They’ve gotten a lot more chocolatey over the years—and the first “brownie” contained no chocolate at all!
KAREN HOCHMAN is Editorial Director of THE NIBBLE.
Last Updated October 2012
The History Of Brownies
Likely Origin: Boston, Early 20th Century
The brownie, one of America’s favorite baked treats, was born in the U.S.A. Even though it is a relatively recent entry to the food pantheon—the recipe first appeared in print in the early 20th century—there’s no smoking gun.
Evidence points to Fanny Farmer, who, in 1905, adapted her chocolate cookie recipe to a bar cookie baked in a rectangular pan. (The brownie is classified as a bar cookie rather than a cake. That’s because brownies are finger food, like cookies, and cake is eaten with a fork).
There are thousands of recipes, both “cake” types and “fudge” types. Either is perfectly correct—and delicious. It’s easy to see that the brownie got its name from its dark brown color. Here’s more about the style of brownies.
There are numerous legends surrounding the origin of the brownie. The legend is told variously: a chef mistakenly added melted chocolate to a batch of biscuits...a cook was making a cake but didn’t have enough flour.
The favorite myth, cited in Betty Crocker's Baking Classics and John Mariani’s The Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink, tells of a housewife in Bangor, Maine, who was making a chocolate cake but forgot to add baking powder. When her cake didn’t rise properly, instead of tossing it out, she cut and served the flat pieces. Alas, that theory relies on a cookbook published in Bangor in 1912, six years after the first chocolate brownie recipe was published by one of America’s most famous cookbook authors, Fannie Merritt Farmer, in 1906 (and the Bangor version was almost identical to the 1906 recipe).
The actual “inventor” will most likely never be known, but here’s what we do know:
Sources: Not Always Correct
Quite a few sources cite the first-known recipe for brownies as the 1897 Sears, Roebuck Catalogue, but this was a recipe for a molasses candy merely called brownies. The name honored the elfin characters featured in popular books, stories, cartoons and verses at the time by Palmer Cox; the Eastman Kodak Brownie camera was also named after these elves.
Larousse Gastronomique, regarded by many as the ultimate cooking reference, states that a recipe for brownies first appeared in the 1896 The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book, written by Fannie Merritt Farmer—but that was for a cookie-type confection that was colored and flavored with molasses and made in fluted marguerite molds. However, as verified by Jean Anderson in The American Century Cookbook: The Most Popular Recipes Of The 20th Century, the two earliest published recipes for chocolate brownies appear in Boston-based cookbooks—the first in a later edition of The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book.
You can buy a copy of the 1896 Boston
Cooking-School Cook Book.
Culinary historians have traced the first cake “brownie” to the 1906 edition of The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book, edited by Fannie Merritt Farmer. This recipe is an early, less rich and chocolaty version of the brownie we know today, utilizing two squares of melted Baker’s chocolate. The recipe proportions are similar to her 1896 chocolate cookie recipe, except that the brownie recipe uses substantially less flour and calls for baking the batter in a seven-inch square pan.
What About Bangor Brownies?
The second brownie recipe, appearing in 1907, was in Lowney’s Cook Book Illustrated,* written by Maria Willet Howard and published by the Walter M. Lowney Company of Boston. Ms. Howard, a protégé of Ms. Farmer, tweaked the Farmer recipe by adding an extra egg and an extra square of chocolate creating a richer, more chocolatey brownie. She named the recipe Bangor Brownies; we don’t know why.
However, this gave rise to the notion that a housewife in Bangor had invented brownies. Perhaps an unknown housewife improved upon Farmer’s recipe and this was the one published by Ms. Howard. This is discussed more thoroughly in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, which is the “Encyclopaedia Britannica” for food lovers—two volumes and 1,500 pages on the history, manufacture and marketing of food in the U.S. We’ve also included an excerpt below.†
While the first brownie recipes were published and variations began to evolve in the first years of the 20th century, it took until the Roaring ‘20s for the brownie to become “the bee’s knees” of baked chocolate treats,‡ a position it maintains today.
Alas, unlike the immortality accorded to Ruth Wakefield, who invented the Toll House cookie in the early 1930s, the brownie’s originator does not have a clean ancestry. We’d have to give the origin of the brownie bar to Ms. Farmer, but credit Ms. Willet for the rich, chocolate cookie-cake it is today.
The all-American brownie. Photo by Torvald Lekvam | IST.
Compare Your Brownie Recipe To The Bangor/Lowney’s Brownie
- 1/4 cup butter
- 1 cup brown sugar
- 1 egg
- 3 squares chocolate
- 1/2 to to 3/4 cup flour
- 1 cup nut meats
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
Put all ingredients in bowl and beat until well mixed. Spread evenly in buttered baking pan. Bake and cut in strips.
*The Lowney company manufactured chocolate and cocoa. It published numerous books, booklets and brochures to promote the use of its products.
†“The leading advocate of the Bangor theory of brownie origin was Mildred Brown Schrumpf, aptly nicknamed ‘Brownie,’ born in Bangor in 1903. Unfortunately, Mrs. Schrumpf's best piece of evidence was a Girl’s Welfare Cook Book published there in 1912. This is not only seven years post-Farmer, but the recipe contributed by Marion Oliver for Chocolate Brownies to that cookbook is almost exactly the same as the two-egg recipe for Lowney's Brownies, not Bangor Brownies. Oliver also contributed a recipe for Molasses Brownies evidently taken from the Farmer cookbook...Maria Howard may have considered the Bangor Brownies, which were to be baked in a cake pan (unlike her Lowney’s Brownies), to be descended from a recipe for Bangor Cake in Maria Parloa’s Appledore Cook Book (1872), which was a white sheet cake...In fact, the two-egg Lowney's Brownies was the recipe most often reprinted in new England community cookbooks before 1912.” —The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, Andrew F. Smith editor [Oxford University Press:New York] 2004, Volume 1 (p. 136-7).
‡“The bee’s knees” is a Jazz Age idiom meaning something or someone considered extremely special. According to Mark Israel of the University of Ottowa, 1920s U.S. slang had a slew of similar phrases with the same meaning, including, but not limited to, “the cat's pajamas” and the less familiar “the eel’s ankle,” “the clam’s garter,” “the kipper’s knickers” and “the sardine's whiskers.”