Like the Ferris Wheel, the ice cream cone, and Aunt Jemima pancakes, Cracker Jack premiered during the Chicago’s Columbia Exhibition in 1893.  It never would’ve happened if it weren’t for the Great Chicago Fire 22 years earlier.

Frederick Rueckheim was working on a farm in rural Illinois in 1871 hen he heard that there were good-paying jobs in the city of Chicago cleaning up the charred ruins and debris from the Great Fire.  Rueckheim, who had recently immigrated from Germany, stashed his life’s savings of $200 and went.

Once Rueckheim got there, though, he discovered that the jobs weren’t quite as good as promised.  Instead, he opened a one-popper popcorn stand with a partner, William Brinkmeyer.   Their sales were brisk enough that they expanded to more and bigger stands – and finally to popcorn wholesaling.  The burgeoning company outgrew its facilities six times in the next seven years.  To help out, Frederick brought his brother, Louis, over from Germany.  Louis soon bought out Brinkmeyer’s half of the company, but Frederick made sure Louis knew whose half was the bigger half:  He named the business “F.W. Rueckheim & Brother.”

In 1884, their factory burned down.  The brothers quickly rebuilt, and within six months their business was popping again.  They started expanding the popcorn lines, adding marshmallows and other sweet flavorings to batches.  For the Columbia Exhibition, the world’s first World’s Fair, they decided to mix up something new and different:  a molasses, peanut, and popcorn mixture.  It was a huge success, garnering orders for it from retailers all over the country.

After yet another factory expansion, Frederick complained all the way to the bank:  “No matter how we try to plan for it,the orders always exceed our production.”

The still-unnamed product was shipped to retailers in large wooden tubs, but there was a problem.  when it arrived, due to heat and agitation, the popcorn often stuck together in one huge sticky glop.  Louis went to work on the problem, and in 1896 discovered a process that kept the individual particles separate (the formula is still used by the company today and is guarded as a valuable trade secret).

But that’s not all that happened in  1896.  The sticky snack finally got a name.   A sales rep was munching on some and he exclaimed, using Victorian slang for something very good, “That’s a cracker jack!”  Frederick ran down and trademarked the phrase.  The rest is history.  (It is sobering to realize that, had the product been born in a later decade, the caramelized corn might have been called “The Cat’s Pajamas” or “Cool Stuff” or “One Groovy Thing, Man” or “Awesome Dude.”)

Now that it had  name, Cracker Jack needed a package.  The brothers hired on Henry Eckstein in 1899, who developed a wax-sealed, moisture-proof, individual-serving-size box.  It was this box that made the product portable enough that it could be sold anywhere snacks could be found (including baseball games, which eventually spawned the Take Me Out to the Ballgame musical tribute).  But that wasn’t enough.  Hundreds of other imitators had sprung up with names like Yellow Kid, Honey Corn, Unoit, Goldenrod, Honey Boy, Kor-Nuts, Nutty Corn, Five Jacks, Maple Jack, and Sammy Jack.  The brothers decided they needed a gimmick.

Their first try were coupons that kids could collect and exchange for merchandise, a system that had recently been pioneered by Sears and Roebuck.  The Rueckheims issued an illustrated catalog offering more than 300 household items, sports accessories, and toys.  Cracker Jack sales picked up briefly, but leveled off again shortly afterward.

It was reportedly brother Louis who first suggested putting small toys inside the packages, figuring that kids were more likely to make repeat purchases if they received immediate gratification instead of having to save coupons.  The combination of Cracker Jack’s built-up name recognition and the packaged premium spurred a national craze that resulted in peak sales in 1914.

Frederick decided to add the sailor boy Jack and his dog Bingo to the package in a wartime salute to our fighting boys.  (One sad footnote:  the boy was modeled after Frederick’s beloved grandson Robert, who often wore a sailor suit.  As the first of the new packages rolled off the presses, Robert came down with pneumonia and died.  So, besides Cracker Jack packages, the logo can also be seen on little Robert’s tombstone in Chicago.)

Cracker Jack toys at the time were remarkable quality:  little magnifying glasses, miniature books, whistles, strings of beads, baseball cards, tops, metal trains, cars, and more.  The high quality continued through two World Wars and into the 1950s, when little plastic TVs and space ships were premium items.  Unfortunately, the prizes today are less than impressive – high-speed packaging and a general stinginess by corporate overlords (first Borden in 1964, then bought by Frito Lay in 1997), have reduced the prizes to little more than disappointing little pieces of paper.

Despite the downgrade in prize quality, though, Cracker Jack continues to sell without new gimmicks and/or much in the way of advertising.  So much of the snack was sold over the years that, laid end to end, it could circle the globe more than 70 times.

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Bet You Didn’t Know —

  • More than 1,200 years ago, Native Americans hybridized a special strain of dent corn that was perfect for popping.  Some tribes in the New England area figured out that if they heated maple syrup and poured it over the popped corn, not only did it taste sweet, but it helped preserved the popped kernels for later consumption.
  • Fast forward hundreds of years:  Jack Norworth and Albert von Tilzer wrote Take Me Out to the Ballgame in 1908, years before either one of them had actually seen a baseball game.  However, both had eaten Cracker Jack, so they included a now-famous line.  “Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack/I don’t care if I never come back. . . .”
  • During the Depression, the company came out with new products like chocolate-covered Cracker Jack and coconut-flavored corn brittle.
  • Cracker Jack’s largest marketing campaign, the Cracker Jack Mystery Club, lasted from 1933 to 1936.  It required kids to find presidential medals hidden in a secret box compartment and return five to the company.
  • Twenty dollars annually will buy you a membership into the Cracker Jack Collectors Association where you can mingle, mix, and trade with fellow Cracker Jack prize collectors.
  • Since 1912, Cracker Jack gave out more than 23 billion toys, making it perhaps the biggest provider of toys in the world.
  • A mint condition, full set of baseball cards from a 1915 Cracker Jack box was recently valued at $60,000.
  • There are several rare Cracker Jack prizes that have been valued at $7,000 or more.
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