Cracker Jack is an American brand of snack consisting of molasses-flavored, caramel-coated popcorn and peanuts, well known for being packaged with a prize of trivial value. Some food historians consider it the first junk food!
In the early 1890s, Fritz Rueckheim, a newly arrived German immigrant, sold popcorn from a cart on a street corner in Chicago. He created a new recipe including popcorn, peanuts, and molasses, but the molasses was too sticky. In 1896, Fritz and his brother, Louis, discovered a method to keep the kernels of molasses-coated popcorn from sticking together. Made in a large drum with a small quantity of oil and secret ingredients (still a closely guarded trade secret today), it was initially called Candied Popcorn and Peanuts.
The product was named by an enthusiastic sampler who remarked, “That’s a crackerjack!”, a reference at that time to something great! In 1896, the first lot of Cracker Jack was produced, and the name and a tagline, The More You Eat, the More You Want, were registered.
Cracker Jack was sold in large tubs until 1899, when Henry Eckstein, a partner in the company, invented the moisture resistant, wax-sealed package which retained the crispness. This new packaging, one of the first wax-sealed cardboard containers in the industry, allowed the company to package in small quantities and sell Cracker Jack worldwide.
In 1908 Cracker Jack was immortalized in the song “Take Me Out to The Ballgame” by Albert Von Tilzer, a musician, and Jack Norwood, a vaudeville entertainer and songwriter. Neither man had ever been to a baseball game when they wrote “Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack”! By 1910, the song became a staple at ballparks across America, and the cry, “Getcha’ peanuts, popcorn, & Cracker Jack!” is still heard in ballparks today.
The first prizes, called Toy Surprises, were introduced in 1912. The boxes had baseball cards in 1914/1915 describing such big-name players as Christy Mathewson, Honus Wagner, Joe Jackson, and Ty Cobb. I remember digging into the box to get the booklets, temporary tattoos, stickers and hand-held games, and who didn’t love the decoder rings?
Jack, the Sailor and his pet dog, Bingo, became the registered trademark logo in 1919. During WWI, the red, white and blue strips were added to the boxes to show the Rueckheim’s patriotism for America.
From 1922-1963, the Chicago-based company was named The Cracker Jack Company. In 1964 it was purchased by Borden who in 1997, sold the brand to Frito-Lay parent, PepsiCo.
In 2013, Frito-Lay restored more peanuts and updated the prizes to make them more relevant. In 2016 it was announced that codes to play games on the Cracker Jack app would replace tangible prizes. This change has not been well received by this Cracker Jack fan because of nostalgia. The prizes were insignificant, but cool, when you were 6 years old. These prizes now represent an area of collectibles.
Today, seemingly everywhere, except Cracker Barrel restaurants, you will find Cracker Jack in bags, not the familiar boxes. But it is the same crunchy popcorn and peanut flavor. In our memories, the connection between our childhood, baseball and Cracker Jack remains legendary.
Doris Montag is a homespun historian and an exhibit curator who researches and displays historical collections of ordinary things such as Can Openers, Crochet, Toy Sewing Machines, Hand Corn Planters, Powder Compacts, Egg Cartons and more. Contact or follow her on Facebook, HistoryofOrdinaryThings.