A cupcake is so named because it is a small cake the size of a teacup. In previous centuries, before muffin tins were widely available, the little cakes were often baked in individual pottery cups, ramekins, or molds. The name fairy cake is a fanciful description of its size: an appropriate size for a party of diminutive fairies to share.
Recipes for “cup cake” — recipes whose ingredients were measured using a standard-sized cup, instead of weighing the ingredients — have a confusingly similar name. These cakes could also be baked in cups; however, they were more commonly baked in tins as layers or loaves. In later years, when the use of volume measurements was firmly established in home kitchens, these recipes became known as 1234 cakes or quarter cakes, so called because it is made up of four ingredients in equal ratios; butter, flour, eggs and sugar. They are plain yellow cakes, somewhat less rich and less expensive than due to the reduced proportion of butter. The names of these two major classes of cakes were intended to signal the method to the baker: “cup cake” uses a volume measurement, and “pound cake” uses a weight measurement.