No large 18th or 19th century house would be without a selection of moulds for shaping various desserts and savoury dishes for presentation at table, and these make a decorative and very useful addition to a modern kitchen.
Jellies have been around a long, long time, from the 14th century at least. Originally they were savoury rather than sweet and were made by boiling up such unpromising bits and pieces as sheep's heads, cows' or pigs' feet or, in the case of hartshorn jelly, shavings taken from the antlers of a deer.
The resultant goo was clarified with egg white, strained, flavoured with wine, herbs and spices, and poured into moulds that were embedded in ice to set. Jellies took many
hours to make and were very much food for the rich. As gelatin was such a co-operative material, readily flowing into ridges, ribs and twists, moulds could be as fanciful as the maker's ingenuity could devise, and several were used to build up elaborate tableaux for banquets. None of these medieval moulds, though, has survived to the present day.
The earliest examples we have are from the 1730s. By this time, sugar from the West Indies was readily available and jellies and other shaped confections were popular desserts, artistically presented and coloured with natural ingredients such as cochineal (red), syrup of violets (blue), spinach (green), saffron (yellow) and chocolate (brown).
FLUTES, FRUIT AND TURKS' CAPS
At this time, moulds were made of thinly potted, white salt-glazed stoneware. Later in the century, creamware and
pearlware were used. There was a huge variety of shapes; Wedgwood alone produced many different piped and fluted moulds, turks' caps, castles, suns and moons, wheatsheafs, Egyptian motifs, fruit, classical urns, religious subjects and national emblems, among others. They were often sold in 'nests' of graduated sizes, and large kitchens would have several dozen.
In the 1830s, copper jelly moulds became popular. Hammered or die-stamped into shape and lined with tin to prevent verdigris poisoning, copper moulds were more likely to have abstract shapes than representational ones. When polished, they looked very well in a kitchen, and often doubled as cake moulds.
In the 1840s, a heavy brown salt-glaze stoneware was increasingly used for moulds, and various earthenware finishes were literally pressed into service in the 19th century.
Pressed glass moulds were introduced in the 1880s. The best ones were made by Sowerby in Gateshead. The majority were shaped as fluted circles or ovals, though crouching rabbits, tortoises and other animals remained a popular subject in the 20th century, when many pressed glass moulds were imported from Czechoslovakia and the USA.
JELLY MOULD COLLECTOR'S NOTES
Jelly moulds are decorative, useful and, on the whole, cheap, making them an excellent subject for a collection, particularly if you enjoy cooking and catering. Though jelly is now seen today as a nursery food - as shown by modern plastic moulds, usually shaped like teddy bears or other toys - it need not be. Old
cookbooks will provide many recipes for savoury and sweet treats, including other types of moulded dessert such as flummeries thickened with oatmeal, creams flavoured with lemon and rosewater, and blancmanges. Even cakes and puddings were shaped.
Moulds were very common in the 19th century. Various gelatin preparations and the use of isinglass (derived from fish or seaweed) rather than boiled animals as a base encouraged their use. As a result, many have survived. Look for them at jumble and boot sales, in job lots at house sales and small auctions, and in junk and antiques shops.
The sort you buy will depend on whether you want them to use or to display. Copper moulds are good to look at, but you should have them professionally re-tinned, to be on the safe side, before you use them. Ask about this when you buy. Glass is functional, but rarely beautiful. Creamware and earthenware can meet both needs; earthenware moulds are often decorated with transfer printing.
When buying copper, test the weight in your hand. Thin, light moulds are probably reproductions. Copper dents easily, and small dents are acceptable; caved-in moulds, of course, are not. Look for ones with a good, soft patina, and beware pieces that have been split and resoldered. Not only do they usually look unsightly, they are likely to split again.
Glass moulds are generally so cheap that you can safely reject any that are in any way chipped or cracked, but slight damage of this kind will not make much difference to an early creamware or earthenware piece. Look on earthenware moulds for marks, including Registered Design marks, which will help in dating the piece. Avoid earthenware examples which have become stained inside.