No one can pinpoint the historical origins of Springerle, the licorice-flavored cookie impressed with detailed pictures, popular around Christmas.
Thousands of years ago, the Indus Valley people were imprinting honey cakes with clay molds. Greeks and Egyptians imprinted their bread and the Romans brought this custom northwards to the Rhine. (source)
Anise Cookies North of the Alps
Anisgebäck (anise - flavored baked goods) are hundreds of years old. "Aniskringel" were one of the early sacrificial foods after anise became available north of the Alps . Anise itself was prized as a spice and a medicine and grown in cloister gardens. This links anise to "Bildergebäck" or baked goods with pictures, which have been around even longer than Christianity. Church hosts (the bread the church gives out at communion) were a type of "Bildergebäck" in monasteries where Springerle possibly developed. (source)
Springerle (see recipe here) became popular in the 16th century, when white sugar became affordable due to European sugar plantations in the New World. The models were made from clay or stone and were already used for hundreds of years for decorating Lebkuchen, marzipan and objects such as beeswax candles and a type of salt dough decoration.
The name possibly stems from the way the cookies rise in the oven - to spring is to jump, the same as in English.
"Änisbrötli" (Anise cookies) or "Springerle" have been baked in southern Germany, Austria, Switzerland and the Alsace ever since, with the molds most often cut from pear wood.
Barock Period Cookie Molds
Around 1600, the beginning of the Barock period, biblical scenes became popular, Christmas scenes especially. These scenes were often round and surrounded by a wreath of leaves. This was again divided into four parts by flowers, a grid of some sort, or pomegranates. This created panels for telling a story.
The Barock period was a time where picture cookies and molds really expanded. To own beautiful models meant that a family could present their guests with beautiful baked goods, which may have helped their community standing. Competition developed whereby the families in a neighborhood tried to have the best cookies and molds.
This one-upmanship drifted over to governmental offices. Guild officers and administrative officials commissioned wooden molds for anise cookies, in order to properly represent their office or country. These models were highly decorated and had many details.
See photo gallery of many types of Springerle molds - Flickr gallery here.
Hearts and Other Motifs
Other subjects were richly dressed women with fans and headdresses, cavalry officers in full regalia and pairs of lovers. Everyday events were also being depicted: woman with a spinning wheel, woman with her hens, maid with basket, hunter with game, animals and flowers. Some of these models were meant only to be fun and stylish.
Love motifs became popular: hearts, lovers, wedding coaches, babies in swaddling, fecundity symbols. They were given as presents to godparents and fathers.
1800s through Modern Era Motifs
Meanwhile, Springerle were baked year-round for every feast. Accordingly, molds were carved to show all kinds of events. The late Barock, known as Rokoko (ca. 1715-1789), was a time where a lot of decoration on every surface seemed to occur (see this picture of a maid here). More intricate molds were created, with rounded corners and graceful lines. The molds became smaller and daintier. Lovebirds, garlands of flowers and cupids also stem from this era.
During the Biedermeier period (ca, 1800 - 1850), household happiness became a theme. Simple and dainty motifs, friendship, love and naïveté were used. Because more people were using them, uncomplicated molds and less expensive production methods were needed. The molds depicting several motifs at once were created, with a simple frame as a guide for cutting. Manual laborers were also depicted.
Around 1849, new technology was used as inspiration. Steam engines and ships, and hot air balloons were popular motifs. But soon after, the handwork production of the cookies started to lag behind industrially produced sweets and chocolate products. It wasn't until the 1970s and the first plastic molds that Springerle made a comeback. Many of these molds are perfectly formed reproductions of the old, pear wood models. (Linus Feller "Änismodel, Geschichte - Brauchtum - Symbolik" Paradies Verlag)
Check out (and buy) these historical molds at Cookie Molds. Many pictures depict scenes mentioned above.