Cracker Jack, traditionally sold in a box (though now sometimes in a bag) with the familiar sailor and dog logo, is a mixture of caramel popcorn and peanuts, with a small “prize” inside (invariably small and worthless, yet somehow still strangely fun to dig out, like the fortune in a fortune cookie).
Though Cracker Jack isn’t nearly as prominent a snack food today as at its peak, it is one of those products that will forever have a place in pop culture, a treasured bit of Americana.
The history of Cracker Jack, especially the early years, is one of those semi-fact/semi-corporate public relations things, but in any case, the “official” account goes something like this:
Cracker Jack came into existence in 1896, yet there was a forerunner to the product at least three years earlier at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. There Frederick William Rueckheim and his brother Louis sold a molasses coated popcorn and peanuts mixture, called simply “Candied Popcorn and Peanuts.”
Though it was a moderate success at the Fair, one of the drawbacks to it was that, not surprisingly, it all stuck together in a gooey mess.
By 1896, the brothers had come up with a modified version of the snack. Through trial and error, they had found a way to add a small amount of oil to the cooking process to keep the molasses-covered popcorn kernels separated. Within a few years, they also replaced the molasses with caramel.
Also in 1896, a salesman invited to sample the new version tasted a handful and remarked “That’s cracker, Jack!” (“Cracker” meaning good, and “Jack” meaning just a generic guy. So basically what he said was “Bitchin’, Dude!”)
The brothers thought that would make a pretty good name, and so dubbed their product “Cracker Jack.”
In 1899, a new partner, Henry Gottlieb Eckstein was brought aboard. Eckstein came up with the wax sealed packaging to keep the product fresh and free of dust, germs and moisture.
1912 saw the introduction of prizes to the Cracker Jack box. “Came in a Cracker Jack box” soon became a slang term to denote something of little or no value. For instance, if you wanted to denigrate the engagement ring your hated rival received, you might say “It looks like it came in a Cracker Jack box.”
In 1918, the Cracker Jack mascots that still grace the box today were introduced-a sailor (named Sailor Jack) and a dog (named Bingo).
In a bidding war between food mega-corporations, in 1964 Borden prevailed over Frito-Lay and purchased the Cracker Jack Company. However, in 1997 Frito-Lay obtained it after all, purchasing it from Borden.
But arguably the most important event in the history of Cracker Jack is something that happened independently of the product and the company. In 1908, Jack Norworth wrote the lyrics for a song called Take Me Out to the Ball Game on a subway ride, for which Albert Von Tilzer later wrote the music. (Neither Norworth nor Von Tilzer had ever attended a baseball game in their lives by the way, and wouldn’t for another twenty years.) The song included the line “Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack.”
Take Me Out to the Ball Game became one of those classic songs like Happy Birthday or Yankee Doodle that “everybody knows,” guaranteeing that Cracker Jack would remain a part of the American consciousness.
Even today, with Cracker Jack having disappeared from a lot of store shelves, the one place you can still often find it is at a sporting event, where the demand for the product remains high. Due to the power of a little pop culture ditty, many people don’t think a trip to a ball game is complete without a box of Cracker Jack.