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History of Piping

The icing known simply as ‘white icing’ on the continent was our Royal Icing, having upped its status after Queen Victoria’s wedding cake in 1840. The Royal wedding cake was only a single tier, weighing around 300 lbs (136 kg). The circumference was 9 feet (270 cm), diameter 34 inches (85 cm) and depth 14 inches (35 cm).  Royal icing was only referred to as such after it was used on Queen Victoria’s wedding cake (1840). Royal icing was the icing of choice in the UK till the early 1980s, but unfortunately has fallen out of favour with the cake decorators in the UK. Now we simply follow the rest of the world, with a dependence on sugarpaste/fondant as a covering and decorating medium.

In recent years, there has been resurgence in interest in Royal Icing, but with a larger focus on the piped embroidery style – there is so much more to Royal Icing than this one technique! I want to encourage interest in other styles, as with the decreasing number of skilled Royal Icers it seems these skills may be lost. Some of the royal icing work I have seen in recent cake decorating books is very poor, and is placed alongside incorrect information. Those new to this form of cake decoration can be fooled into thinking that these poor examples are what they should be aiming for.

To try and rectify this in 2012, I requested a display table at the British Sugarcraft Guild 7th international exhibition, it has since been on display at Cake International (NEC Birmingham, London and Manchester) – based on the various techniques within Royal Icing, the display table is a work in progress (I can see it taking a number of years to complete). Starting with the early1900s style, the table progresses chronologically, finishing with a design for the modern – day customer. I must admit, I was taken aback at the level of interest shown for the two early 1900s style cakes (cushion work and piped scrolls and grapes).

Frequently asked questions were related to the time period and technique. The cushion work cake, also referred to as net work, took 40 hours. The technique is simple and very repetitive – you merely pipe one line on top of another. On my cake, the cushion is roughly 20 lines deep. The piped scrolls and grapes cake was much less time-consuming, at around 20 hours. This cake has inverted scallops, and it should be noted that piped lines must be piped with regards to gravity – cakes undergoing this form of decoration will spend a fair amount of time upside down

Most of the piping techniques we use today were created in the late 1800s to early 1900s, using very similar (if not identical) equipment. Whilst it is the nature of art to progress with the times, and for decorators to continually strive to push the boundaries of our art, we should also refer back to the techniques of the past (lest they be forgotten). When we think of Royal Icing, it shouldn’t merely be a thing of nostalgia.

Credit should be given where due to the great cake decorators (royal icers) which preceded us – Ernest Schulbe, Herr T. Willy, Edwin Schur, Fred Schur, Ronnie Rock, Alex Bransgrove, Eddie Spence, Audrey Holding, Lindsay John Bradshaw, Nadene Hurst, Colin Burge et al. Each of these decorators had their own, distinctive style – no labels were necessary to identify their cakes

Most of the Royal Icing piping techniques we rely on today were created by a handful of confectioners in the late 1800s and early 1900s. I tend to think of this group as the founders of UK piping, despite most of them learning their trade on the continent – the likes of Herr Willy, Ernest Schulbe, Erwin Shur, George Cox and S. P. Borella

A royal iced cake in the style of Herr T. Willy 1891.

Herr T. Willy, born 1849 (Germany) and dying at the age of 60 in 1909 (London).

·       Commenced his confectionery training in 1863 (aged 14 years)

·       Arrived in the UK aged 32

·       All About Piping’ published 1891 (125 years ago)

·       Previously worked in Germany, Austria, France, Russia, and Switzerland.

Herr Willy, like many cake decorators, was passionate about the craft and strived for perfection… as he saw it. The preface of his 1891 book could be considered almost libellous, to this effect. It is available for free online:

Upon arrival to the UK in 1881, Herr Willy was appalled by the low standard of piping and cake design. Simply put, UK confectioners did not have the proper equipment – the piping nozzles available were useless to the point of being a hindrance, while the piping bags were “monstrous”. The bags were constructed from Indian rubber with screw fittings to attach the nozzle, which Herr Willy states “were in fashion over 75 years ago, when our grandfathers were in the trade.” The solution to this problem? Herr Willy created and marketed his own range of brass piping nozzles, of which there were 160 varieties. He also produced special paper, solely for use as piping bags.

In this day and age, most of us have forgotten that eggs were seasonal. Those available in the winter months were often expensive as well as old, so it would not be uncommon to find a portion of the dozen had gone bad. Herr Willy promoted the use of dried albumin, for consistent and cheaper results. To promote his methods, it was possible to attend his own cake decorating school within London, with twelve lessons available for two pound ten shillings (approx. £280 by today’s money). With each of these lessons lasting around 90 minutes, that’s a pretty good deal, even by today’s standards.

In the style of Ernest Schulbe , from his book published in 1898, The piped decoration around the top edge of this cake is called cushion work. This form of decoration is created by piping a number of lines directly on top of the previous line (the cushion work on this cake is twenty lines deep).

Ernest August Schulbe, Born Halle Germany 1862

Married Minnie (Wilhelmina?) who was born in Kiel, Germany 1861

She died 1909 aged 49. They had five children Mase, Albert, Ernest, Dorothy and Edward. Ernest Schulbe became a British subject in November 1900. He died in March 1942 aged 80.

Out of all of the founders of royal icing in the UK to my mind Ernest Schulbe did the most, however a lot of the piping techniques he created are now credited not just to other cake decorators but to other countries. In the USA they refer to ‘Lambeth’ Joseph Lambeth owned/ran a cake decorating school in the USA he taught ‘Traditional English over piping’ his work was nice, but he did not create any cake decorating techniques. South Africa was known for wing work (large piped lace pieces which were secured over the corner edge of a cake), wing work was originally created by Ernest Schuble in the UK. Extension work (piped lines which extend beyond the cake) originated in the UK not Australia.

Ernest Schuble first competed at the London exhibition in 1894 where he won the first of many competitions. His style of cake decoration was for every changing, so it was hard for his followers to keep up with his latest style. Some of his designs using net nails (he created and marketed 15 types of net nails) to my mind would still be classed as ‘wacky’ by today’s standards see example.  Like Herr Willy he marketed his own range of piping nozzles – however he was of the opinion that a set of 18 nozzles was all that anyone would require. He ran his own Confectionery School of Art in Withington, Manchester. By 1897 his pupils were also wining competitions. He also taught cake decoration at various location within the UK. A private lesson cost £3.15 for 12 hours tuition. He also offered ‘Practical lessons’ where the pupils (max of 2 at any one time) were expected to work in his bakery under his supervision (a for runner to todays ‘internship’?) at a cost of £5.25 for 1 week and £10.50 for 4 weeks

He wrote two books – Cake decoration first published 1898(it was a very popular book and was reprinted several times) he designed this book with the idea that every bake house (bakery) would have a copy on the shelf and the designs held within would be used daily for their customers. This is the first time a top view of the cake design and side view were shown (a forerunner to today’s work drawing) which were to be used as a method to instruct how to create the designs. His second book ‘Advanced Piping and modelling’ was published 1906. Even after 108 years to my mind a lot of his comments are still valid – ‘you cannot learn piping properly unless you have lessons from someone capable of doing good work, and who is able to interpret to others how to do it’.

Another example of Ernest Schulbe style of piping from his book published in 1898. All piped lines need to be piped with gravity (not against) and as such this cake is required to be upside down for part of the piping.

This stacked royal iced wedding cake with sugar flowers is in the style of George Cox from his book which was first published in 1901. This just goes to shows that stacked cakes are not a new idea and neither are sugar flowers.

George Cox’s book ‘The Art of Confectionery’, with illustrations by W.H. Atkins was first published in 1901. By 1903, the book was reissued with an additional 80 pages, introducing even more inspirational techniques and designs. Admittedly the main aim was to promote City and Guilds certified courses, linked to his employer, but this did improve the training and standard of workmanship country-wide.

The City and Guilds body came about in 1878, creating a national system of accredited technical education, allowing recognition of skills for tradesmen. This organisation has been linked to the Royal family since King Edward VII (1881), who was the first City and Guilds president. Queen Victoria introduced a Royal charter for the institution in 1900. Continuing this theme, the Duke of Edinburgh took over the role of president from 1951 to 2011, until he was acceded by the Princess Royal.

To ensure the growth of these certified courses, many local colleges agreed to run and examine to the City and Guilds standard provided a minimum of six confectioners registered their interest. If this minimum could not be met, confectioners could instead study independently via Cox’s book, The Art of Confectionary, then travel to take the exam.

At the turn of the 20th century, stacked cakes were still the celebration cake of choice, but with pillars and separators becoming a focal point of design. This aided the tradition of the ‘first cutting’ of the wedding cake by the bride and groom, by making the lowest tier more accessible. With the icing being relatively thick and hard, confectioners began to ‘pre-cut’ the first slice. After covering the cake with a layer of marzipan and allowing skinning, a wedge of cake would be cut and removed, then returned to the original position. The whole cake and drum (typically 13 mm thick board) would then be iced over with multiple layers of Royal Icing, with the wedge continually removed and re-inserted with each layer. On completion of the final coat (typically coat three, with standard wedding cakes), this wedge would be marked with a satin ribbon, allowing the bride and groom to give the illusion of cutting the cake with ease.

It is a common misconception that dummy cakes are a modern idea, while in fact ‘fake cakes’ were in heavy circulation during the 1900s. These dummies were available in various materials, but cardboard was the most common. Colleges tended towards wooden or metal dummies, as these could be readily cleaned and reused. Some of the most eye-catching pieces in The Art of Confectionary are the designs requiring a cake to be clamped vertically. Lines are piped with gravity, and not against, to ensure neat and even designs – in the pictured case, a double curve. Various vertical cake clamps were available at that time, although most were homemade, with the most basic impaling a cardboard dummy with wire between two plinths. The more modern example shown here is only suitable for dummy cakes, as the weight of a real cake would cause irreparable fractures to the cake structure. Historically, the vertical icing of real cakes had been achieved, albeit only for Royal Icing-coated fruitcakes speared on a larger metal spindle. Sponge cakes do not have a firm enough texture for this kind of clamping.

A royal iced cake in the style of S.P. Borella from his book, published in 1910.

Secundo Pierro Borella, was an Italian confectioner born in 1864. As with many of the other confectioners covered in this series, he moved to the United Kingdom as a young man in the 1880s. He resided in Cheltenham, Gloucester for a short time before moving to London. In 1898 at the London Bakers’ and Confectioners Exhibition he entered a competition piece which showed the new technique of piped lace pieces (this technique requires the royal icing lace pieces to be piped onto a piece of waxed paper, once the piped pieces have dried, the pieces are released from the paper and carefully attached to the cake surface with a small amount of royal icing) over the years this technique has wrongly been attributed to him where in fact the creator of the technique was Edwin Schur.

  In 1906 he followed in the footsteps of his predecessor, Ernest Schulbe, and taught at various locations in Scotland before finally moving his family to Scotland, where he became a teacher in confectionary at the Royal Technical College of Glasgow.

During his formative years in confectionary, he collaborated heavily with the author H. G. Harris in the creation of several 'All About...' books, which covered topics ranging from pastries, biscuits and gateauxs to the more niche and advanced Genoese glace and petit fours. These books were released between 1903 and 1920.

S. P. Borella also published his own work, which was heavily inspired by the revolutionary guide format of Schulbe, in that his book 'Cake Tops and Side Designs' features separate images of both the side and top decorated pieces. However, he improved on Schulbe's method by showing the piped design at various stages, allowing the reader to follow more clearly the path to replicating his designs. Many of us are very visual learners, and with pictures being worth around 1000 words, this book was indispensable for confectioners. If you have picked up any of the more recent cake decoration books, you'll see that S. P. Borella's innovative format is still the preferred method of written teaching today.

He dedicated this book to his friend and mentor Sir Alexander Grant. You may recognise the name, as Sir Alexander Grant is best known for inventing a digestive aid commonly referred to as 'the digestive biscuit'. Sir Alexander Grant later went on to become the chairman and managing director of McVitie and Price (now United Biscuits), where S. P. Borella worked until he retired.

Borella's work was recognised by the higher classes, a privilege which resulted in his producing no less than 33 cakes for the royal household. It is possible to watch a short video clip on British Pathe which shows S. P. Borella (at the age of 70) and two other confectioners setting up the wedding cake of Prince George (Duke of Kent) to Princess Marina of Greece and Denmark, in 1934. The cake itself stood 9 feet tall (270cm), weighing a massive 800 lbs (363 kg).

This style is often called Nirvana in the USA ( a design created by run sugar pieces) due to Ernest Cardnell 2nd/3rd book both of which were published in the 1950s, however runouts have been around since the 1920s. This example in the style of Ernest Cardnell would have been created as a competition piece and is made up of 55 run out pieces. 

Earnest Cardnell wrote under the pseudonym name Nirvana. He wrote three books plus a number of articles for Trade publications. This design is from his 3rd book which was published in the late 1950s.

A royal iced cake in the style of Ernest Cardnell, which would have been sold to a customer (in the 1950's) ie commercially viable in regards to the number of hours required to create it.

A royal iced cake in the style of Audrey Holding. Author of two books 'The Art of Royal Icing' published 1980 and 'The Practice of Royal icing' published 1987. Audrey studied and attained a City and Guilds certificated 'Design and Decoration of flour confectionery in Manchester. She was a lecture at Tameside Bakery college. She was an active member of the British Sugarcraft guild and for a time was its Honorary President. She lived in Glossop, Derbyshire.

A royal iced cake in the style of Lindsay John Bradshaw author of  numerous cake decorating book (first book published 1985). John studied and attained a City and Guilds certificate in Design and Decoration of flour confectionery in Manchester. He later became a lecture at Salford College. He was an active member of the British Sugarcraft Guild and for a time was the Editor of its quarterly publication. This cake shows a run sugar full collar textured with filligree work plus a shadow collar. Royal iced flowers using a stencil to create each petal.

A royal iced cake in the style of Lesley Herbert. Creator of the bridgeless extension technique using greased pins. Lesley is the author of several books. She was  a lecture at Brooklands college for a number of years (now retired). She is still active in the cake decorating world as a Judge at Hotel Olympia and Cake International.