History of Gingerbread Trim
Ginger is an important tuber which is consumed as a spice or as medicine. Ginger bread was brought to Europe in 992 from the Middle East and was used for medicinal purposes. It was usually baked into a cake or a bread form. Swedish nuns were baking gingerbread to ease digestion in the year 1444.
It was the custom to bake ginger biscuits and paint them as window decorations. The first documented trade of gingerbread
biscuits dates to the 1500's, where they were sold in monastery pharmacies and town square farmers markets. Gingerbread became widely available in the 1700's. Known from the Middle East to Russia to Europe to Scandinavia, the most popular form was a Christmas cookie decorated and hung in windows & associated with Christmas.
The popular tales from the Brothers Grimm published in the early 1800's, contained a German folk fable about 2 children, Hansel & Gretel, along with a Witch's House decorated with ornate icing and candy on gingerbread cake. The house Hansel & Gretel visited is representative of the unique and highly decorated 'house' which hung as decorations at Christmas and later attained fame in the Victorian Era architecture.
The style of architectural decoration known as 'gingerbread' did not become widely established until the steam-powered scroll saw and lathe became widely available in the middle 1800's. Then the parts could be easily mass produced. There are a variety of elements making up “gingerbread trim” including swags, brackets and teardrop pieces. Porches and balconies are decorated with turned posts and curving corner brackets. Often a solitary window and gracefully carved ridge boards decorate the roof peaks.
“Gingerbread” is often used interchangeably with "Victorian", a life style named in honor of Queen Victoria. Ornate trim represented a way to decorate houses with individual creativity. “Gingerbread” emphasizes the architectural features such as porches, gables, balconies, etc. Highly decorated houses are sometimes called Gingerbread houses, with few people knowing the origin of 'Gingerbread house' which belonged in a famous fable where the witch lures children to eat her decorative house of gingerbread with candy and icing so she can then eat the children.
Queen Victoria's Influence
Although people often incorrectly refer to a Victorian-era house as a Victorian-style house, 'Victorian' actually refers to the time frame of the reign of the popular British Queen Victoria (1837–1901). She reigned for over 63 years during years of heavy immigration to America. She was of German decent and was influential throughout Europe, Canada, and the US wherever immigrants settled. She was best known for bringing 'morality and values' to the Royal family.
Houses of this 'era' have a “style” of Gingerbread trim, and a variety of home styles borrowed from every country and every era in history. The large number of immigrants contributed to the diverse architecture of the 1870's and on. They built structures which were eclectic, incorporating leaded glass, balconies, over-hanging eaves, and towers.
The paint industry after the Civil War also contributed to this unique architecture when paint was mass produced. Spindle detailing, wrap around porches, rounded towers, and gables are typical embellishments of the Victorian home --a style often referred to as decorative excess. The expansion of the railroads allowed elements to be manufactured on the East coast at low cost, in standard sizes, and shipped to the building site. Starting around 1910, Sears & Roebuck and Montgomery Ward catalogs offered house 'kits' which were the original pre-fabricated homes. Many included house plans with ornate embellishments.
The paints used on ornate houses accentuate the asymmetrical style and highlight the patterns and textures. Homes having three or more bold or contrasting colors are often referred to as "painted ladies".
Unfortunately, the same ornate and spectacular trim which made the Victorian era the most flamboyant and memorable era, was also was the downfall of that style. The time, upkeep, and detail work needed to preserve the ornamentation was costly and time consuming. Soon the decorative elements fell out of favor with the middle class. The onset of the Depression of the 1930s and the onset of World War II rationing brought down the most exciting architectural style in a century.