Velvet cake is thought to originate in Maryland early in the 20th century. Beginning in the 19th century, “velvet” cake, a soft and velvety crumb cake, came to be served as a fancy dessert, in contrast to what had been the more common, coarser-crumbed cake. At around the same time, devil’s food cake was introduced, which is how some believe that red velvet cake came about. The difference between the two cakes is that devil’s food cake uses chocolate and red velvet cake uses cocoa.
When foods were rationed during World War II, bakers used boiled beetroot juices to enhance the color of their cakes. Beetroot is found in some red velvet cake recipes. Beetroot was and is used in some recipes as a filler or to retain moisture. Adams Extract, a Texan company, is credited with bringing the red velvet cake to kitchens across America during the Great Depression era, by being one of the first to sell red food coloring and other flavor extracts with the use of point-of-sale posters and tear-off recipe cards. The cake and its original recipe are well known in the United States from New York City’s famous Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, which has dubbed the confection Waldorf-Astoria cake. However, it is widely considered a Southern recipe. Traditionally, red velvet cake is iced with a French-style butter roux icing (also called ermine icing), which is very light and fluffy, but time-consuming to prepare. Cream cheese frosting and buttercream frosting are variations which have increased in popularity.
In Canada, the cake was a well-known dessert in the restaurants and bakeries of the Eaton’s department store chain in the 1940s and 1950s. Promoted as an exclusive Eaton’s recipe, with employees who knew the recipe sworn to silence, many mistakenly believed the cake was the invention of the department store matriarch, Lady Eaton
In recent years, red velvet cake and red velvet cupcakes have become increasingly popular in the US and many European countries. A resurgence in the popularity of this cake is attributed by some to the film Steel Magnolias (1989), which included a red velvet groom’s cake made in the shape of an armadillo. Magnolia Bakery in Manhattan has served it since its opening in 1996, as did restaurants known for their Southern cooking like Amy Ruth’s in Harlem, which opened in 1998. In 2000, Cake Man Raven opened one of the first bakeries devoted to the cake in Brooklyn.