There are few tasty treats that spark as much joy as an ooey-gooey brownie. You can have them plain fudgy chocolate, frosted, blondies, peanut butter, salted caramel, or as an even crazier adaptation of the classic recipe like magic cookie bars. They are an instant hit whenever they show up at parties or in the office break room.
If you’ve bitten into a delicious brownie and thought to yourself, “I would like to kiss the person who invented this delectable treat!” you are not alone. The history of brownies has mysteriously been left out of modern textbooks, and it’s about time we remedy that!
So buckle up. It’s time for a (not so) brief history of brownies.
We can’t talk about the history of brownies without mentioning the origins of chocolate in the United States since brownies are an American invention (USA, USA, USA!).
Way back in the British American Colonies days in 1670, Dorothy Jones and Jane Barnard successfully petitioned the city of Boston to have a place to get coffee and chocolate. And thus, the first chocolate house was opened in 1682.
Chocolate was made in central and south America, so “civilized” nations like Great Britain were almost disdainful of eating this food they perceived to be below them.
It’s funny to picture the aristocratic class turning their noses up at the idea of eating chocolate and then IMMEDIATELY changing their mind the second they had a nibble or sip of the delicious treat.
Originally, chocolate was expensive and only consumed by the rich. Wealthier families often enjoyed a cup of chocolate with or as their breakfast in the late seventeenth century and early eighteenth New England.
At this time, chocolate was made in a special pot taller and larger than a tea kettle and stirred with sugar and sometimes tea, coffee, wine, or milk until it was a frothy mixture.
Benjamin and the Chocolate Factory
Chocolate’s popularity quickly spread in the colonies. Even Benjamin Franklin was on the chocolate train singing its praises. He believed in chocolates’ abilities to improve health and spirit and even recommended it as a treatment for smallpox.
He also encouraged that it be in the provision shipments for officers in the French and Indian War! You’ve had chocolate; there’s nothing like getting a care package of it or eating it when you’re distressed.
It wasn’t long before the colonies got tired of asking those pesky Brits to keep sending over more chocolate, and so, in 1765, the first chocolate mill was erected in Dorchester, Massachusetts.
Soon, other manufacturers sprung up on the east coast and increased quantities of chocolate available to the American market. Founding Fathers Thomas Jefferson and John Adams mused over the treats’ popularity.
They wrote to each other in 1785 that it was better for health and nourishment and would soon take preference as the drink of choice over coffee and tea as it had in Spain! Hundreds of years later, the creator of the Dunkachino realized you could just combine coffee and tea and have the best of both worlds…
Changes in Chocolate
By the 19th century, changes in the taste and form of chocolate encouraged experimentation in cooking and baking. Chocolate bars were first produced in Britain in the mid-nineteenth century. Milk chocolate bars came to market a few decades later.
Boston had another breakthrough in chocolate science in the United States when Walter M. Lowney debuted the first American chocolate bars at the Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893.
Around this time, the history of the brownie starts to come into question. Some sources suggest that at the same Columbian Exposition, the first brownie was debuted.
According to the story, a wealthy socialite by the name of Mrs. Bertha Potter Palmer was the president of the Ladies Board for Managers for the Exposition. She asked her chef at the hotel her husband owned to create a dessert that could be tucked into a lunch box so she and her ladies could eat while attending the event. She requested the treat be easier to consume than a piece of pie and smaller than a layer of cake.
The result was a brownie made with double the chocolate that normal brownies consisted of, plus walnuts and an apricot glaze.
This super-rich, fudgy chocolate confection is still sold at the hotel to this day as the Palmer House brownie! A must-visit on your next trip to the Windy City. The name of the creative chef who blessed the culinary world with this creation, however, will unfortunately never be known.
The reason we question this as the origin of the brownie is that there is no evidence that the Palmer House desserts were called brownies at all. And, who came up with this designation is not clear.
Home Ec Second Period
Chocolate was now as American as apple pie, and people were finding new ways to utilize it every day. Housekeeping and cooking educators partnered with the chocolate industry in the name of “domestic science.” Essentially, they were trying to get people to experiment with chocolate at home.
At the Columbian Exposition, Walter Baker and Company demonstrated their chocolate-making equipment and offered out free samples to passersby. They also provided free copies of Maria Parola’s “Choice Recipes.” This was a brochure offering uses for chocolate and cocoa in your kitchen.
Parola, another Bostonian, was the first celebrity cook and founder of two cooking schools. Her schools were part of a larger movement dedicated to teaching women the so-called domestic science skills (what we might refer to as home economics). Thanks to advances in technology, many housekeeping tasks were transformed around the turn of the twentieth century.
Previously heavily laborious tasks were improved by the advent of gas and electricity in the home. The proliferation of tools and concepts that were designed to make tasks more efficient led to changes in the day-to-day home life of women.
These changes made taking care of the home more business-like. For instance, American culinary expert Fannie Farmer’s introduction of “level measurements” became popular. She introduced “measurements” that became an alternative to the exact weighing of quantities. You might recognize some of them, such as a “pinch,” “dash,” or “smidgen!”
Beyond her contributions to household measurements, Fannie Farmer holds the incredible distinction of possibly being the first person to coin the term “Brownie”! In her 1896 edition of “The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook,” Farmer adapted her cookie recipe to be baked in a rectangular pan.
Here’s the catch: despite being labeled a recipe for brownies, the recipe contained no chocolate! Instead, Farmer created what we might refer to today as a Blondie.
In the late 1890s, there were two advertisements referring to brownies. The first was in the 1897 Sears Roebuck catalog, which mentioned brownies as fancy desserts but did not mention chocolate was required. The second was in an 1898 issue of the Kansas City Journal. The KC Journal was the first definitive reference to chocolate and brownies together.
There is a common myth that the first known recipe for chocolate brownies appeared in a Maine community-sourced cookbook circa 1899. The recipe was called “Brownie’s Food” and featured chocolate, flour, milk, and baking soda, which are all the relevant parts to a modern-day brownie. But the recipe was from a Wisconsin woman who had not yet been born, so that claim remains unsubstantiated.
The real first published recipe for brownies made with chocolate that we know of is likely from the Service Club of Chicago’s 1904 Cook Book. The recipe was called “Bangor Brownies” (probably a reference to the previously mentioned myth).
It included half cup butter, one cup sugar, two squares of chocolate, two eggs, half cup flour, and some chopped walnuts. It directed cooks to spread the ingredients on baking tins and cook for fifteen minutes. Very similar to today’s recipes.
Fanny Farmer’s 1906 edition of the “The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook ” had the most widely circulated version of the chocolate brownie recipe due to farmer’s immense popularity. It was very similar to the Bangor Brownie recipe. Her book was so popular, 360,000 copies were sold by the time she died in 1915, and 50,000 copies were still coming out each year.
In 1907, a student of Farmer’s named Maria Willett Howard wrote two brownie recipes for Lowrey’s Cook Book (of the Walter M. Lowrey chocolate company), with different amounts of egg, chocolate, and sugar.
By this point, the verdict was in: Brownies were a hit! The simplicity of the recipe and the increasing availability of affordable chocolate contributed to the widespread appreciation of the dessert.
It’s All in the Name
We will probably never know how brownies got their name. Much like the origin of these tasty treats, there is no definitive answer. Some point to the Sears catalog that called the treats “Brownies,” but the recipe was so different from what we now consider brownies that it is hard to say. It may have also been Palmer Cox’s widely read children’s book, “The Brownies.” Or, it could be that Fannie Farmer was truly the first.
The world may never know. But, what we do know is that we wouldn’t want to live in a world without them!
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