When Springfield shoe merchants J.F. Miller and P.P. Powell offered a grand piano as top prize in the jelly-cake bakeoff at the Sangamon Fair and Springfield Exposition in 1891, they expected a bushel of free publicity. What they got was a nationwide debate over the definition of a jelly cake.
More importantly, perhaps, Springfield got an early boost in the competition to choose a permanent home for the Illinois State Fair.
In addition to the piano — a $500 upright grand — Miller & Powell promised that the first 1,000 jelly cake entrants would receive crayon portraits done by a local photographer. What’s more, the best jelly-cake bakers from each of seven area counties would receive a free pair of “Ladies Princess Boots, Button or Lace,” as would the top jelly-cake cooks from every township in Sangamon County.
At full retail, the value of Miller & Powell’s special premiums came to more than $10,000, far more than the publicity could have been worth to their shoe store.
More than 700 bakers entered jelly cakes at the fair, more entries than in any other contest. The value of the prizes and the number of entrants also may have suggested that central Illinoisans would enthusiastically support the state fair if Springfield was chosen as its permanent site.
The entries were displayed in the Exposition Building as “a pyramid of the most tempting jelly cakes arranged on shelves several feet high.”
But no one spelled out in advance exactly what constituted a “jelly cake.” Apparently, organizers figured everybody understood it was a cake whose layers were separated by layers of jelly.
Someone, however, cried foul when the winning entry, baked by Clara Willett of Springfield, turned out to be an angel-food cake interspersed with crab-apple jelly. Traditional cooks, the protestor said, used pound cake, not angel food.
Willett’s position, the Journal said, was: “that a jelly cake is a jelly cake, whether the layers be cup cake, sponge cake or angel’s food cake,” as long as it included “alternate courses of jelly, similar to the manner in which a bricklayer puts up a wall.”
The resulting question, “What is a jelly cake?”, was milked of every possible drop of publicity. Journalists rummaged through cookbooks, but came up with no clear answer. Illinois Attorney General George Hunt declined to issue a ruling. Plans were made to convene a “Congress of Cooks” in Springfield to end the dispute (it never came to pass). Newspapers in Chicago, St. Louis, and New York, among others, took note of the debate.
Willett’s victory was upheld more or less by default — the committee of judges had made its decision, and no agency, including the fair’s managers, had the power to overturn the ruling.
The piano arrived at the Willett residence in October 1891, a month after the fair. To celebrate, Clara and Samuel Willett threw an “angel food jelly cake tea.” Clara Willett played her new piano, and invitees got a chance to taste both traditional and angel-food jelly cakes.
“The unanimous decision,” the Journal reported, was that Willett’s 1891 version was “as near perfection in jelly cake as it was possible to arrive at.”
It’s not clear today that the jelly cake controversy was genuine — no protestors were identified in any of the 1891 newspaper coverage, and none were quoted.
But the debate no doubt kept Springfield in the minds of members of the Illinois Board of Agriculture, which was beginning to consider the need for a permanent home for the state fair. Despite serious competition from Bloomington and Peoria, the board voted 11-7 on Jan. 11, 1894, to make Springfield the fair’s permanent site.
Reprinted from SangamonLink.org, online encyclopedia of the Sangamon County Historical Society.
Source: Thanks https://www.sj-r.com/news/20191229/springfield-history-jelly-cakes-pianos-and-illinois-state-fair