The Curious Story of the Sponge & Egg Machine

From gooey butter cakes to doughnuts, from deep-dish pie to frozen custard, Missouri has quite a few signature sweets that are the pride of the state. If you do a quick Google search for the best-loved bakeries in St Louis today, you’ll find a list that pretty much all of the internet agrees with… Nathaniel Reid, Whisk, La Patisserie Chouquette, Piccione Pastry, Pint-Size Bakery and The Missouri Baking Company to name just a few. But 140 years ago, there was another St. Louis bakery that topped the list. A confectionary, that specialized in beautiful cakes (of the wedding kind) and handmade European chocolates, and 25 different flavors of homemade ice cream. It might still be a fan favorite today had a tragic turn of events not occurred.

Last week, an inquiry came into the Vintage Kitchen via email regarding an antique metal box. Included with the inquiry were a few photos and a hope that the Vintage Kitchen might be able to provide more information on what exactly this strange little box was. As long-time readers of the blog will know, this is just the type of sleuthing escapade we love to explore, not only for the adventures in research but also for the stories they may reveal. Not all inquiries turn out to be exciting, but this one unveiled such a unique glimpse into the lives of one American family that I couldn’t wait to share it here on the blog. These are photographs of the antique metal box provided by the inquirer that start the story…

With its table-top size, hand crank on one side, a removable lid, and an interior metal grate-style paddle, the subject of the inquiry was indeed an interesting curiosity.

The mark stamped on the front made it even more so…

As stated, there in the football-shaped gold medallion a purpose is revealed. A sponge and egg machine. Followed by L. Mohr. PAT March 13 -1894. St Louis. MO. USA

A sponge and egg machine. Sponges and eggs. What an unusual combination of words. At first literally, I thought of sponges (the cleaning kind) and then eggs (of the chicken-laying kind) and wondered if this was some sort of agricultural tool for breeding poultry. An egg cleaning machine, perhaps? Or some sort of incubator? But those ideas didn’t really make much sense considering the hand crank and the interior paddle.

After a bit of research, a few word associations, and several wormhole travels of similar (but not exact) examples, I came to realize that this box had nothing to do with live chickens or cleaning sponges. It had to do with cake.

As it turned out, this grey metal box with its outer hand crank and inner flipper flapper paddle was an antique egg whipping machine made for mixing sponge cakes. Such a specific machine for such a specific type of cake. It’s not altogether surprising though. The Victorians loved specificity. There were so many single-purpose items in their kitchens and on their dining tables (mustard jars, fish forks, baking cabinets, oyster plates, bone dishes, salt boxes, potato bins, butter pats, etc.) that having a specific machine to whip up a specific cake wasn’t so odd given the time period. But how much cake could one household be consuming in 1800s America to warrant such a convenience? There had to be more to the story. Another deep dive into commercial baking equipment of the Victorian era eventually led me to this guy who made sense of the whole situation…

Portrait of Leopold Mohr, 19th century St. Louis Jewish baker and caterer.

Meet Leopold Mohr of St. Louis, MO. As the city’s preeminent baker, caterer, and confectionary shop owner during the late 19th century, Leopold was a German immigrant, a Jewish baker and a successful entrepreneur, all in that order. Around St. Louis, he was beloved for his cakes, and was consistently sought after for weddings and special social events.

Born in Germany in 1848, Leopold immigrated to the United States sometime before the late 1860s. Standing 5′ 3″ inches tall with brown curly hair and brown eyes, he was described as having a kind face and a friendly demeanor, two characteristics that would help win the favor of future customers. Once he arrived on American soil, Leopold went straight to work making cakes, puddings, ice cream and candies that he hoped would turn out to be the best sweets St. Louis had ever known. With a city population of 351,000 residents and a plethora of bakeries, this was not a small dream. Competition among ” the bread men,” as bakers were referred to in those days, was fierce.

Map of the City of St. Louis in 1876.

Undaunted, Leopold set out to make his mark. During the 1870s, he built up his career and established a solid reputation. News zipping around the city of his baking style and offerings produced jubilant accolades. “A delicious treat,” announced one newspaper. “The best confection that we’ve ever had,” said another.

It was the “push and energy” of the 1870s that brought Leopold acclaim in the community the following decade when this article was written in 1886.

Like his business, his personal life bloomed in America too. In the summer of 1877, he married Clara, a fellow St. Louisan who shared his German heritage. A year later they welcomed a baby girl named Blanche.

The decade following his marriage, the 1880s, was filled with highs and lows. On the homefront, family raising and babymaking proved to be difficult reminders of how fragile life was. After Blanche was born, Clara became pregnant again but the baby died at birth. Right away, a son followed. Relieved that he was born healthy, Clara and Leopold named him Irwin and then tried again for another baby. But further attempts to grow their family beyond Blanche and Irwin proved futile. Twice more, Clara delivered stillborn babies. After that they stopped trying. It was decided. The Mohrs of St. Louis would be a family of four.

From the St. Louis Post-Dispatch – November 25, 1882

Despite the tragedies at home, Leopold’s bakery business grew bigger and better with each passing year. Eventually owning and operating a baking facility, two retail storefronts, and a multiple-story building that included commercial spaces for lease above, Leopold and the L. Mohr Confectionary Company had hit their stride.

The Jewish Free Press – November 12, 1886

Not only offering desserts, Leopold also made homemade bread, sandwiches, salads and coffee. Delivering freshly prepared food for parties around town, he was a catering hit with the ladies’ luncheon crowd, the newly engaged, the socialites, and the city club members, ultimately earning the reputation of preferred caterer for events big and small. By adding free drop-offs, free packing, party games, and decorating supplies Leopold made it easy and fun to organize an event.

1889 advertisement in the Jewish Voice.

In his retail storefronts, Leopold stocked the shelves with freshly made cakes and desserts alongside imported European delicacies, baking supplies and equipment. During the holiday season, he was the only confectionary shop in all of St. Louis to offer imported Fruit Glace from Europe as well as a collection of French caramels and German fruitcakes.

The sponge and egg machine made its debut in 1894 as a co-invention by Leopold and the H. Perk Manufacturing Company of St. Louis. A time-saving device, Leopold most likely invented this machine for use in his busy bakery. But the overall intention for both Leopold and H. Perk was to patent their design. Then they would manufacture replicas for retail sale for anyone who needed quick whip-ups, whether it be for professional or personal cake baking needs.

1893 World’s Fair held in Chicago, IL . Photo courtesy of census.gov

In the 1890s, Leopold enjoyed the rewards of his hard work and indulged both whimsies and practicalities. He took Blanche and Irwin on a three-week trip to Chicago to see the World’s Fair. He purchased a grand house in the upscale West End side of town. He hosted parties at his home, entertaining friends and relatives. And he generously gave back to the community by becoming a financial supporter of area organizations and charities including the Home for the Aged and Infirm Israelites of St. Louis.

But for all the joy Leopold’s confectionary career brought, there were many disappointments to contend with too. Throughout the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s, he weathered the highs and lows of running a commercial enterprise that others in the St. Louis business community were envious of. He was once assaulted in the face, by a fellow bakery competitor. Another time, a commercial tenant in Leopold’s building tried to sue him for $25,000 (an equivalent of $716,000 today) for claims of lost work due to an inefficient elevator and pungent bakery odors. Another year, a train hit one of his bakery delivery wagons smashing it to pieces. The Sponge and Egg Machine even got caught up in a legal battle when Leopold was forced to sue H. Perk over royalties due.

Throughout all these trials and tribulations, Leopold remained courteous and professional, handling each public outcry with the decorum and grace he had become known for. St Louis was expanding so quickly in those final decades of the 1800s, that the city became the 4th largest in the country practically overnight. Reading through the old newspapers published during that time period, there was a sense of the Wild West when it came to conducting business and every man was in it for himself. For someone like Leopold, who built his business from the ground up, his success combined with his good nature made him a target for others to take advantage of. Fortunately for Leopold though, his customers remained loyal and the nefarious encounters didn’t harm his good reputation…

But there was one tragedy that Leopold could never recover from. And, sadly it ultimately became the downfall of the L. Mohr Confectionary Company. In January 1899, Leopold came down with a bout of influenza which then progressed into pneumonia. A week later on a cold winter morning, to the shock of everyone, Leopold died. He was just 51 years old. He left behind his wife Clara, to whom he’d been married for 22 years, his 17-year-old daughter Blanche and his 15-year-old son Irwin. The funeral was held at his West End home for all who wanted to attend. On January 27th, 1899, the Jewish Voice reported on the crowd present at the sad event… “an immense concourse of friends, both Jews and non-Jews, among whom a very large number of representative citizens, testified to the high esteem in which the deceased was held by them.”

Strangely enough, as if the spark had extinguished more than just Leopold’s life, that of his family’s continued to dim from that point on as well. A year after his death, his daughter Blanche married Max Schulz, the founder of St. Louis’ first department store. It was a quiet wedding. The society section remarked on the absence of Leopold.

Eight years into their marriage, Max died at the age of 44, and eight years after that Blanche died, from an unspecified illness at the age of 37. The year following the death of Blanche, Leopold’s wife, Clara died at the age of 63. Irwin, who had inherited his father’s entrepreneurial spirit, started his own skirt manufacturing company in St. Louis, but unlike Leopold, Irwin wasn’t granted a decades-long career. Irwin died in a hotel room in St. Louis in 1934 from natural causes. He was just 48.

Photo of Irwin Mohr and possibly his sister, Blanche.

If you were to visit St. Louis today, you’d see no signs of Leopold or his bakery on the downtown city streets. You wouldn’t see the presence of the Mohr name on Broadway, on Chestnut Street, on Chouteau Avenue. You wouldn’t see any catering and cake advertisements for the L. Mohr Confectionary Company in the Jewish newspapers or the city dailies. And no one would be talking about the most delicious cake they’d ever eaten from this bakery that had been around since the 1860s. The only thing left of Leopold in St Louis now is his grand house in the West End district. Even that has been changed over time though. Currently, the house is broken up into multiple apartment units…

4520 McPherson Avenue

Just when it seemed that all the world had forgotten about the life and times of Leopold Mohr, Victorian baker, and he’d sunk far into the depths of obscure history, his invention The Sponge & Egg Machine resurfaced. 129 years later. The antique metal box with the outer hand-crank and interior paddle. The mixer used to whip up eggs for cakes. The object that just a week ago seemed so foreign, so unusual, so unknown has now turned into an intimate artifact – a storybook- detailing the unique life of a 5’3″ German-American Jewish baker with brown hair and brown eyes and a friendly, kind demeanor.

I’m so grateful for all the inquiries that come into the shop with questions that spurn curiosity and stories like this. It’s interesting that Leopold’s family never carried on with the business that Leopold built. Blanche married a merchant, and Irwin was a merchant himself, so it seemed like between the three it would have been a natural fit to carry on the bustling business of the L. Mohr Confectionary brand. Perhaps though, that was the immigrant’s dream and his alone. If I met Leopold today, I’d have a dozen questions to ask him about what it was like to build a successful business in a foreign country, about his baking heritage, about his favorite recipes and his curious machine, and about how he managed to balance the energetic joys and tragic sorrows of his work and home life. And most definitely I’d ask him to share his sponge cake recipe – the one he made for the weddings and the machine.

When the initial inquiry about the Sponge & Egg Machine came into the shop, the owner of it asked about a ballpark value for this rare piece of American baking history. I offered details of pricing, specifically what we might list it for in the shop, but I also offered recommendations for donating it to a museum that might be interested in acquiring it for their permanent collection. One was the new Capital Jewish Museum coming to Washington DC which details the Jewish experience in America and the other was the State Historical Society of Missouri which specializes in local history.

As of this writing, I’m not sure what the owner of the Sponge & Egg machine plans to do with it. Will it be sold in the antique marketplace or will it become part of a permanent collection in a public institution that might inspire the next generation of our country’s great bakers or inventors or biographers? Since there are no other L. Mohr machines available on the market today, my fingers are crossed for the museums, where Leopold’s life and his invention would be connected to a bigger narrative and reach a larger audience. As I explained to the lovely owner of the machine, it may take some determination, dedication, and a little bit of extra work to place the Sponge & Egg in a permanent collection, but I think it would be worth it. From the perspectives of his Jewish faith, his German immigration, his inventive mind and his successful Victorian-era small business, this seems like the best time to tell good stories about good people who made good impacts on their communities. St. Louis has been known for their baked goods for over a hundred years. Who knows how many other bakeries or businesses Leopold’s Confectionary might have unknowingly inspired in the past century. Hopefully, with a little bit of luck, his story will continue to be told.

Cheers to curious minds, to the lovely inquirer who shared the photos of the Sponge & Egg Machine, and to Leopold for offering us a fascinating new glimpse on an old life.

Leopold Mohr (1848-1899)

From Tragedy to Triumph: The Monumental Mid-Life of Irma S. Rombauer

Irma with her children circa 1914. Photo courtesy of Stand Facing the Stove by Anne Mendelson.

Long before Irma Rombauer became a household name, she was an everywoman of the early 1900’s living in St. Louis, Missouri with her husband and two children. As the wife of an attorney who had political aspirations, Irma was actively involved in the social scene of St. Louis, a well-connected member of various clubs and organizations and a fun hostess of house parties and local events.

St Louis in 1906, seven years after Irma married. Photo courtesy of Vintage Everyday

When the stock market crashed and her husband tragically committed suicide as a result, the rosy colors of Irma’s St. Louis lifestyle suddenly took on a whole new shade. Without much money in savings, Irma, now in her early 50’s, had to quickly figure out what to do. Most importantly, she had to figure out how to survive on her own and care for her family, as a single woman, after thirty years of marriage.

While the Great Depression was a very hard time financially for families around the country, it was also a very creative period in home cooking. As everyone struggled to survive and to feed their families, barriers started breaking down as far as people’s pre-conceived notions of kitchen work and culinary skills. The wealthy could no longer afford kitchen staff and therefore had to start cooking for themselves. The middle class no longer had the same budget for groceries and had to learn how to cook more frugally.  And the lower class had to stretch their meager food supplies even further. That meant a whole wave of new cooks were beginning to emerge. Cooks who needed answers on how to do new things whether it was learning basic skills, innovative recipes or new techniques.

Irma saw an opportunity here in this great depression of both her own and the country’s. Americans needed a practical, instructive cookbook that offered good nutritional food for all budgets and all skill levels. Assume nothing, teach everything and most importantly find the joy, those were the thoughts ruminating in Irma’s mind.  This cookbook idea seemed especially relevant after a fellow St Louisan published a cookbook in 1929  featuring all sorts of expensive ingredients and decadent dishes – a notion that seemed totally inappropriate to Irma for both the time and the town.

The funny thing about Irma though at this point in her life, was that she wasn’t exactly known for her cooking. Her parties with her husband in the past had been memorable – not for the food but for the atmosphere. While Irma herself was a dynamic hostess and an interesting, intelligent conversationalist, what she served was overshadowed by her charming personality. People didn’t come away from Irma’s kitchen raving about her food but instead raving about Irma.  So the very idea that Irma would embark, could embark, on writing a cookbook, as just a sort-of-okay meal maker, was a great surprise to everyone who knew her. But none of that mattered. Irma had a plan in mind that was going to turn her kitchen from dull to delicious.

One of the groups Irma belonged to was The Wednesday Club where women gathered to discuss intellectually stimulating topics. Photo courtesy of wednesdayclubstlouis.org

Because she was so well connected and knew a lot of people in her community, Irma started collecting recipes from her friends and their families. Recipes that were proven hand-me-downs, time-honored and beloved. Once gathered, she went home and tested each recipe herself… adapting, tweaking, altering and omitting along the way if needed. When a satisfactory bundle of approved recipes emerged that suited her taste, she organized them into book form, named it The Joy of Cooking: A Compilation of Reliable Recipes with a Casual Culinary Chat and had 3,000 copies printed up by a local print shop. Tah-dah, the Joy of Cooking was born.

Irma mailed out copies of the cookbook from home and handled publicity and sales campaigns herself, enthusiastically spreading the joy of Joy.  The rest is cooking history. Bobbs-Merrill picked up professional publishing of the book in 1936 with the debut of the second edition. Irma became a trusted authority known for her reliable recipes and engaging writing style.  And the book went on to sell 18 million copies across eight updated editions. Covering everything from how to skin a squirrel to how to make a souffle, Joy of Cooking raised a nation of home cooks (18 million of them!) by assuming nothing, teaching everything and finding the joy.

All the editions of Joy of Cooking through the years and a photo of Irma and her daughter Marion, who worked on many of the cookbooks.

That is a wonderful contribution to the American food scene. At a time when women could have felt marginalized by their roles as domestic cooks, Irma made cooking exciting and delicious and easily attainable. Her cookbooks turned into confidence and that confidence radiated into all other aspects of life.  Rumor has it that a new addition is scheduled for publication in 2019, edited and updated by the  Rombauer family, who have faithfully handled the cookbook and its revisions since Irma’s death in 1962.  Thanks to Irma’s children and her grandchildren, they have made the Joy of Cooking a record holder as the oldest cookbook in history that is still maintained by one family.  A legacy that hopefully will keep Irma in our kitchens for another 80 years.

Cheers to the Rombauer family and to Irma, in particular, who would have celebrated her 141st birthday today, and cheers to always finding the joy in both good times and bad.

Looking for your own vintage edition of Joy Of Cooking? Find two ediions currently available in the shop – one from 1967 here and one from 1975 here. And if you missed the previous blog post, catch up with a recipe for Irma’s Plum Cake Cockaigne here.