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Legend & Lore Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Things You Never Knew You Wanted to Know Anything About

The Birthday Cake From Its Roots in Ancient Greece to Today

PLUS: Why You Can Get Sued for Singing “Happy Birthday”


History of the Birthday Cake

The birthday cake is said to trace its history to the ancient Greeks, who offered special votive cakes to Artemis, twin sister of Apollo and virgin goddess of the moon, the

A relief of Artemis in the Louvre.

hunt, and wild animals. The connection between Artemis and birthdays may be based on the fact she was also the goddess of childbirth. The cakes, called plakous by the ancient Greeks, from their word for “flat,� were most usually round and, well, flat (think pita, and you'll be close). Sometimes, though, they were round and pyramidal or conical, and they also were sometimes baked into the shapes of animals. The cakes were often presented encircled by candles, representative of the light of the moon; hence the beginning of our modern-day birthday candles. The modern palate wouldn't find these cakes very tasty. They were baked from a mixture of coarse flour, sesame seeds, nuts, and honey. Guaranteed to break a tooth. The Romans may be the first to actually have cakes as part of a birthday celebration. For personal birthdays (they also celebrated the birthdays of cities and temples and

the birthdays of the emperors), they served a cake made with wheat flour, grated cheese, honey, and olive oil. No mention is made of whether candles were involved. Today's birthday cake finds is closest antecedents in medieval Germany. At that time, special cakes were baked in the shape of Jesus in swaddling cloths at Christmastime. The tradition was later expanded to include the birthday of any child, known as a kinderfest. In another situation guaranteed to break a tooth, medieval English cooks stirred into their birthdaycake batter a coin, a ring, and a thimble. The person who got the slice with the coin was destined for wealth, the person who found the ring was destined to marry, and the person who got the thimble was destined to never marry. The first round cakes with icing appeared in Europe in the 1600s. By that time, millers were grinding flour more finely and refined sugar

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was more common, so the cakes were much more like modern cakes than the crunchy-granola type made by the Greeks and Romans, although dried fruit of one kind or another was still almost a common staple ingredient. This period also saw the invention and use of cake hoops, which could be adjusted for smaller or larger round cakes. Icing makes its appearance in this step in the evolution of cake, as well. The icing was a mixture of water, refined sugar, and egg whites. This mixture was boiled, then poured over the cake. Cake and icing were then returned to the oven for a time. When it was taken out and cooled, the icing would turn into a hard, glossy coating reminiscent of ice (hence the term icing). Cooks in England and the United

States were largely responsible for the birthday cake as we know it. In the mid-1800s, these cooks turned from using yeast as a leavening to using baking soda and baking powder. These two ingredients give the cook greater control over how high the cake will rise. The layer cake was an invention of North American cooks. Butter-cream frostings--another New World invention--replaced boiled icings in the early 20th century. The candles, without which a birthday cake just wouldn't be a birthday cake, are also echoes of the ancient Greeks. They surrounded their cake offerings to Artemis with candles because the smoke from them rose to the skies, which is where the gods and goddesses lived. Therefore, prayers to Artemis would

rise to her. The same idea is behind the birthday wish made just before the birthday celebrant blows out the birthday-cake candles. The wish rises to the heavens, where it is heard and granted (that is, if all the candles are blown out with one puff). Once again, the Germans can be credited with bringing the birthday candle out from the mists of antiquity to the modern day. At first, they often used only one candle, called "the candle of life," stuck in the center of the cake. This candle had more of a religious significance than one of counting the years. Later, this single candle was replaced by one candle for each year the child had lived, with a few more added as a wish for additional years of life and good fortune.

You've probably been at a restaurant when a group of waiters and waitresses bearing a cupcake adorned with a lighted candle have descended on a table of patrons. The cupcake is set before one of the guests and the restaurant employees atonally belt out a “happy birthday” song for that guest. But the song isn't the traditional “happy birthday to you” song. Rather, it's a ditty written specifically for that restaurant's use in wishing “happy birthday” to a customer. Why would a restaurant go to that bother? Why not sing the traditional “happy birthday to you” song? The answer is two words: “copyright” and “lawsuit.” That's right. “Happy Birthday to You” is covered by copyright, and Warner Music, the copyright holder, expects to be paid any time the song is sung in a public venue or “for profit.” The story begins in 1893 when sisters Patty

Hill and Mildred J. Hill published the lyrics and melody for a little song called “Good Morning to All” in a songbook titled Song Stories for the Kindergarten. They had written the song for their kindergarten students in Louisville, Kentucky. The melody was the same as our

well-known “happy birthday” song, and the lyrics were: Good morning to all, Good morning to all, Good morning dear children, Good morning to all.

Sing “Happy Birthday” Get Sued The song was popular with their students and the Hill sisters began using the melody with an appropriate change to the lyrics at birthday parties, and this song became “Happy Birthday to You.” The melody and lyrics to “Happy Birthday to You” were first printed in 1912. The song was next printed in 1918 in a songbook titled Children's Praise and Worship. In 1924, the birthday lyrics were


copyrighted the melody and lyrics of “Good Morning to All,” but it seems “Happy Birthday to You” had never been copyrighted. Technically speaking, the melody is different from the melody for “Good Morning to All” because the first note is “split” to accommodate the two syllables in the word “happy.” Therefore, the Summy Company in 1935 registered the song for copyright, naming as its authors Preston Ware Orem and a Mrs. R.R. Forman. After that, according to Wikipedia, the sequence of copyright events is as follows: A copy of the first publication of "Good Morning to You," on which "Happy Birthday to You" was based.

included as a second verse to “Good Morning to All” as published in a songbook by Robert Coleman. Coleman included “Happy

Birthday” in a later songbook, The American Hymnal, in 1933. Now we enter the realm of copyright. The Hill sisters had

A new company, Birch Tree Group Limited, was formed to protect and enforce the song's copyright. In 1990, Warner Chappell purchased the company owning the copyright for $15 million, with the

Origins of the Birthday Card Cynics have sometimes suggested that birthday cards (and Valentine's Day cards and Mother's Day cards and such) were invented by card manufacturers such as Hallmark just to create a demand and drum up business. Nope. Hallmark was founded about A.D. 1912, whereas the first greeting card, if defined as a written wish for good fortune and happiness, was inscribed on papyrus and carried by hand in ancient Egypt. The Chinese, credited with the invention of paper, and perhaps wanting to find different uses for that commodity, are said to have sent handwritten New Year's greetings to distant friends and relatives. In the Western world, greeting cards are traced back to the 1400s in Europe, with the Germans, like the Chinese, sending New Year's wishes and others sending Valentine's Day cards. The oldest

Valentine's Day card, which dates from that era, can be seen at the British Museum. Well, it's not a card, but a letter dated Feb. 14, 1477 from Margery Brews to her fiancé John Paston III. Translated from the English of that day, it reads: Unto my right well-beloved Valentine John Paston, squire, be this bill delivered. Right reverent and worshipful and my right well-beloved valentine, I recommend me unto you full heartedly, desiring to hear of your welfare, which I beseech Almighty God long for to preserve unto his pleasure and your hearts desire. And if it pleases you to hear of my welfare, I am not in good health of body nor of heart, nor shall I be till I hear from you. For there knows no creature what pain that I endure, And even on the pain of death I would reveal no more.

And my lady my mother hath laboured the matter to my father full diligently, but she can no more get than you already know of, for which God knoweth I am full sorry. But if you love me, as I trust verily that you do, you will not leave me therefore. For even if you had not half the livelihood that you have, for to do the greatest labour that any woman alive might, I would not forsake you. Love you truly And if you command me to keep me true wherever I go, indeed I will do all my might you to love and never anyone else. And if my friends say that I do amiss, they shall not stop me from doing so. My heart me bids evermore to love you truly over all earthly things. And if they be never so angry, I trust it shall be better in time


value of "Happy Birthday" estimated at $5 million. In 1998, the rights to "Happy Birthday to You" and its assets were sold to the Time-Warner Corporation. In March 2004, Warner Music Group was sold to a group of investors led by Edgar Bronfman Jr. The company continues to insist that one cannot sing the "Happy Birthday to You" lyrics for profit without paying extremely high royalties: in 2008, Warner collected about $5,000 per day ($2 million per year) in royalties for the song. This includes use in film, television, radio, anywhere open to the public, or even among a group where a substantial number of those in attendance are not family or friend to whoever is performing the song. "Happy Birthday to You" and "Good Morning to All" are melodically identical. Precedent

(regarding works derived from public domain material, and cases comparing two similar musical works) seems to suggest that the melody used in "Happy Birthday to You" would not merit additional copyright status for one split note. Whether or not changing the words "good morning" to "happy birthday" should be covered by copyright is a different matter. The words "good morning" were replaced with "happy birthday" by others than the authors of "Good Morning to All". Regardless of the fact that "Happy Birthday to You" infringed upon "Good Morning to All", there is one theory that because the "Happy Birthday to You" variation was not written by the Hills, and it was published without notice of copyright under the 1909 U. S. copyright act, the 1935 registration is invalid. Professor Robert Brauneis cited problems with the song's authorship

and the notice and renewal of the copyright, and concluded "It is almost certainly no longer under copyright."[2] Many question the validity of the current copyright, as the melody of the song was most likely borrowed from other popular songs of the time, and the lyrics were improvised by a group of five- and six-year-old children who never received any compensation.

coming. No more to you at this time, but the Holy Trinity have you in keeping. And I beseech you that this bill be not seen by any non earthly creature save only yourself. And this letter was written at Topcroft with full heavy heart. Be your own Margery Brews.

In the United States, the popularity of greeting cards of all kinds is said to date back to Louis Prang, a lithographer near Boston whose Christmas cards of the 1870s were so beautiful and affordable they were snatched up by the masses in England as well as in the United States. Before long, Prang was selling five million cards a year.

After Prang, a number of other printers and lithographers got into the greeting-card business. Although the early cards were primarily for holidays such as Christmas, the balance has in recent years tipped to where more than 60 percent of the cards sent today are birthday cards.

The first birthday card, however, lies buried in historical obscurity. The best guess is that it could have appeared in the mid- to late 1800s, when the greeting-card industry really took off in England. Greetingcard publishers in that country practically deluged the public with cards for Valentine's Day, Christmas, and other holidays. The postage stamp, invented in England in the 1840s, was a great impetus. With the introduction of the postage stamp, cards were more easily delivered by the postman, whereas previously most correspondence of any kind was hand carried by special courier.

But as matters stand, based on the 1935 copyright registration, Warner claims that U.S. copyright will not expire until 2030, and that unauthorized public performances of the song are technically illegal unless royalties are paid to it. So the next time you decide to sing “Happy Birthday,� look over your shoulder first. There might be a Warner lawyer lurking in the background, happy to slap you with a copyright-infringement suit.

The oldest preserved Valentine is on display at the British Museum. It wasn't a card, but a letter dated Feb. 14, 1477, from Margery Crews to her fiance John Paston III.


History of the Birthday Cake  

The birthday cake from ancient times to the present

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