The boxed cake mix has become a kitchen cupboard standby, relied upon for birthdays, special occasions, and even a lazy-day dessert in many homes.
In 2016, more than 60 million more Americans used mixes to make cakes than used cake flour. The homemade cake may be a bit of an endangered species. But cake mix was not an instant hit – as food companies found out when they first came upon the idea.
In the 1920s, fewer and fewer people were baking bread at home, says Laura Shapiro, a historian and author of Something From the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America. Flour companies were feeling anxious about the trend, which came in part from the growing availability of commercial bakery goods. Also, surplus molasses was on the minds of the folks at the P Duff and Sons Company.
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They hit on a solution in the form of a powdered mix containing 50-50 flour and dried molasses, with dried eggs and a few other ingredients. Just add water, and a home baker could whip up a quick gingerbread. The first mix, sold in a can, not a box, came on the market in 1929, followed by a few other flavours. “The company worked up the idea of spice cakes,” says Shapiro. “They had a little run of cake mixes.”
After World War Two, the idea began to take off. “General Mills, Pillsbury, they start thinking about cake mixes to sell more flour,” says Shapiro. “By the 1950s, these two companies are battling it out.” Hundreds of small companies got into the business as well, though most were either bought by one of the bigger players or went bust. New flavours – fudge cake, white cake – became available. People bought the mixes. At least, some people bought the mixes. The sales numbers gradually plateaued. Most home cooks were still making their cakes from scratch, and the product had reached everyone it was going to reach.