The Mysterious and Fascinating History of Sprinkles

Photo: Greg Dupree; Styling: Rachel Burrow and Claire Spollen

This piece originally appeared on MyRecipes.

If you've looked at Instagram in the past year, you know the magnetic visual draw of sprinkles–on just about anything–is real. Sprinkles on ice cream, sprinkles on cakes, sprinkle-covered donuts, cupcakes, or even pancakes. Whatever the bed, the #1 rule with sprinkles is to pile 'em high.

When working with a batch of sprinkled sugar cookies recently, some of us here at MyRecipes had a thought–where the heck did sprinkles come from? So I decided to dive in and unearth everything I could find on the topic…which incidentally is a lot. As simple as sprinkles are, their origin story is anything but.

Sprinkles are enjoyed en masse all over the world and in a variety of ways. In England, sprinkles are known as "hundreds-and-thousands," which, as an American who had never heard that term before, I found to be incredibly accurate. I mean really, good luck counting them. In certain regions of the U.S., sprinkles are also called "jimmies" and are smattered heavily on pretty much any dessert item. In the Netherlands and Australia, sprinkles are used as a topping for bread. In the Netherlands this is called "hagelslag," or "hail-storm" in Dutch. In Australia, this is referred to as "fairy bread." Hagelslag is typically made with chocolate sprinkles, while fairy bread usually features the rainbow variety.


Fairy Bread:

While the world has its many uses and reasons to love sprinkles, it still begs the question, where did they come from?

As with most great mysteries–like Stonehenge, the Great Pyramids, and crop circles–the origins of the sprinkle are a little difficult to track down. There are a few different claims as to who invented the first batch of sprinkles–many believe it was the French or the Dutch, but others claim it was an American invention. Also, there's plenty of mystery surrounding what they were supposed to be called and why. There's especially been a trail of controversy around a specific color of sprinkles and what they were titled here in the U.S., but the truth behind that controversy is spotty at best. What is the truth, you ask? Well, let's journey on.

The Origin of the Name "Jimmies"

Like I said above, certain areas of the country commonly refer to sprinkles bear as "jimmies," but why? Well, one story goes that in the 1920's, an entrepreneur by the name of Samuel Born started the Just Born candy company in Brooklyn, NY. The name of this company may sound unfamiliar–but do Peeps, Hot Tamales, and Mike & Ike's ring a bell? These candies are, among many others, signature treats that have come out of the Just Born candy company. In 1930, a worker at the company, James Bartholemew (known as "Jimmy" to his co-workers) operated the machine that created Born's newest invention: tiny, sugary candy toppings. As the story goes, Born decided to name the invention after its producer, and thus the name "jimmies" was born, and is still a trademarked name today.

Supposedly, in the late 1940's, this newest invention from Just Born made its way to the city of Boston, where local ice cream favorite Brigham's reigned supreme .Brigham's was founded by Edward Brigham and his ice cream shop was alllegedly the first to promote jimmies and include them on their ice cream, free of charge, and continues to do so to this day.

The end, right? Mystery solved. Except that an alternate story also exists. According to the brand Mr. Sprinkles, the name "jimmies" wasn't inspired by Just Born at all, but was in fact a name given to the sugary confections after Dr. Sidney Farber, an uncle of Edward Brigham, created a charitable organization named after one of his patients called The Jimmy Fund, which still exists today. Allegedly, Brigham's aided this fund by charging an extra penny for chocolate sprinkles on a cone in what would eventually be called "jimmies" by everyone in the New England area.

Despite this alternate story, Just Born has maintained all these years that they alone began the name of "jimmies." To add even more to the pot, an article ran by dug up newspaper advertisements from this time period revealing that chocolate sprinkles actually predated the founding of the Just Born company by several years, meaning they couldn't have been the first to invent them completely. That said, this only proves that Just Born may have claimed a name for an already existing confection, as a way to brand itself within a market that was already rapidly diversifying.

The potential controversy around the name "jimmies" also goes back to the since disproved theory that the term, when applied to chocolate sprinkles, was used as a racist throwback to Jim Crow. A story from dug into this origin story much deeper and found that actually no connection exists between this theory and the name, which is good to hear.

Wherever the name "jimmies" came from, or if you prefer to call them "sprinkles," I think we can all agree that they make everything better.

So, ultimately the origin story of sprinkles is still shrouded in a bit of a mystery. The only things we know for certain is that they came on the scene at the start of the 20th century, have many different names, and are now enjoyed all over the world. And hey, that's enough of a history for me.

Also, if you love sprinkles, you're going to love this alternative to cake to serve at your next birthday bash. Surprise friends and family with a sprinkle-laden dream come true.

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