People are constantly asking us where did cake smash come from? Our normal response is that’s it’s an American thing but that doesn’t really answer the question properly. I’ll share with you a little secret. The answer to almost any question that asks “Where did this tradition come from?” is almost always answered the following way; The Egyptians started it. The Greeks misinterpreted it. The Romans copied the Greeks but changed it a bit. In the 17th or 18th century it became popular again. In the mid 20th Century capitalism devoured it, spat it out and reformed it into what existed today.
To find out where did cake smash come from you first have to understand why we have birthday cakes at all. The popular belief is that the German celebration Kinderfest, which originated in the Middle Ages, is where we see the first instances of a child’s birthday being celebrated with a cake. These Kinderfest cakes were a coarse and bread-like. Later a much sweeter version, called Geburtstagorten was introduced. The price of sugar and the elaborate designs with layers of icing and floral decorations makes these cakes only affordable to the wealthy upper classes. However in the 18th century, food and baking utensils became more accessible, and more affordable. The price of cakes went down significantly and the number of cakes produced went up considerably. Fast forward a few more years through industrialisation and you have a £3.99 birthday cake in Tesco.
But of course you have to look further back to find out the real source of birthday cakes.
Ancient Egyptians are credited with inventing everything from irrigation and makeup to policing and emojis. When pharaohs were crowned they became gods. This coronation party or “god birthday” was a pretty big deal. Then ancient Greeks came along and borrowed the idea with the addition of dessert (which makes everything better). Apparently Artemis, Goddess of the moon, loved moon shaped cake as a tribute. These moon cakes were decorated with candles to make them look moon-like and shiny. This is the reason why we now set our cakes on fire.
But where did cake smash come from?
If we accept that cake smashes are an American tradition then is safe to assume it was appropriated from somewhere close to home. In Mexico they celebrate the mordida, a tradition when the first birthday boy or girl’s face gets shoved in cake by a loving parent. Everyone then has a good sing song and shouts “bite! bite! bite!” As I mentioned, Theres nothing modern America loves more than cultural appropriation so this explanation makes sense.
If this idea is coupled with the Spanish tradition of smashing a piñata full of sweets then, ladies and gentlemen, you have the beginning of a concept. Piñatas are commonly associated with Mexico however the idea of breaking a container filled with treats came to Europe in the 14th century, where the name, from the Italian pignatta, was introduced. The Spanish brought the European tradition to Mexico which in turn made its way north of the boarder.
Interestingly, and in my eyes not coincidentally, around the birth of the cake smash concept the 2006 video game Viva Piñata was released. The game is about a world where piñatas compete to be chosen for children’s birthday parties. A spinoff television show, also titled Viva Piñata was created to push sales of the Xbox game created by Microsoft. It’s fair to say that smashing things on a child’s birthday is very much in the American psyche during the mid noughties.
Whilst I don’t doubt the great pioneers of cake smash photography were already smashing cakes before then I have yet to meet a photographer willing to take credit for being the first.
This might explain how the concept was born but is doesn’t really explain how it became so popular.
Photography in the late 20th century
Although asking where did cake smash come from is an important question it’s also worth asking why did it become so popular.To find answers to that you need to look at what happened in the photography industry in the nineties and noughties.In a time of Western prosperity ridiculousness reigns supreme.Two perfect example of this are Tom Arma and Anne Geddes. Arma, known in the nineties to be the most published baby photographer in the world, was the first person to publish a book solely of babies in costume.
Then there’s Geddes who’s 1996 book, Down in the Garden made the New York Times best seller list.It was the clear the world had an appetite for pictures of babies in costumes.
The 20th century high street studio
During this time the high street photography industry began to change massively. Digital photography was introduced so the entry to market for a photographer became easier and more affordable. By the end of the century there was call for more natural and relaxed photography. The Venture studio was born and every other studio in the country threw out their mottled blue and brown backgrounds in favour of white. This was the boom era for high street photography and lasted till the end of the world part 1 in 2008. Meanwhile wedding photographers had sold their medium format Hassleblad film cameras and were “trashing” dresses. Newborn photography we know today was born and the industry was flooded with photographers with affordable cameras. As online forums began to give way to social media there was a thirst for photographers to up their game. Photography wasn’t just about recording a moment, now it had to be share-worthy. Sharing with photographers from around the world became easier than ever and trends spread like wildfire. Whilst today this seems normal, ten years ago the concept of something going viral was still fairly new. Viral videos were only really happening on YouTube, which was only five years old. The explosion of sharing images as content was only just beginning in 2010 with the launch of Pinterest and Instagram. In fact the first recorded use of the word viral as a verb only happened in 2004.
Mainstream media wasn’t really that interested in sharing much amateur footage although that quickly changed. Cake Smash photography, wherever it really started, was born out of the early days of social media boom. It’s a credit to the genre that it wasn’t a best selling calendar or book that prompted its popularity. Unlike photography trends in the 20th century we can’t pinpoint its birth to an individual photographer or studio. This is the nature of social media, the real trailblazers and innovators are seldom credited. Being first rarely results in success.
So where did cake smash come from?
I think the answer to that will never really be known but what’s important to know is how and why it exists.
Trends today don’t have to make sense, they are just something fun to experience.
Cake smash photography is a celebration of modern life in all its ridiculousness.