The very first “marsh mallows” were plants (Althaea officinalis) native to Europe and Asia. The flowers were favored by the Ancient Greeks and Romans because they were considered to be healthful. Platina in his De Honesta Voluptuate et Valetudine (an Italian cookery book from the 15th Century) devotes a section to “On the Seasoning of Mallow” in which he outlines the botanical history and healing properties of the plant. Marshmallows, forerunner of the fluffy confection which we consume today (which contains no marsh mallow at all), originated in France around the middle of the nineteenth century.
“Marshmallows or Guimauves are a form of sweetmeat for which the confectioner is indebted to the pharmacist. The original Pate de Guimauve was a pectoral remedy. It was made, as the name implies, from a decoction of marshmallow root, with gum to bind the ingredients together, beaten egg white to give lightness and to act as a drying agent, while sugar was incorporated to make the whole palatable. Marshmallow has come down to us basically unchanged except that it no longer contains extract of marshmallow. The marjority of marshmallows are made with egg albumen and gelatin, some are made with all of one and none of the other…”
—Skuse’s Complete Confectioner, 13th edition [W.J. Bush & Company:London] 1957
Modern marshmallow sweetss were first produced in France about 1850. The earliest method of manufacture was expensive and slow because it involved the casting and moulding of each individual marshmallow. French confectioners used the marsh mallow root sap as a binding agent for the egg whites, corn syrup, and water. The fluffy mixture was heated and poured into the corn starch in small moulds, forming the sweetmeats. At that time, marshmallows were not mass produced, but rather they were made by confectioners in small local stores.
By 1900, marshmallows were produced for mass consumption, and were sold in tins as penny candy. Mass production of marshmallows became possible with the invention of the starch mogul system of manufacture in the late 1800’s.
“Marshmallow water. A concoction of marshmallow is effacacious in the cure of severe coughs, catarrhs, &c. Cut the roots into thin slices, and pour over them boiling water (about a pint to an ounce of the root), cleansing and peeling off the outer skin before infusion. The water may be flavoured with the squeezed juice and grated rind of an orange, and sweetened with honey or brown sugar-candy. Marshmallow leaves are eaten dressed like lettuce, as a salad. Time, two hours to infuse.”
—Cassell’s Dictionary of Cookery with Numerous Illustrations [Cassell, Petter, Galpin:London]
Recipe for Marshmallow sweets
Make sure the mallow roots aren’t mouldy or too woody.
Marshmallow gives off almost twice its own weight of mucilaginous gel when placed in water.
4 tablespoons marshmallow roots
28 tablespoons refined sugar
20 tablespoons gum arabic
Water of orange flowers (for aroma or instead of plain water)
2 cups water
1-2 egg whites, well beaten
Make a tea of marshmallow roots by simmering in a pint of water for twenty to thirty minutes. Add additional water if it simmers down. Strain out the roots. Heat the gum and marshmallow decoction (water) in a double boiler until they are dissolved together. Strain with pressure. Stir in the sugar as quickly as possible. When dissolved, add the well beaten egg whites, stirring constantly, but take off the fire and continue to stir. Lay out on a flat surface. Let cool, and cut into smaller pieces.
(Recipe from Herbal Medicine by Diane Dincin Buchman, Ph.D.)