Learning how foods came to be intrigues me. Even so—I almost skipped muffins. What could be interesting or unique about the muffin? What don’t we possibly know? Muffins, as it turns out, are worthy of our attention.
To learn about muffins, we will need to veer, well, maybe not off the path exactly, but we will do a little zig zagging. You see, muffins, at least how we think of muffins in the United States, encompass more than what we consider muffins in the United State. Wow, that’s an awkward, wordy sentence right there, but you’ll see what I mean. Let’s unpack this.
History of Muffins (UK)
Take a look at the fantastic work done by UK writer, chef, and then some by Dr. Neil Buttery on his site: British Food: A History. He weighed the characteristics of muffins and crumpets, compared recipes old and new, and laid it all out for the rest of us to clearly grasp, as seen below:
|Added egg?||Added butter?||Dough is cut out|
or made into rolls?
|Cooked in rings?||A batter||Muffin score|
|Proper muffins (2020)||Y||Y||Y||Y||N||N||6/6|
|Proper crumpets (2020)||N||N||N||N||Y||Y||0/6|
|Delia Smith (1983)||Y||N||Y||Y||N||N||5/6|
|Elizabeth David (1977)||Y||Y||Y||Y||N||N||6/6|
|Florence Jack (1914)||N||Y||Y||N||Y||Y||2/6|
|Mrs Beeton (1861)||N||N||N||Y||N||N||2/6|
|Elizabeth Hammond (1817)||N||Y||Y||Y||N||N||5/6|
|Hannah Glasse (1747)||N||N||N||N||Y||Y||0/6|
I think it’s especially helpful for those of us in the states to get an idea of what makes a muffin, a muffin, in the UK. Is there a better last name for someone interested in food than “Buttery?” An awesome coincidence. If you love baking, and you do or you wouldn’t be here, go view his site for heaps of interesting info and recipes.
For those of us in the US, the term “crumpet” may be throwing you. What is a crumpet?
This traditional British teatime treat is midway between English muffin and pancake. Like an English muffin, it’s full of holes, perfect for collecting rivulets of melted butter. But it’s also moister and thinner – more like a small pancake. These are best enjoyed toasted, and spread with butter, jam, and/or clotted cream. Since their holes reach to the outside crust, there’s no need to split them before toasting.Crumpets, King Arthur Baking Company, Accessed September 23, 2021.
Funny thing, even an English muffin was invented in the US. The inventor, Samuel Bath Thomas as read on The Nibble, “immigrated from Plymouth, England in 1874 and became a U.S. citizen. Thomas worked in a bread bakery, then opened his own bakery in 1880 at 163 Ninth Avenue between 19th and 20th Streets, in the neighborhood now known as Chelsea.”
In 1880, Samuel Bath Thomas created the Original “Nooks & Crannies®” English Muffin after moving from England to the United States. He used a top secret process that included griddle baking to create a muffin that was crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside. He later opened his own bakery in New York City.About, Thomas’ Breads, Accessed September 23, 2021.
What a funny twist. English muffins and muffin, muffins, invented in the US. Who could have guessed?
Do You know the Muffin Man?
Ready to have your mind blown? Ready for it? There were actual muffin men!
Back to this business of the muffin man. You know muffins as a leavened, fast-to-fix, comforting baked good. But if we’re talking about the beginning of muffins, folks in the UK would have meant the yeasted, kind of puffy, item termed “English muffins” by those of us in the states.
That’s what muffin men were selling.
Poor Victorians spent long hours at work, usually working twelve hours a day with only Sundays off. That didn’t leave much time for cooking! Few had kitchens and instead had to cook their food on an open fireplace, which was hot and smoky work. Many people chose to buy their food from the wide variety of street sellers instead.
The muffin man was just one of these, selling muffins and crumpets for low prices. Healthy meals were expensive, so many families relied on bulky foods like bread and muffins to fill them up. Other street sellers sold fried fish, hot eels, pea soup, baked potatoes and meat pies.
Chapter: Of Muffin and Crumpet Selling in the Streets, Pages 601-637.
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The street-sellers of muffins and crumpets rank among the old street-tradesmen. It is difficult to estimate their numbers, but they were computed for me at 500, during the winter months. They are for the most part boys, young men, or old men, and some of them infirm. There are a few girls in the trade, but very few women.
. . . .
I did not hear of any street-seller who made the muffins or crumpets he vended. Indeed, he could not make the small quantity required, so as to be remunerative. The muffins are bought of the bakers, and at prices to leave a profit of 4d. in 1s. Some bakers give thirteen to the dozen to the street- sellers whom they know. The muffin-man carries his delicacies in a basket, wherein they are well swathed in flannel, to retain the heat: “People likes them warm, sir,” an old man told me, ”to satisfy them they’re fresh, and they almost always are fresh; but it can’t matter so much about their being warm, as they have to be toasted again. I only wish good butter was a sight cheaper, and that would make the muffins go. Butter’s half the battle.”
The basket and flannels cost the muffin-man 2s, 6d, or 3s. 6d. His bell stands him in from 4d. to 2s., “according as the metal is.” The regular price of good-sized muffins from the street-sellers is a half-penny each; the crumpets are four a penny. Some are sold cheaper, but these are generally smaller, or made of inferior flour. Most of the street-sellers give thirteen, and some even fourteen to the dozen, especially if the purchase be made early in the day, as the muffin-man can then, if he deem it prudent, obtain a further supply.
The old man mentioned above isn’t the only person Henry Mayhew interviewed. He also spoke with a 14-year-old boy. Here’s what the young kid said:
“I turns out with muffins and crumpets, sir, in October, and continues until it gets well into the spring, according to the weather. I carries a fust-rate article; werry much so. If you was to taste ’em, sir, you’d say the same. If I sells three dozen muffins at 1/2d. each, and twice that in crumpets, it’s a werry fair day, werry fair; all beyond that is a good day. The profit on the three dozen and the others is 1s., but that’s a great help, really a wonderful help, to mother, for I should be only mindin’ the shop at home. Perhaps I clears 4s. a week, perhaps more, perhaps less; but that’s about it, sir. Some does far better than that, and some can’t hold a candle to it.
If I has a hextra day’s sale, mother’ll give me 3d. to go to the play, and that hencourages a young man, you know, sir. If there’s any unsold, a coffee-shop gets them cheap, and puts ’em off cheap again next morning. My best customers is genteel houses, ’cause I sells a genteel thing. I likes wet days best, ’cause there’s werry respectable ladies what don’t keep a servant, and they buys to save themselves going out. We’re a great conwenience to the ladies, sir—a great conwenience to them as likes a slap–up tea. I have made 1s. 8d. in a day; that was my best. I once took only 2 1/2d.—I don’t know why—that was my worst. The shops don’t love me—I puts their noses out. Sunday is no better day than others, or werry little. I can read, but wish I could read easier.”
Calculating 500 muffin-sellers, each clearing 4 s. a week, we find 100/a week expended on the metropolitan street sale of muffins; or, in the course of 20 weeks, 2000/. Five shillings, with the price of a basket, &c., which is about 3 s. 6d. more, is the capital required for a start.
Two things. First, we’ll look at the numbers and then, we will talk about this “inferior flour.” Let’s break down those numbers.
Okay, so the author states that muffin men received a profit of “4d. in 1s.” As the Encyclopedia Britannica states, “After the Norman Conquest the pound was divided for accounting purposes into 20 shillings and into 240 pennies, or pence. In medieval Latin documents the words libra, solidus, and denarius were used to denote the pound, shilling, and penny, which gave rise to the use of the symbols £, s., and d.” The Norman Conquest was in 1066.
The muffin man received 4 pennies and one shilling (if he were lucky) for his day’s work. The National Archives 1270-2017 Currency Converter automatically conjured up how that amount translates to today. Do note that the tool uses the year 2017 as the baseline. I chose the year 1850 (the book was published in 1851). Drum roll: £5.35 or $6.27 in US dollars since I’m in the US and pounds mean nothing to me.
Take a look at the kid, the 14-year-old, pulling in 4 s. during a good week. He made £16.04 in 1850 (2017 money again, or $21.90 in US dollars), making in one week what the currency calculator describes as the 1850 wages for one day as a skilled laborer.
When asked about the cost of living in 1850 in the post below, the writer had this to say:
A second complicating factor is that specific goods and services cost far less or far more than they do now, so any comparison inevitably misleads. For example, during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, the post office delivered two or even three times daily, and the system was so efficient that Londoners would arrange social engagements, sending queries and receiving answers within a few hours. A penny postcard, in other words, brought one something very like a personal courier service. Does one then say that a British penny in 1879 is equivalent to $10 or $15, the cost of modern commercial delivery services?
A third complicating factor is that unlike the relative closeness of modern economic and social classes, which form a spectrum, large gaps separated those in Victorian England so that moving from one class (or really set of classes) to another required a kind of quantum leap. Thus, as M. W. Flynn has pointed out, doubling a worker’s wages would not, as it would now, markedly improve his or her lifestyle, particularly in regard to sanitation and healthiness, because such enormous gaps existed between the costs of housing for the working and middle classes that one would have had to raise the wages enormously to affect the kind of available housing.
As the old man above mentioned, some folks used “inferior flour” in their muffins, and could then charge less for their muffins. Some muffin men could have made more or less, depending on what they were charging versus what they had to pay out in the first place, like when they bought muffins using “inferior flour.” Then there’s the weather and how often they had to replace a basket or flannel.
Second thing: What’s this bit about “inferior flour?”
A Case of “Inferior Flour”
Not so long ago, and definitely during the time of the muffin man, there weren’t laws about what you could and couldn’t add to food. There weren’t protections in place to keep people safe. When it came to “inferior flour,” it’s likely that the old chap meant additives.
Some of the commonly used additives in the 19th century were poisonous. To whiten bread, for example, bakers sometimes added alum (K2SO4.Al2(SO4)3.24H2O) and chalk to the flour, while mashed potatoes, plaster of Paris (calcium sulphate), pipe clay and even sawdust could be added to increase the weight of their loaves. Rye flour or dried powdered beans could be used to replace wheat flour and the sour taste of stale flour could be disguised with ammonium carbonate. Brewers too, often added mixtures of bitter substances, some containing poisons like strychnine, to ‘improve’ the taste of the beer and save on the cost of hops.
By the beginning of the 19th century the use of such substances in manufactured foods and drinks was so common that town dwellers had begun to develop a taste for adulterated foods and drinks; white bread and bitter beer were in great demand.
As you can see, this isn’t just an “ew, gross” knee-jerk kind of reaction. This kind of practice was dangerous.
Alum is an aluminium-based compound, today used in detergent, but then it was used to make bread desirably whiter and heavier. Not only did such adulteration lead to problems of malnutrition, but alum produced bowel problems and constipation or chronic diarrhoea, which was often fatal for children.10 Dangerous Things in Victorian/Edwardian Homes, BBC News, December 16, 2013.
It gets worse. A lot worse. Remember, English muffins, the kind of muffins sold by the muffin men, were yeasted. They needed to be kneaded. And that, my friend, is where you should set down whatever you are eating. Just for a minute, just until we get through this next section.
A family machinery business began in London after a move from Canada to England. The oldest son checked out bakeries to see how receptive they would be to mixing and sifting machines. Although he generated plenty of interest in his family’s mechanized approach to production, the conditions he found were…appalling, to say the least.
J. Allen Baker visited many bake houses and was horrified by what he witnessed: “Night baking with intolerably long hours, the workers sleeping in their kneading-troughs, the kneading done with bare feet, no proper ventilation or sanitary arrangements, cockroaches, mice and sometimes even rats in untold numbers”.History of Joseph Baker and Sons LTD. Joseph Baker and Sons, Accessed September 20, 2021.
I stomped grapes in a media grape stomping competition for charity once (and placed third, thank you very much, even though the grapes were so, so cold it hurt!). And I can tell you I wouldn’t drink wine made out of those. Something soft like dough is a million times worse. Two million!
But, it also makes sense. I was mulling it over a bit and figured out WHY. Why would bakers use their feet to knead bread? Easy: These bakers were working with large amounts of flour. Kneading more than a few cups of flour would be a monumental task. These people had to make bread in quantity and would have had pounds of flour to knead. That would be much too heavy to handle by hand. Enter: The power of legs and feet! I don’t have anything to back that up with, but it feels right to me.
Muffin Man’s Bell
How do you let people know you have something for sale that they may want to buy? You make a little noise, right? You can’t just shout. I mean, you could, but who is going to hear or understand you, what with the hustle and bustle of carriages, horses, and people? What makes you different from any of the other street sellers?
Muffins were most popular during the 19th century, when muffin men traversed town streets at teatime, ringing their bells. In the 1840s the muffin-man’s bell was prohibited by Act of Parliament because many people object to it, but the prohibition was ineffective. In recent times, muffins have regained some popularity; in common with crumpets and pikelets, they provide a physical base and a pretext for eating melted butter.Alan Davidson, The Oxford Companion to Food, Page 535.
But a source 50 years after the law prohibiting the bell-ringing of muffin men show the law did cause the sound to all but vanish from the streets of London, as revealed below:
There are a great many more London cries, ancient and modern, that I could descant upon; but the brief remaining space at my command bids me to be as concise as I can in enumerating the many cries which have passed away, and the few which are still audible in the streets of London. The most implacable foe to our cries has been the statute known as the New Police Act. Almost all the popular announcements that were once so pleasantly frequent have been silenced by the stern ordinances of municipal authority.
The tinkling bell of the muffin man is still, I believe, occasionally heard in the outlying suburbs; but not long ago a hawker of muffins and crumpets was summoned to a metropolitan police court, for employing the traditional tintinnabulum is proclaiming the beginning of his afternoon rounds. I don’t think the poor man was prosecuted to conviction; still, I am afraid that he was warned to not ring his bell in the streets again.
Of course, that’s not forgetting that during the heyday of the muffin men (muffin people) only trolled the streets during the winter months. Rain, snow, and wet for months. It sounds miserable. Not everyone was a fan of the muffin man, as relayed in this 1832 piece below:
Muffin bells are also my aversion. I scarcely know why but from my very childhood I have had a horror of the muffin man’s bell. I almost doubt if he of Drury lane so celebrated in song would have found favour in my sight had he saluted my ears with the music of his tribe. Perhaps the prejudice arises from this sound being so nearly allied to winter and cold weather music and immortal verse seeming not more completely man and wife.
So much do we associate the ideas of frost and snow with the melancholy tremulous quaver of the muffin bell that it seems the very music of Hypochondriacism especially if heard when quite alone without the slightest chance of a new novel or a friend dropping in to our relief. I am afraid that those who have taken only a cursory view of this subject not observing it as I have done in all its several bearings and merely thinking with the nursery legend that clock’s a clock and a bell’s a bell may be apt to think I am giving it too much importance in this disquisition.
But let these unimaginative people remember that however degraded the bell may have been in modern times by its adaptation to domestic uses in the days of our forefathers it was considered to fill an office of no small dignity its sound being regarded as a sure recipe for driving away all manner of evil spirits from its vicinity on the same principle that a wooden clapper is placed in a cherry tree to frighten the crows.
I think of it like the ice cream man (or woman or whomever) who drove a truck around, selling ice cream to streams of kids, while playing the same tune “Pop Goes the Weasel,” over and over. It’s a sound that, when you heard it, it made you happy because you knew something fun and exciting was headed your way.
The kid likely minded the store in the warmer months, but what about the older man? What did he do after the weather turned? It’s impossible to know, unfortunately.
Muffin Man Serial Killer
Maybe you’ve heard a rumor that the muffin man nursery rhyme wasn’t some harmless sing-songy tune, but something far more sinister: A Victorian era serial killer. *cue scary music* Before we go any further, I need to point out that there was no Muffin Man serial killer. There. Now that that’s out of the way, I can tell you more about that ridiculousness.
That’s exactly what one social media dum-dum would want you to believe. It drives me up the wall when writers, “influencers,” and so on don’t reference their facts or take their facts from sites that are less than legit. I want to KNOW where info came from and it needs to be from a trusted source. That was a lesson learned in, what, middle school? Thank you, Mrs. Bailey. But, that’s not the way some TikTok user rolls. No, he decided that a Wikipedia satire site was factual.
The (completely made up!) story goes that Frederic Thomas Lynwood was a muffin man who tied a string to a muffin and lured children to their death. I’m almost laughing at the absurdity of it while typing. Here’s the whole shebang:
His nickname The Muffin Man is actually a reference to how he committed the murders. By local folklore, it is said Frederic would tie a muffin to a string, and as a child tried to get it, he pulled the string, eventually luring the child to his house and giving him ample time to knock the child out with a wooden spoon. However, people often question whether these children actually died from being beaten with said wooden spoon or if the Muffin Man would kill them some other way.The Muffin Man, The Uncyclopedia Mirror, Accessed September 22, 2021.
Ready for things to get even weirder? This guy on TikTok decides to share the story with his followers as truth. Where did he find the information? The only site with the info at the time is a site that spoofs Wikipedia. Yes, he read a story on a site with “content-free” as opposed to “free content” as its motto and didn’t get the joke.
Oh, sure, the site includes a quote about the serial killer, also known as the Drury Lane Dicer, from Oscar Wilde, “His muffins suck. His pastries suck. He sucks,” and an image of the nefarious muffin man himself, with the caption, “Frederic Thomas Lynwood, photographed using Witchcraft.” (Side note: Oscar Wilde wasn’t born until 1854.)
Whether all of these things were on the site before the ridiculous TikTok info session, it’s hard to say. However, it IS still a satire Wikipedia site trying to be FUNNY. That doesn’t change. It’s nothing but made up nonsense. While I normally like to link out so you know *I’m* doing my homework, I’m certainly not linking to the TikTok guy. Sorry.
Maybe you feel a need to defend the guy anyway. You might be thinking about how Ring Around the Rosie wasn’t only a catchy preschool song and game. Maybe he isn’t that dumb! Maybe the muffin man nursery rhyme was a reaction to a serial killer like Ring Around the Rosie was a reaction to the bubonic plaque…maybe you saw a headline about the muffin man and tied it together all on your own. Except, Ring Around the Rosie WASN’T a reaction to the plague. That’s inaccurate.
Confession time: My husband and I BOTH had heard and believed the plague theory regarding Ring Around the Rosie. Like the Muffin Man serial killer, it’s also false. There are several key points as to WHY this is false, with the most important being this:
Ring Around the Rosie was likely a way for teens during the religious ban Protestants had on dancing to, well, kind of dance at a “play-party.” These kind of rhymes involved ring games, so teens could have fun dancing, but not dancing, without getting in trouble. Snopes has a fantastic article regarding Ring Around the Rosie. If you fell prey to the plaque theory, like we did, that will help set you straight. Snopes got in touch with historical literary experts at the University College London and Oxford University. It’s an excellent read. Our brains love to feel like we’ve solved a mystery no one else has seen. Hey, I love Only Murders in the Building too. But, there is no mystery here.
The History of Muffins (United States)
That’s a lot to take in. Unfortunately, the history of muffins here in the states isn’t nearly so exciting. It’s actually pretty (disappointingly) simple.
Muffin: a term connected with moufflet, an old French word applied to bread, meaning “soft.”The Oxford Companion to Food (2014) by Alan Davidson, Page 535.
Here’s another idea. A muffin could be from a low German word too, according to the researching dynamo’s account below:
“a small, light, round, spongy cake made with eggs,” usually eaten buttered and toasted, 1703, moofin, possibly from Low German muffen, plural of muffe “small cake;” or somehow connected with Old French moflet “soft, tender” (said of bread).Muffin (n.), Online Etymology Dictionary, Accessed September 24, 2021.
Muffins, as we saw above, were once only yeasted. American muffins wouldn’t come along until after the invention of quick leaveners. American women, responsible for feeding and clothing their families, spent a fair amount of time in the kitchen. They had experimented with things around them to find a better (faster) way to feed their family.
Sometime in the 1780s an adventurous woman added potassium carbonate, or pearlash, to her dough. I’m ignorant as to how pearlash was produced historically, but the idea of using a lye-based chemical in cooking is an old one: everything from pretzels, to ramen, to hominy is processed with lye.
Pearlash, combined with an acid like sour milk or citrus, produces a chemical reaction with a carbon dioxide by-product. Used in bakery batter, the result is little pockets of CO2 that makes baked goods textually light. Pearlash was only in use for a short time period, about 1780-1840. . .
Interestingly though, Amelia Simmons’ cookbook, American Cookery (the first cookbook published in the US), occurred in 1796. Pearlash wasn’t an easy thing to make.
Among her cookbook’s claims to originality is its surprisingly early use of a rudimentary baking powder, pearl ash (the chemical potassium carbonate, commonly called potash), to provide the carbon dioxide needed to make baked goods rise. Potash had been used since ancient times in glass, soap, and other products. But neither pearl ash nor the other chemical leaveners which were eventually developed into baking powders are usually thought to have been used in cooking before 1830. The English cookbooks Simmons probably had access to do not mention pearl ash. Simmons, and presumably other American cooks, therefore, seem to have been well ahead of their time with recipes like this, one of four in American Cookery calling for pearl ash:
Cookies. One pound sugar boiled slowly in half pint water, scum well and cool, add two teaspoons pearl ash dissolved in milk, then two and half pounds flour, rub in 4 ounces butter and two large spoons finely powdered coriander seed, wet with above; make rolls half an inch thick and cut to the shape you please; bake fifteen or twenty minutes in a slack oven, good three weeks.
Pearl ash, which tends to leave a bitter residue, was eventually discarded in the process of perfecting baking powders. But bitterness, somewhat tempered by such assertive spices as coriander, evidently could not discourage Yankee ingenuity in the kitchen.
It’s true today. If you poke around online (especially during the holiday season), vintage-vintage family cookie recipes seem to include coriander and pearlash. But, pearlash wasn’t perfect. People kept experimenting (thank goodness).
Around the year 1775 industrial age chemists discovered that if you expose pearlash (potassium carbonate) to carbon dioxide gas the result was potassium bicarbonate, a compound that’s about twice as potent as regular old pearlash. The creation was dubbed “saleratus”, a Latin word meaning “aerated salt.” The discovery prompted an American entrepreneur by the name of Nathan Read to try making the stuff, which he did by suspending pearlash over vats of fermenting rum which produce — you guessed it — CO2. Very clever indeed. Read’s saleratus came on the market in 1788. But the stuff never really caught on as a leavener, mostly because it wasn’t terribly pure and hence not very reliable.Saleratus, Joe Pastry, November 18, 2014.
This was exciting news. At least for a time.
Early bakers thought pearlash might replace yeast as a leavener, but because of its bitter aftertaste, it not only did not replace yeast but was eventually replaced by baking soda. Additionally, pearlash did not work well in batters containing a high ratio of fat. When combined with fatty batters, it produced a soapy flavor. This was not entirely unexpected since potash and fat form the basis for homemade soap.Jennifer McGavin, Modern Recipe Substitutions for Pottasche or Pearlash, The Spruce Eats, Updated January 3, 2020.
What’s a fatty batter? Oh, yeah. Muffins. Muffin, muffins. American muffins.
Baker’s ammonia, also known as ammonium bicarbonate (and often sold as ammonium carbonate), was the primary leavening agent used by bakers before the advent of baking soda and baking powder in the 19th century. In fact, certain recipes for European and Middle Eastern cookies and crackers still call for it today.
When we purchased the powder from a mail-order source (it can also be found at some Greek and Middle Eastern markets), we quickly discovered its biggest drawback: an extremely potent smell. (In fact, it turns out baker’s ammonia is the stuff that was passed under Victorian ladies’ noses to revive them when they swooned.) Because of its noxious scent, it is used to leaven only low-moisture baked goods like crisp cookies and crackers that thoroughly dry out during baking, lest the ammonia linger.
Baker’s ammonia, also called hartshorn, is still available from food-related shops today. While you won’t find it at your local grocery store, you will find it at places like King Arthur Baking Company and, yes, on Amazon. But muffins aren’t dry like a cracker. There needed to be a better, reliable solution.
The Invention of Baking Powder
Enter: Science. The invention of baking powder in the late 1840s changed the game, and the kitchen, forever.
The mixing of sodium bicarbonate and cream of tartar marked the introduction of baking powder. The action of the two chemicals—initially marketed in twin envelopes—began as soon as they were added to the wet dough or batter.
Bakers began buying both chemicals in bulk, but they had to be kept separate to prevent a premature acid-base reaction occurring. This required extra time in measuring. And there was an additional problem as cream of tartar was imported from France and Italy. The supply and price of cream of tartar was erratic depending on the grape harvest.
These two factors—that the components of baking powder had to be kept separate and that the availability of cream of tartar was erratic—fueled the search for a more efficient and economical baking powder.
The invention of this early form of baking powder was a huge step in the right direction. But, it wasn’t the final answer. Since baking powder had to be combined with European imported cream of tartar, the cost was prohibitive to most. Modern leaveners were about to arrive on the scene…
In 1856, this need for a viable alternative drove a young chemist Eben Norton Horsford to create and patent the first modern baking powder. Horsford worked at a time when chemistry was only just beginning to be considered a respected field, and ended up creating the first modern chemistry lab in the United States at Harvard University. By boiling down animal bones to extract monocalcium phosphate, Horsford developed an acid compound that could react with baking soda to create those desirable CO2 bubbles.
. . . .
Horsford later had the idea to put the two together in one container. Water activates them, so he mixed them with cornstarch to soak up any excess moisture and prevent them from reacting prematurely. Now, instead of purchasing two separate ingredients at the pharmacy (where chemicals were sold at the time), and having to precisely measure out each one, would-be bakers could grab one container off the grocery store shelf and be ready to go.
In the 1880s, Horsford’s company switched to mining the monocalcium phosphate as opposed to extracting it from boiled down bones, because it was cheaper. Marketed under the name “Rumford” (named for Count Rumford, who was Horsford’s benefactor while he was a professor at Harvard), the baking powder is still sold today in much the same formulation.
Suddenly, bakers and home cooks everywhere had the ability to better control the outcome of their baked goods. Best of all, it didn’t take extra hours of work. It’s only natural that further experimentation ensued.
Muffins became a mainstay. Portable, fast, and wholesome (at least in those early days), baking powder enabled households to feed a family without hours of work. And what could be better than that? Oh, yeah, other quick breads!
It was the dawn of a new era of baking with no end to the experimentation. Flip through a vintage muffin cookbook sometime for a look at the more “out there” kinds of quick bread recipes. It’s a riot.
I cannot find any sources or mentions of a non-yeasted muffin in a cookbook earlier than the Fannie Farmer Cooking School cookbook. If you know of such an animal, please do let me know in the comments below or via my contact form. I’d appreciate it!