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The highly decorative and often superfluous woodwork applied to a Victorian style house or commercial structure.
Illustrated Dictionary of Architecture Copyright © 2012, 2002, 1998 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. All rights reserved


The term "gingerbread" encompasses a variety of sweet, spicy cookies, cakes, and breads. These foods originated in medieval Europe at a time when ginger was an especially popular spice. Europeans have celebrated special occasions with gingerbread for centuries. From an earlier association with medieval fairs, gingerbread evolved into a favorite Christmas treat.

Uses and Recipes

The ancient Romans greatly esteemed ginger for both its culinary uses and curative powers. They used it to flavor sauces as well as to treat upset stomachs and to induce bowel movements. Roman traders bartered with Asian merchants to acquire this useful root. After the fall of the Roman Empire the trade routes established and maintained by the Romans dissolved, making ginger hard to get in Europe. In medieval times spice merchants charged high prices for ginger. Well-to-do medieval Europeans paid these prices, because they prized the relatively rare root. Medieval cooks had discovered that ginger lent a preservative effect to pastries and breads. Some of the early recipes for these sweet, spice breads seem a bit crude by modern standards. One simply recommended mixing dry bread crumbs with spices and honey. Another combined bread crumbs with cinnamon, aniseseed, ginger, licorice, and red wine. Cooks molded the pasty dough resulting from these recipes into various decorative shapes (see also Christmas Cake). This kind of gingerbread survived until the seventeenth century, when a more cake-like gingerbread, composed of flour, sugar, butter, eggs, molasses, ginger, cinnamon, and chopped fruits, began to replace it. "White gingerbread," which mixed ginger with marzipan, also became popular around this time. Bakers often pressed this kind of gingerbread into molds and then covered it in gilt.

Fairs and Bakers

At the close of the eleventh century gingerbread flourished throughout northern Europe. Gingerbread vendors sold their goods at fairs across England, Germany, France, and Holland. These fairs served as traveling, medieval shopping malls providing people with opportunities for commerce as well as entertainment. In England gingerbread was such a popular fairground treat that people began to refer to gingerbread cookies or pastries as "fairings." In addition, gingerbread became such a common item at many fairs that people began to call these commercial gatherings "gingerbread fairs." Several English gingerbread fairs survived into the twentieth century.

Many gingerbread vendors cut their cookies into fanciful shapes, some associated with the time of year, others purely decorative. For example, gingerbread sold at spring fairs might be cut into the shape of a flower. Other popular shapes included windmills, kings, queens, and various animals. Gingerbread sellers delighted in decorating their creations both by cutting them into exquisitely detailed shapes and by adding fancy embellishments. By the eighteenth century gingerbread makers had developed their art to such an extent that English speakers adopted the term "gingerbread work" to refer to fancy, carved, wooden trim on colonial seaport houses or to the gilded, carved prows of ships.

German Traditions

In German-speaking lands shaped and decorated gingerbreads appeared at autumn fairs and Christmas markets. In fact, the gingerbread of contemporary American Christmas celebrations probably came down to us from old German traditions. German cooks often cut their gingerbread dough into the shape of gingerbread men and houses which they baked, cooled, and decorated. The traditional German gingerbread house plays a prominent role in the famous German fairy tale, "Hansel and Gretel." The witch featured in this story built and lived in a house made out of gingerbread decorated with candy and icing. This tasty exterior tempted children, such as Hansel and Gretel, to venture inside. The Scandinavians also create miniature houses from gingerbread at Christmas time. In the United States gingerbread men are the more common Christmas treat. Sometimes these cookies briefly serve as ornaments for the Christmas tree before they are eaten.

Further Reading

Stellingwerf, Steven. The Gingerbread Book. New York: Rizzoli International Publications, 1991. Wilson, C. Anne. Food and Drink in Britain. Chicago: Academy Chicago Publishers, 1991.
Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003


Highly decorative, elaborate woodwork, usually turned on a lathe and/or fashioned on a jigsaw.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Architecture and Construction. Copyright © 2003 by McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.
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