Yesterday's Magazette

5 – A Cracker Jack Idea

A Cracker Jack Idea

By Madonna Dries Christensen

Take me out to the ball game, buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jacks …

Cracker Jacks

Webster’s dictionary describes the word crackerjack as something or someone of excellence. Synonyms include jimdandy and jimhickey, as in: He’s a jimdandy silversmith. She’s a crackerjack teacher. The expression is rarely used these days, but for more than one hundred years a product named Cracker Jack has been part of the American language and culture.

In 1871, the year of the Great Chicago Fire, German immigrant F. W. Rueckheim began selling a popcorn/peanut/molasses mixture on street corners. The product sold so well that his brother, Louis, came from Germany to help out. In 1893, the brothers introduced their caramelized snack at Chicago’s Columbian Exposition. People loved the popcorn but complained that it was too sticky, so Louis developed a coating that was crispy and dry and easy to handle. That formula is still used.

A customer inspired the name in 1896 when he tasted the popcorn and said, “That’s a crackerjack.” Rueckheim trademarked the name. Cracker Jack became so popular that it was mentioned in a 1908 song that is still sung today. “Take me out to the ballgame …. buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack…..”

In 1912, Rueckheim began putting a small prize in every box of Cracker Jack. Prior to that, the boxes included coupons redeemable for prizes. Children were delighted with the new system. They no longer had to wait for the postman to deliver the prize; it was right there at the bottom. Some kids dug out the prize before eating the popcorn, while others prolonged the suspense by waiting until their fingers touched the treasure.

The company’s logo, Sailor Jack and his dog Bingo, first appeared in 1919. Sailor Jack is said to be a likeness of one of the Rueckheim children or grandchildren. The sailor and the red, white and blue motif were chosen to show support for America’s involvement in The Great War. Cracker Jack was sold in wax-sealed boxes on which it was hailed as, “America’s Favorite Confection. The More You Eat, The More You Want.”

Early Cracker Jack prizes included metal whistles, palm buzzers, spinning tops, yoyos, jackknives, croaking frogs, comic strip characters, presidential pins, charms for bracelets, magnifying glasses, bookmarks, and lithographed paper games (these were often stained with the popcorn mix). A few early Cracker Jack items had the name on them, making them more valuable today as collectibles.

During the 1930s and 1940s, prizes included hand painted metal, wood, and lead toys, miniature porcelain dolls, and a complete train set, one piece per box. When America entered World War II and metal was limited, prizes included military memorabilia made from materials other than metal.

In 1948, Cracker Jack introduced plastic toys. The trinkets were no longer loose in the box; they were wrapped for sanitary and safety reasons (a child might start eating popcorn and swallow a small toy). Over the years the prizes changed with whatever was popular at the time. 1950 brought space-age toys and television characters. In later years, special holiday packages were added. Sailor Jack and Bingo have always been used on the box and in advertising, but they now have an updated look. Today’s prizes meet strict safety standards and are critiqued by children ages five to twelve before inclusion in boxes.

Adults are often nostalgic about Cracker Jack memorabilia. Jewelry designer Barbara Anton was once commissioned to make a necklace using the customer’s collection of Cracker Jack trinkets. The gold necklace on which the ornaments were placed had a far greater value than the prizes, but the woman got what she wanted.

Prices on Cracker Jack collectibles, which include the old boxes and advertisements, cover a wide range. Unopened vintage boxes of the morsels can go for as much as a thousand dollars. The Cracker Jack Web site states that some prizes are valued in the thousands of dollars, with a complete set of 1915 baseball cards, original and in mint condition, valued at $60, 000.00.

July 5th is National Cracker Jack day. Next time that day rolls around, or even before then, why not enjoy the treat that’s been popular for more than a century. You’ll still find a toy at the bottom of the box.

Let’s be honest; that’s why most of us buy the snack––isn’t it?

Vol. 36 No. 2 – Yesterday’s Magazette – Spring – 2009


1 Comment »

  1. hello i have a cracker jack man it is white die cast also some roller coaster track and carts are they worth anything

    Comment by keith — February 5, 2012 @ 2:11 am | Reply

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