The name alone is evocative of family traditions. It carries the promise of delicious cakes and biscuits, particularly in the run-up to Christmas.
Around the beginning of the 20th century, the spice blends Staesz pfefferkuchengewürz (Staesz pfefferkuchen spices) and Hayma neunerlei (Hayma nine-spice blend) became essential ingredients for pfefferkuchen (a kind of gingerbread, better known in English-speaking countries with the Western German word, lebkuchen) in
East Prussia
deu. Ostpreußen, pol. Prusy Wschodnie, lit. Rytų Prūsija, rus. Восто́чная Пру́ссия, rus. Vostóchnaia Prússiia

East Prussia is the name of the former most eastern Prussian province, which existed until 1945 and whose extent (regardless of historically slightly changing border courses) roughly corresponds to the historical landscape of Prussia. The name was first used in the second half of the 18th century, when, in addition to the Duchy of Prussia with its capital Königsberg, which had been promoted to a kingdom in 1701, other previously Polish territories in the west (for example, the so-called Prussia Royal Share with Warmia and Pomerania) were added to Brandenburg-Prussia and formed the new province of West Prussia.
Nowadays, the territory of the former Prussian province belongs mainly to Russia (Kaliningrad Oblast) and Poland (Warmia-Masuria Voivodeship). The former so-called Memelland (also Memelgebiet, lit. Klaipėdos kraštas) first became part of Lithuania in 1920 and again from 1945.

West Prussia
deu. Westpreußen, pol. Prusy Zachodnie

West Prussia is a historical region in present-day northern Poland. The region fell to Prussia as a result of the first partition of Poland-Lithuania in 1772 and received its name from the province of the same name formed by Frederick II in 1775, which also included parts of the historical landscapes of Greater Poland, Pomerania, Pomesania and Kulmerland. The Prussian province lasted in changing borders until the early 20th century. After World War I, parts fell to the Second Polish Republic, founded in 1918. The largest cities in West Prussia include Gdansk (Polish: Gdańsk, today Pomeranian Voivodeship), Elbląg (Polish: Elbląg, today Warmia-Masuria Voivodeship), and Thorn (Polish: Toruń, today Kujawsko-Pomeranian Voivodeship).

deu. Schlesien, ces. Slezsko, pol. Śląsk

Silesia (Polish: Śląsk, Czech: Slezsko) is a historical landscape, which today is mainly located in the extreme southwest of Poland, but in parts also on the territory of Germany and the Czech Republic. By far the most significant river is the Oder. To the south, Silesia is bordered mainly by the Sudeten and Beskid mountain ranges. Today, almost 8 million people live in Silesia. The largest cities in the region are Wrocław, Opole and Katowice. Before 1945, most of the region was part of Prussia for two hundred years, and before the Silesian Wars (from 1740) it was part of the Habsburg Empire for almost as many years. Silesia is classified into Upper and Lower Silesia.

. The two products were in competition for decades. This article (and a book published by the author in the summer of 2022) will attempt to place the origins of the first blend and its “inventor” in their historical context. It will also try to shed light on why it was a chemist who developed this successful business idea.
In May 1912, in , the old Hanseatic city and former seat of the Teutonic Order, Robert May completed his training and bought the “Drogerie J. Staesz jun., med. und techn. Drogen, Farben und Lacke en gros und en detail” (Chemist J. Staesz Junior, medical and technical drugs, colours and varnishes, wholesale and retail), established 1880 by Jacob Staesz. There he developed “May’s good idea,” as the family still refers to the trademarked Staesz pfefferkuchen spices today. On the 75th anniversary of the company, Robert May reminisced that “it was the old custom of country people […] to buy their spices by weight at May’s Chemist. Weighing out the spices was very laborious, so Mrs May came up with the idea of packing up the spices in the desired amounts [after closing] and having them ready for the following day. Her husband […] recognized the significance of this idea, and that is how the branded product ‘May’s good idea’ came into being.”1
Evidently it was customary in rural areas to bake one’s own pfefferkuchen. City dwellers, particularly in the larger cities, preferred instead to buy the finished product. Craftsmen, day labourers and occasional labourers probably could not afford such a special spice blend, and so these treats were provided by landed estates. Here the baking of lebkuchen in the run-up to Christmas was an intensive activity. Hedwig von Lölhöffel describes it:

“Crowds of children came from the manors and the outlying farms to help distribute presents at Christmas. Many large bowls of dough had to be prepared. Already in October they would be placed in warm rooms to rise, and the contents of the dough that rose and expanded, full of life, came almost entirely [from the manor].”

The middle class in provincial towns and villages also fostered this custom of rustic baking and cooking. The farming burghers formed the customer base that enquired after pfefferkuchen spices in the pre-Christmas period.
Helene May, an eminent independent businesswoman, had discovered that there were eight spices that she was most often asked to weigh out in the run-up to Christmas. She decided that these spices should be weighed and packaged in the quantities typically requested in advance, following close of business on the preceding day.
The second “good idea” was to ask the housewives which types of lebkuchen were the most popular. Mr and Mrs May involved the newly established East Prussian and West Prussian housewives’ associations in their considerations. These organizations supported a baking competition to find the best recipes, sending out a formal invitation to participate to the housewives of East and West Prussia. This appeal showed respect and appreciation for the women, while drawing their attention to an issue that neatly connected their everyday reality with the business interests of Robert May.
The competition and its winners stood out from the other events of that year and created vivid memories in the minds of both observers and participants. It was also an ideal promotional activity that was to benefit the spice blend for years to come.
The invitation to take part in the competition, which was distributed among all the women’s associations in East and West Prussia, was essentially a request to submit baked pfefferkuchen. The cakes were then tasted by a jury. The winners received valuable non-cash prizes in exchange for disclosing their recipes. Since the Königsberg Housewives’ Association was also one of the sponsors of the East Prussian Ladies’ Vocational School, it made sense for the Association and the School to provide the jury for the assessment of the baked goods.
Margarethe Haslinger, member of the Königsberg Housewives’ Association, remembers that this baking competition was a special event that brought great pleasure to all who took part. “The pfefferkuchen were delivered to him [Robert May] at his house by the basket, and the ladies from the housewives’ association, whose job it was to taste and judge each piece of cake, had to neutralize their taste buds with the driest Moselle available.”

“The winners then had to disclose their recipes. These were reviewed, compared, and expertly standardized. It became apparent that eight spices had been used the most. […] On the basis of this information, Robert May then produced a recipe booklet with baking instructions…This little recipe booklet was subsequently included with every packet of spices.”2

What was new about Staesz’s gingerbread spices?
One of the special features of the Staesz pfefferkuchen spices was that the customary amount of each of the eight spices – bitter orange, lemon, cinnamon, cloves, star anise, ginger, nutmeg and cardamom – was individually packaged. Each individual spice was put in a small parchment sachet in order to preserve its aroma, and the sachets were then packaged up with the recipe booklet to make the Staesz pfefferkuchen spices.
Robert May demonstrated great entrepreneurial foresight in outsourcing the graphic design of the external packaging to a commercial artist. The artist was tasked with graphically representing the uniqueness of the spice mixture (a single packet containing small quantities of eight different spices, all individually packaged) as a special business concept. He chose the stylized figure of a baker holding a double oven glove with the words “May’s guter Gedanke” (“May’s good idea”), flanked to his left and right by the initials J and S for Jacob Staesz. The artist placed his design inside a circle to create a round emblem.
Robert May knew that, with this evocative and enigmatic image, he had created a trademark that was both unique and instantly recognizable. This was his objective since he was striving to make the greatest advertising impact. The German Patent Office, which was established in 1877, gave him the option of registering and thus protecting the design of the packaging as a whole, with the striking emblem, symbols and writing on the front, and the basic recipe for pfefferkuchen on the back, as a combined word/figurative trademark. We do not know why they decided to use the possessive apostrophe, normally only used in English, for “May’s guter Gedanke” instead of writing “Mays guter Gedanke,” which would be correct in German. In any event, this “incorrect” spelling increased the advertising appeal.
Did Robert and Helene May know that the participation of the Königsberg Housewives’ Association subsequently also led to the spice blend as a whole being included in the next editions of the well-known Doennig cookbook? This was the ultimate accolade for the Mays’ idea and one of the reasons behind its economic success. The cookbook was compiled in 1891 by the sisters Margarete and Elisabeth Doennig from traditional regional recipes. Initially self-published, the renowned
deu. Königsberg, rus. Калинингра́д

Kaliningrad is a city in today's Russia. It is located in the Kaliningrad oblast, a Russian exclave between Lithuania and Poland. Kaliningrad, formerly Königsberg, belonged to Prussia for several centuries and was the northeasternmost major city.

-based publisher Gräfe und Unzer took over publication of the cookbook in 1900.
After this, regional variations to the published pfefferkuchen recipes gradually became less important. Eight sachets sold as a single packet inspired confidence, but also allowed the cook to try other recipes by omitting one or more of the sachets. The eight individual Staesz pfefferkuchen spices, 20g in total, were as follows:
  • 5g bitter orange peel
  • 3g lemon peel
  • 3g cinnamon
  • 2g cloves
  • 2g star anise
  • 2g ginger
  • 2g nutmeg
  • 1g cardamom
Sales grew rapidly. Günter Preuschoff, editor of the “Elbląg News”, reproduced Robert May’s reminiscences in 1954:

“In the first year, we sold just 1,000 packets of pfefferkuchen spices [...] In the third year it was 10,000 and in the fifth year more than 70,000 packets, the contents of which found their way into the pfefferkuchen of families in the local area and beyond. A few years later, May’s pfefferkuchen spices were known throughout East and West Prussia, throughout Pomerania all the way to Berlin, and when, in late summer, the aroma of Staesz’s pfefferkuchen spices wafted along Wasser- and Schifferstraße as far as Elbląg Old Market, then the inhabitants of Elbląg would know that Christmas was just around the corner: the season had started.”3

Staesz pfefferkuchen spices helped Robert May to make a new business start in 1949, following his flight from Prussia (with millions of other Germans) after the end of the Second World War. His first customers were mainly displaced persons from East and West Prussia. Finally, they were able to bake their gingerbread according to the usual family recipes again – thus reclaiming an emotional piece of their home – thanks to the pfefferkuchen spices that were now manufactured in Nesse near Bremerhaven. May’s daughter and son-in-law later joined the company, optimizing sales and extending distribution to new regions.
Eventually Staesz pfefferkuchen spices gained a firm foothold in the market: they were no longer bought only by refugees from East and West Prussia but also by their children, frequently in the knowledge that they were keeping up a family tradition. The taste of the popular baked goods made from these spices according to East and West Prussian recipes had become, in large sections of the population, an apolitical part of family tradition, and sales stayed at around 300,000 packets per year until the 1980s.
In 1982, Ulrich Krause, a grandson of Robert May who had joined the company in 1972, bought the rights to the competing Hayma nine-spice blend, which had also come onto the market shortly after the First World War and was just as popular with the Silesians as Staesz was with the East and West Prussians. The Hayma blend was used not only for baking but also for gingerbread sauce, the essential accompaniment to Silesian Weißwurst, a white sausage that was traditionally served before Christmas.
It was only following the sale of the family business to a global spice group in 2006 that both spice blends became niche products. Production of the Hayma nine-spice blend was discontinued in 2019. However, Staesz pfefferkuchen spices is still being produced.
Below you will find some general baking instructions for using Staesz pfefferkuchen spices as well as a recipe for Altniederung Pfefferkuchen, a typical East Prussian Christmas treat.
Instructions for baking with Staesz spices
  • Natural honey will produce a particularly delicious flavour. Artificial honey is a poor substitute.
  • You only need to warm the honey gently with sugar, and, if using, butter (fat). Spices should be added to the dissolved honey, and when it has cooled, this should be added to the flour and other dry ingredients.
  • Baking powder, or ammonium bicarbonate (or cream of tartar) and potassium carbonate (or baking soda) may be used as raising agents.
  • Raising agents should be diluted in rosewater, rum, lukewarm milk, or lukewarm water and then added according to recipe instructions.
  • Baking paper is recommended for lining baking trays and tins.
  • Always cut the gingerbread while it is still warm; once it has cooled, store in tightly sealed containers in a cool place.
  • Bake in a preheated oven on the middle shelf at 180–220 °C.
Altniederunger Pfefferkuchen
Ingredients: 500 g sugar, 250 g honey, 125 g butter, 250 g syrup (pale), 10 g potassium carbonate (or baking soda), 10 g ammonium bicarbonate (or cream of tartar), 1,250 g flour, 2 eggs, 1 packet Staesz Pfefferkuchen Spices, 1 tablespoon cocoa (or according to taste) for every 500 g flour
Method: Warm sugar, honey, butter, and syrup together; mix and allow to cool. Then add eggs. Mix 2/3 of the flour with the spices and add to the wet ingredients to make a dough. Dissolve potassium carbonate and ammonium bicarbonate in some lukewarm water and add to dough with remaining flour. Cocoa may be added according to taste. Glaze dough with egg yolk before baking.
Bake at 180 °C for about 20 mins – the cake should be cut as soon as it is removed from the oven to prevent cracking.
Staesz pfefferkuchen spice & Hayma Neunerlei
The history of the Staesz pfefferkuchen spices and its Silesian counterpart, the Hayma Neunerlei, as well as the family businesses in the background can be read in detail in a book by the author, published in 2022 by Edition Falkenberg.
English translation: Kate Sotejeff-Wilson