who was reputed to answer every letter he received.Jeanne Solensky (librarian in the Joseph Downs Collection & Manuscripts & Printed Ephemera) , “The Brownie Empire of Palmer Cox,” Winterthur Museum and Library, , November 16, 2011
Advertisers picked up on the brownies trend and flooded the papers with drawings of brownies. The story of the brownies were so popular, Kodak named the Brownie camera after them, decades after that first (lesser known 1879) publication!
Since everyone had Cox’s brownies surrounding them in marketing stunts and schemes, it’s no wonder someone named this simple dessert after the mischievous nocturnal (but helpful!) little imps.
Brownie Bars Timeline
You’ll find plenty of overlap when it comes to the history of baking brownies. Cookbooks with brownie recipes began to appear. People love to share recipes — at least, the best kind of people love to share recipes. Knowing how people (okay, me) love to talk food, it’s clear that even in the days before the Internet, recipes traveled.*
Chicagoan Bertha Palmer requests Chef Joseph Sehl of her Potter House Hotel to make a portable cake-like treat for the 1893 World’s Fair ladies boxed lunches.
The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book edited by Fannie Farmer mentions a molasses-based brownie.
Here is a reference in the Chicago Sears Roebuck catalog and in a Kansas City, Missouri ad for Emery, Bird, and Thayer Company Department Store for fifteen cents a pound.
Machias Cook Book (Machias, Maine) was the site of the first naval battle in the American Revolution and the place where a community cookbook shared a recipe for “Brownie’s Food.”
Donaldson’s Department Store ( Minneapolis, Minnesota) advert offers up a chocolate brownie deal: Five cents each.
Kann & Sons & Company Department Store (Washington, D.C.) advertised special Christmas prices in the Washington Times paper. Just twelve cents for a pound of chocolate brownies.
Home Cookery Cookbook compilation from Laconia, NH. The ingredients are an exact match for the 1896 Boston Cooking School Cook Book recipe (and still no chocolate). The Easter ad reveals Brownies’ popularity.
Home Cook Book, Practical Recipes by Expert Cooks includes a recipe for brownies. It includes chocolate and lemon rind.
Fanny Farmer’s 1906 edition of The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book now holds a chocolate brownie recipe.
Bertha Palmer, Chef Joseph Sehl, and the First Brownie
The strongest story places brownies in Chicago, Illinois (which happens to be the city of my birth). The story goes like this:
“The first brownie was created in the Palmer house pastry kitchen in 1893 for the Columbian Exposition World’s Fair in Chicago. Bertha Palmer was president of the Board of Lady Managers and charged the pastry chef at the time to create something different. The result: the brownie. The first reference to the “brownie” in America appears in the Sears Roebuck catalog published in Chicago in 1898.”Palmer House, “History is Hott Prix Frixe Menu,” A Hilton Hotel/Lockwood Restaurant
Now, Bertha Palmer didn’t invent the brownie — the hotel’s Pastry Chef Joseph Sehl did, acting upon her suggestion. We wouldn’t (maybe) have brownies without her influence.
Bertha was a force of nature and worth a closer look.
Bertha Honore married Chicago millionaire Quaker Potter Palmer in 1870, when she was 21 and he was 41. His wedding gift to her? A hotel. What, your spouse didn’t gift you a hotel when you married? Pish posh.
The Palmer House was an eight story hotel with 225 rooms — and the tallest hotel in all of young Chicago.
With French chandeliers and Italian marble throughout, its loss in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, when it had been open for mere weeks, must have been incredibly difficult financially and emotionally.
Note: a multitude of trusted sources relay differing facts regarding the length of time the hotel was opened before it was lost to the fire. I’m going with the Palmer Hotel’s account.
The Chicago Fire of 1871 burned for two days, reducing an area almost four miles wide and one mile long, to rubble. The fire killed around 300 people, destroyed $200 million dollars of property, and left 25% of Chicagoan’s homeless. It was no small thing.
After the Great Chicago Fire roared through, destroying not only the hotel, but other Palmer properties, Bertha sprang into action. It sounds like she asked her family for money.
They needed to get a line of credit open so they could start rebuilding. And rebuild, they did.
The Palmer Mansion, Philanthropy, and Art
While Bertha definitely enjoyed the finer things (she left 52 paintings to the Art Institute of Chicago), Bertha was more than a socialite. Sure, she was known to drape herself in fabulous jewelry, but she was also a philanthropist who did great work for Chicago’s poor.
The Palmer’s rebuilt the hotel and their own private residence, the Palmer House, from 1882–1885. It had the first elevator found in a private home in Chicago.
Building the castle cost money. Far more than the original $90,000 budgeted to the project. Mr. Potter asked the architects to refrain from showing him the rising costs. I find that hilarious.
The mansion was designed by Henry Ives Cobb (you can read more about Cobb’s work here). Reportedly modeled after a German castle (yes, I can see that), the house was drenched in luxury, and became THE place to be.
Some accepted invitations to the home, so goes the rumor, because they wanted to see Bertha’s art collection.
“All Chicago speculated on the interior until one day, in 1885, Bertha Palmer gave the first of the many fabled receptions that would be held at the castle. From its gold-leaf outer entrance, visitors stepped into the octagonal great hall, three stories high and domed in stained glass. Cupids in eternal pursuit drifted across the drawing room ceiling.Barbara Mahaney, Chicago’s Palmer Castle, , Chicago Tribune Newspaper, December 18, 2007.
The dining room, which seated 50, was paneled in San Domingo mahogany. Nearly every one of the 42 rooms boasted a huge fireplace of marble and oak. The castle was the first home in the city to have passenger elevators, and no door had a doorknob that could be turned from the outside, which let it be known that a small army of footmen and other servants was there to cater to guests. Chicago’s Gold Coast was born.”
It was the largest home in Chicago at the time. Even so, Bertha spent her winters in Florida — and began a common trend that continues today. She was clever, too. After her husband died, Bertha doubled the value of her estate in sixteen years.
Bertha and The World’s Fair of 1893
Anyway. Let’s get back to Bertha’s influence on creating brownies. Bertha became the President of the Board of Lady Managers for the World’s Columbian Exposition 1893. Her personality and style were made for an event like this.
The World’s Fair of 1893 wasn’t some little thing. Situated on over 600 acres, the gleaming limestone buildings earned the fair site the nickname “The White City.”
New item after new item after innovation and architectural feat made this a world’s fair to remember. Juicy Fruit gum, the Ferris Wheel, and breakfast food items galore, like Cream of Wheat, shredded wheat, and Pearl Milling Company’s (formerly known as Aunt Jemima’s) Pancake Mix were all revealed at the big fair.
More than 27 million people attended the fair. At that time, it equates to about every one in four Americans.
The World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 wasn’t just a celebration. It was a huge event. This exposition was visible proof that Chicago was back on its feet after the fire. As the President of the Board of Lady Managers, Bertha threw herself into it.
Innovation permeated the fair. Of course it would expand into the kitchen too.
Bertha Palmer wanted something new served to ladies. After all, a boxed lunch couldn’t contain a messy slab of pie or a melty slice of cake. But, it did need something sweet. She asked Chef Joseph Sehl of her Palmer House Hotel to come up with a sort of small cake or other confection suitable for the event.
People loved it.
The Original Palmer Hotel Brownie Recipe
You can bake the original recipe yourself! That printable, downloadable brownie recipe is here right below.
I baked brownies using the first ever chocolate brownie recipe and *insert drumroll here* it was good! The texture is not what you expect from a brownie, but it IS what you expect from any baked good using EIGHT EGGS!
The apricot glaze makes a HUGE AMOUNT. You will only brush the top with the stuff. The rest is sitting in my fridge while I think about what the heck to do with it. The fam will likely say to just make the brownies again. I can’t taste the apricot but it does make the brownies extra not dry (I DO hate the m-word and won’t use it on this site if I can help it!).
These aren’t gooey bars because they are cooked through, but they do have the most unique texture! Very soft. Brownie pillows of softness! A puffy chocolate cloud! Grab a fork.
Remember how I’ve said your brownies shouldn’t take forever to bake? These are different. It was forty minutes (if not a minute or two more — it was a team effort between the oldest and I, and I’m not sure I exactly tracked the time since we both kept adding a minute here or there after checking them). But hey, EIGHT EGGS.
Good brownies happen for those who wait.
The First Chocolate Brownie Recipe Ever from the Palmer House Hotel
- 14 oz. Semi-sweet Chocolate (I used one package of chocolate chips)
- 1 lb. Butter
- 12 oz. Sugar (I used 1 1/2 cup sugar)
- 4 oz. Flour (I used 1/2 cup flour)
- 8 Eggs
- 12 oz. Walnuts, Crushed (I sprinkled walnuts over half)
- 1 Cup Water
- 1 Cup Apricot Preserves
- 1 teaspoon Unflavored Gelatin
Make the Brownies:
- 300* oven.
- Melt chocolate and butter in a double boiler or, do like I did and melt the butter in a pot and stir in chocolate chips when the butter is melted.
- Combine sugar and flour together in a bowl.
- Combine chocolate and creamed mixture.
- Add eggs one at a time.
- Pour into a greased 9 x 12 baking sheet. (9 x 12? I used my 9 x 13)
- Sprinkle the walnuts over the top and press them into the top of the brownie.
- Bake 30-40 minutes.
- Look for crisped edges and a slight rise to the mixture. I used a toothpick tester and looked for a few not dry crumbs, not goopiness.
Make the Glaze:
- Combine the water, preserves, and unflavored gelatin in a saucepan.
- Bring to a boil, frequently stirring.
- Brush hot glaze over the brownies while they are still warm.
This recipe is available in English, Spanish, and Portuguese too.
“Potter Palmer died in 1902, leaving a generous bequest in his will for his wife’s next husband because, ‘He’ll need the money,'” according to American Experience. Ha! You have to love his sense of humor (true though that may be).
Other Ideas on How Brownies Began
Other sources point to a woman named or nicknamed “Brownie” who forgot to add baking powder flour to her cake recipe. The cake didn’t rise but she served it anyway. Ta da! Brownies.
Community cookbooks dotted the country, containing recipes for molasses brownies or chocolate brownies, but all of the recipes were labeled “brownies.” Who knows when the fudgy brownie recipe versus cakey brownie recipe began?
Department stores like S. Kann Sons Co. in Washington D.C.; Emery, Bird, Thayer and Co. in Kansas City, Missouri; and Donaldson’s in Minneapolis, Minnesota advertised chocolate brownies in the ad section of their local paper. Want a neat fact about Donaldson’s? An unverified Wikipedia account mentioned Donaldson’s as the location where Mary Tyler Moore throws her hat into the air during the opening credits. Remember that?
The problem? I couldn’t find any mention of it. Conflicting sources were almost as bad as the origin of brownies! But, I found this gem from the Minnesota Public Radio, Where Did Mary Richards Toss Her Hat? by Marisa Helms, 3/30/2001.
So, the location was on 7th and Nicollet…which, after a little Googling, just so happens to have been the location of the store! I think that’s neat. Who didn’t love Mary Tyler Moore?
Anyway. Let’s return to brownies.
Back then, department stores had tea rooms. They were places women could go without an escort. In many cases, it was the only place a woman could go without an escort.
It’s no wonder that a department store was more than a place to find a new hat or a pair of gloves, but a place to visit, relish the fancy digs, dine with a friend, and enjoy a bit of freedom all in one go.
How Brownies were Invented
Did someone named “Brownie” forget the baking powder or flour? Was Chef Sehl the first to bake a brownie? Are brownies an American riff on scones as others suggest? It could be all the above and then some.
We’ll never know the real answer — but that won’t stop me from enjoying them. National Brownie Day may be December 8, but who says you have to wait to celebrate this perfect and portable treat? Bake a batch of the first brownie recipe above, then check out the other brownie gems I have below.