Science and Nature

Anna Green Winslow Reports Aunt Sukey is Pregnant and the Groaning Cake is Made

Anna Green Winslow was a lively 12-year-old schoolgirl in pre-Revolutionary Boston who wrote to her mother about much of what she did, including eating the groaning cake when visiting her aunt.

When Anna was 10 years old, her parents sent her to Boston to live with her father’s older sister, Sarah Deming, to be ‘finished.’ While in Boston she learned the skills required of a well-brought-up young lady. She went to school for sewing, dancing and handwriting.

Groaning cake was a traditional dish served after childbirth.

Illustration from Anna Green Winslow’s diaries.

Her diary and letters, published by historian Alice Morse Earle, provided an interesting account of the customs of the day, including the tradition of the groaning cake for new mothers.

On December 24, 1771 she writes to her mother: “Last Saturday was seven-night my aunt Suky was delivered of a pretty little son, who was baptiz’d by Dr. Cooper the next day by the name of Charles. I knew nothing of it till noonday, when I went there a visiting.”

Later on January 11, 1772, she records a visit to her aunt Suky (Susanna Green).

“I have attended my schools every day this week except Wednesday afternoon. When I made a setting up visit to aunt Suky, & was dress’d just as I was to go to the ball. It cost me a pistoreen (Spanish currency of about 17 cents in value) to nurse Eaton for two cakes, which I took care to eat before I paid for them.”

The editor of Anna’s diary and letters suggests the cakes were probably “groaning cake.” In a tradition brought from the British Isles, the groaning cake is a sweet, spicy cake made from various recipes that was started while a mother-to-be was in labor.

When a woman was to give birth, many of the women from the community would attend to help her through the process. And among their duties was making the groaning cake. Some traditions hold that if the mother breaks the eggs for the cake, her labor will be shorter. Other superstitions say the father must give the cake away to ensure the baby will be prosperous.

This use of ‘groaning’ originated in Scotland, where it was a synonym for ‘lying-in,’ the period lasting from days to months when a new mother stayed in her home with the baby. In addition to groaning cake, the Scots had groaning malt – a beer served while the mother was in labor – as well as groaning cheese and a groaning chair, where a new mother sat to nurse her child.

In America, at least, the mother did not nurse for several days because she was thought to be impure, and a friend would give the new baby his first meal.

Anna probably bought her cakes from the nurse who was attending to her aunt. It was customary to bring gifts or money for midwives and nurses when visiting a new baby as payment for their services.

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