A desire to transform culinary delights into visual masterpieces was the force behind the creation of the versatile mould, which master chefs began using as early as the 14th century. Indeed in medieval times, when life was harsh, moulded foods graced banquet tables, helping to transform dining from a necessity into an event. Jellies, made from the gelatin producing parts of animals bodies—hooves, sheep’s heads, and antlers—were boiled down for hours, then run through a sieve and flavored with spices, sugar, and lemon. Fantastic accounts of their presentation tell us they were elaborate confections assuming the shapes of swans or peacocks, served adorned with natural feathers and gilded beaks. Later, in the mid-18th century, women used fresh flowers and fruits to augment the beauty of moulded creations for decoration only, known as conceits. Early on it was clear that, in a manner unparalled by almost any other kitchen device, the mould had elevated cooking to an imaginative art form, sparking a competition to make foods look, as well as taste, appealing.
Though moulds can be made from a wide variety of materials, including wood, glass, tin, and pewter, it was probably the ceramic jelly mould, originally brought over from Germany to England in the 1670s, which first gained common, widespread use. The manufacturing of the later variation, the salt-glazed stoneware moulds made either by press moulding or slip-casting, was perfected by two brothers, Thomas and John Wedgwood, who pioneered the methods and who reigned as masters of the craft throughout the mid 18th century, fueling a demand for increasingly elaborate designs. A vast majority of the Wedgwood moulds were marked, often imprinted with the date, initials or name of their master block-cutter, Ralph Wood.
Some of the earliest moulds were made of pewter—an alloy of tin with either lead or copper added—and date back to the 13th century when Marco Polo introduced milk-based ice cream to the West from China. By the early 1700s, the English were pouring semi-frozen ice cream into pewter moulds for final freezing. To make the moulds ice, salt, and air tight, a thin layer of lard or wax was applied to the joints. In the 1830s, the copper mould became popular with the development of close-plating and tinning, which safeguarded against verdigris poisoning. By the middle of that century, copper moulds, which had started out in basic circular, oval, or rectangular forms with embossed tops, appeared in a dazzling array of shapes, designs, and sizes as the ornamentation of food became exceptionally important. Classic shapes such as fish, shells, flowers, fruits, and celestial bodies emerged in ornate designs. The finest estates listed their inventories of moulds as among their most prized possessions.
Many of the best copper moulds bear impressed names, most of those representing the retailer rather than the manufacturer. The names were stamped on by the manufacturer, with retailers frequently owning their own blocks to commemorate a special occasion, such as a coronation or a jubilee. Later moulds often bear registration marks or serial numbers, and sometimes have engraved initials or full names for easy identification and return after the requisite re-tinning.
For the collector of antique moulds, the early salt-glazed earthenware pieces are highly prized by those who love 18th century pottery. If pewter ice moulds are among the rarest, it is the early copper pieces that command the highest prices. Those bearing initials (particularly those with royal lineage) have extra value, but even a retailer’s mark helping to date the piece increases worth. While visible seams are unattractive, a slightly worn and uneven patina, indicating signs of hand polishing, is an asset.
Possibly the most attractive aspect of buying and collecting moulds is that, given the proper conditioning and care, they are truly useable. In the Victorian era, copper moulds were cleaned using a paste of turpentine and brick dust on a flannel cloth, and then polished with dry brick dust and leather. These days, owners can purchase gentle, highly effective polishes from a reputable dealer. Keep in mind that any copper mould intended for re-use must be re-tinned to prevent copper poisoning. And remember, as Eve recommends, “purchase something that you will actually use so that you will be able to enjoy your purchase to its fullest. Copper moulds can be decorative and useful, but most of all they are architecturally beautiful.”