Sprinkles are very small pieces of confectionery.
Sprinkles are made of sugar, corn syrup, cornstarch, shortening, food-grade wax, and artificial coloring and flavoring.
In the UK, sprinkles are known as “hundreds-and-thousands.” Another UK variant of the term is vermicelli, especially when said of chocolate sprinkles.
Jimmies is the most popular term for sprinkles in the Philadelphia and Boston regions.
In Connecticut and other places in the US, as indicated by including the sense in the official Merriam-Webster, shots is a specific term for sprinkles.
Nonpareils are early version of sprinkles. They date back at least to the late 18th-century, if not earlier. They may have evolved out of the pharmaceutical use of sugar, as they were a miniature version of comfits. The French name has been interpreted to mean they were “without equal” for intricate decoration of cakes, desserts, and other sweets, and for the elaborate pièces montées constructed as table ornaments.
An 18th-century American recipe for a frosted wedding cake calls for nonpareils as decoration.
By the early 19th century, colored nonpareils seem to have been available in the US. The popular cookbook author Eliza Leslie suggests the use of red and green nonpareils for decorating a Queen cake, but strongly suggests white nonpareils are most suitable for pink icing on a pound cake in her 1828 Seventy-five Recepts for Pastries, Cakes and Sweetmeats.
Görlitz, Germany was the birthplace of the German version of nonpareils, popularly known in Germany as Liebesperlen (love pearls). Invented by confectioner Rudolf Hoinkis, the name derives from a conversation Hoinkis had with his wife, proclaiming he loved her like these “pearls”, the nonpareil. The factory where he first manufactured the treat, founded in 1896.
Dutch hagelslag (sprinkles) were invented in 1913 by Erven H. de Jong from Wormerveer. They were named hagelslag after their resemblance to a weather phenomenon prominent in the Netherlands: hail.
Venz, another Dutch company made hagelslag popular. Hagelslag is used on bread. Most of the time butter is spread out so the hagelslag does not fall off. After much research and venture, de Vries and Venz created the first machine to produce the tiny cylindrical treats.
The candy company Just Born cites its founder, Sam Born, as inventing the “chocolate” sprinkles called “jimmies” (which may never have contained any chocolate) in Brooklyn, New York. However, advertisements for chocolate sprinkles as a confection exist as far back as 1921, predating Just Born by two years.
The origin of the name jimmies is uncertain, but it was first documented in 1930, as a topping for cake. Though the Just Born Candy Company of Bethlehem, PA claims to have invented jimmies and named them after an employee, this is unlikely. The rumor that the name somehow refers to Jim Crow is unconfirmed.
Another unlikely claim on the name jimmies originates from Dr. Sidney Farber and Edward Brigham. Dr. Farber co-founded the Dana–Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, Massachusetts as well as a charity named
after one of his child patients, The Jimmy Fund. Edward Brigham opened an ice cream restaurant called Brigham’s and charged an extra penny for chocolate sprinkles on a cone, which benefited The Jimmy Fund. The fund however was started in 1948, well after the first historical reference.
Sprinkles are among the world’s most popular ice cream toppings.
A dessert called confetti cake has sprinkles mixed with the batter, where they slowly dissolve and form little colored spots, giving the appearance of confetti. Confetti cakes are popular for children’s birthdays in the United States.
The Pillsbury Company sells its own variation known as “Funfetti” cake, incorporating a sprinkle-like substance into the mix.
Fairy bread is the name given to the children’s treat of sprinkles or nonpareils on buttered white bread. It is commonly served at children’s parties in Australia and New Zealand.
In the Netherlands, chocolate sprinkle is used as a sandwich topping (similar to muisjes and vlokken) – this is also common in Belgium and the former colonies of the Netherlands, Suriname and Indonesia.