It’s the most wonderful time … to bake cookies

Vintage tin cookie cutters in the shape of a reindeer, a tulip and a bird.
By Amy Leiser, Executive Director
Monroe County Historical Association

What is Christmastime without cookies? The tradition of baking holiday cookies began in the early 1800s and was brought to America by the Pennsylvania Dutch. They embraced the Christmas spirit of giving by baking hundreds of cookies in a variety of shapes to share. The cookie cutters they used were handmade of tin by local tinsmiths. These cookie cutters were used to create the unique cookie shapes found throughout many Pennsylvania Dutch homes.

Tinsmithing is not a common present-day occupation. These tinkers, as they were often called, could form any number of objects from metal, and their items were readily sought after. Tinsmiths produced and installed large household necessities such as stove pipes, plumbing parts, and roofing and gutter materials. But it was the smaller items, such as coffee pots, candlesticks, weathervanes, children’s toys, and cookie cutters for which the tinsmith’s artistic work is admired.

To make an object, the tinsmith cut the various pieces of metal he needed from sheeting or plates using patterns and a special type of shears known as snipps. Early tin was very thick and was actually sheet iron with a thin coat of tin over it. Often, the tinsmith would trace the pattern onto the tin before cutting.

Using a hammer and anvil, the tinsmith would bend the tin into the exact shape he needed. To join pieces together, he would use solder. Tinsmiths wasted very little of the metal sheeting; scraps were often used to make small toys or cookie cutters. It is perhaps in the cookie cutters that the tinsmith was most able to express his individual style, fashioning any number of patterns or shapes to cut cookie dough that could be displayed (and then eaten).

There were over 30 local tinsmiths active in Monroe County between 1810 and 1940. Although records before 1810 are incomplete, there is evidence to suggest that tinsmiths had been active in the county since 1800.

George Possinger of Jackson Township is the first man mentioned in the county records as being a tinsmith. He came to the area and settled around Reeders in 1811. Although no other smiths are mentioned as having been active that early, several pieces of tin dating to before 1840 have been found near Shawnee on Delaware, suggesting that another smith was active in the eastern portion of the county.

In the 1850 census, Wendell Brenner and Ed Fagen were listed as two active blacksmiths. By the 1860 census, smiths were active in all portions of Monroe County. Census records, newspaper advertisements, and maps of the area all show that the number of metal workers in the area had grown. Five smiths were active in Stroudsburg alone. Much of the demand for smiths came from the railroad which had been expanding rapidly during that time.

Within the Pennsylvania Dutch home, volume was the key when it came to Christmas cookies. Why? The cookies were made to share throughout the community with neighbors, friends, and of course a visit from Belsnickel.

Belsnickel, often referred to as Santa’s cranky cousin, is a part of Germanic folklore; this man, unlike Santa, punished little children who had not behaved. Carrying a switch to hit naughty children, Belsnickel traveled from house to house, offering candy and nuts in return for children to recite poems, sing songs, or perform mental arithmetic.

Cookies were often hung from the Christmas tree, and children chose the very best cookies to hang in the front windows of the home for all to enjoy. A reverend from Lebanon County in Pennsylvania wrote during the Christmas holidays that “the cheery housewives were not satisfied with less than a bushel or more of the best molasses and sugar cookies, some of them being moulded in the form of horses, rabbits, stars, dolls, stags, and others, and these with apples and cider were freely offered to every caller, whether friend or foe.”

Cookie cutters were foremost used for practical cookie making, but over the years, such a simple item has become a form of Pennsylvania German folk art. During the 1800s, bakers took pride in making cookies in rare or unique shapes. Today, the rarest cookie cutters are sought after by collectors.

The art of the cookie cutter helps tell the story of Pennsylvania Dutch culture. Common Pennsylvania Dutch icons such as tulips, hearts, stars, and parrots were used. The shape of the cookie cutter also helps to assign a date it. One example is a cookie cutter in the shape of a runaway slave. That particular cookie cutter was made just before or during the Civil War era. However, it is difficult to assign a date to many cookie cutters. For example, pigs looked like pigs whether the cookie cutter was made in 1810 or in 1910.

Nowadays, Christmas cookies come in all shapes, sizes, and flavors. Some are handmade and some are store bought, but the message remains the same over the centuries. Distributing cookies to family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers is a delicious way to spread Christmas cheer.

To see more shapes, sizes and styles of cookie cutters, visit the special Monroe County Historical Association exhibition of cookie cutters and other baking items on display at the Eastern Monroe Public Library, 1002 North Ninth Street, Stroudsburg, through March.