Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Baker's Dozen

While small, paperback-size butter molds are very common, and largely anonymous, large cake boards that can be linked to a specific owner or maker are extremely rare. Only about a dozen documented cake boards are known. We are fortunate to have two of these magnificent examples of folk sculpture in the Fenimore Art Museum collection. And how the original owners (New York City bakers, for the most part) would chuckle at the thought of their cake board being exhibited in an art museum.

This cake board measures about 18" x 30" and features a memorial to George Washington. Our other board is a tribute to Lafayette. It, like the others, was meant to create a design in a large sheet of gingerbread. The method was simple; the stiff dough of the gingerbread was pressed or rolled onto the mold And then allowed to dry before being baked. The carvers of these boards deliberately made their designs in large gouges rather than delicate tracery so that the image would hold its resolution during the baking.

The result must have been specatacular, which was why these cake boards would most often be found in large bakeries or in the homes of the well-to-do. Most of them were commissioned by the bakers who worked in New York's Bowery in the first half of the 19th century.

If you look closely at our board, you will notice, admist all of the standard iconography of a memorial to Washington, the word "Tasten" along the bottom. It stamds for Thomas Asten, a baker who worked on Greenwich Street in New York from 1824 to 1827. He later became a partner with another baker and, eventually, a street inspecter and auctioneer.

When Asten went out of business as a baker, he must have sold the tools of his trade to other bakeries. If you look at the lower corners of our piece, you will see the letters "J" and "C" in script. The experts in the history of these cake boards (yes, there are a few) believe that these initials are in a different style than the rest of the cake board and thus were added later.

But not much later. One scholar thinks that they stand for John or Jameson Cox, who ran a bakery on Pike Street in New York up until 1834.

Who carved these boards? It's not easy to say, although we do know the names of two carvers, John Conger and Henry Fox, who signed boards. Conger's background is not known; Cox was a carpenter. Conger may have carved wood blocks for prints, which would help explain why the imagery in many of these boards is based on published print sources. And like the blocks carved for prints, these images had to be carved in reverse.

It was one of the 20th century's great sculptors, Elie Nadelman, who found this cake board and added it to his growing collection of American folk art sometime during the Great Depression of the 1930s. It took just over a century for our cake board to make the trek uptown from Lower Manhattan to Nadelman's home in Riverdale-on-Hudson.

About a decade later it was in our folk art gallery in Cooperstown, where today it hangs in a converted ballroom reminiscent of those formal dining areas it may have served shortly after being carved.

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  1. Jameson Cox the baker was my 3rd gr grandfather. He was also the first fire engineer in NYC. I would love to see a larger picture of this or see it in person sometime. Bonni

  2. Hi Bonni! We're very intrigued to meet one of Mr. Cox's relations. We would be happy help you with a larger image, and an in-person visit. Can you please email our Director of Collections at e.richardson@nysha.org? Thanks!

  3. It seems that the J C would stand for John Conger.


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