The birthday cake tradition dates back to Roman times, but the pastry they ate then was simply bread with added eggs, butter, and nuts. The end product more closely resembled Japanese melon pan than current birthday cakes.
Cakes and breads were nearly identical up until the middle ages when improvements in ovens and ingredients allowed cooks to preserve fruit for months as a fruitcake. Once Europe colonized the East Indies, sugar became available, and by the early 1700s the first modern cakes were being baked. These cakes used a meringue-like frosting and often included fruits and nuts from their predecessors.
Candles were first added to birthday cakes by the Germans for Kinderfest, a birthday party for children. However, the candles were added to represent the future years of the child’s life, not their current age. Goethe wrote about one such party he went to in 1799 which had fifty or so full-size taper candles that “threatened to burn down” the dessert.
While Marie Antoinette may not have said “Let them eat cake!” but the phrase showed how out of touch the French nobles were: While peasants depended on bread, only the richest could afford cakes. This started to change in the early 1800s with the invention of the cupcake. It is so named because it was baked in a cup instead of a specialized baking pan, making it small enough to be affordable and simple enough to be made at home. Another type of cupcake helped make cakes more available: The cup” referred to a new method of measuring ingredients by volume instead of weight, further reduced the amount of equipment needed for baking. It is this method that serves as the basis for modern cakes. Finally, the first sugar plantation opened in 1836, bringing the price of sugar down enough for the lower classes to afford, spreading the birthday treat to people of all walks of life.
Development continued with the introduction of refined white flour in the mid-1800s and butter cream frosting at the turn of the twentieth century. Packaged cake mixes were introduced in the early 1930s with a big marketing push by General Mills and Betty Crocker in the 1940s and restaurant reviewer Duncan Hines introducing his own line in the 1950s.
Although the recent boom in cupcakes has been attributed to nostalgia, they’re also a practical handheld replacement for single cakes, making them popular for large gatherings. Bakers also benefit because it gives them something individual-size to sell outside of special occasions.