14 Classic Facts About Cracker Jack
Take a look at the snack that’s become synonymous with America’s pastime.
1. IT STARTED WAY BACK IN 1872.
That’s when a German immigrant named Frederick Rueckheim began selling popcorn out of a street cart on Chicago’s Fourth Avenue. The venture was so successful that he brought his brother, Louis, over from Germany to help out. Hoping to stand out from other manufacturers, the two began tinkering with Frederick’s recipe, and eventually perfected a combination of popcorn, peanuts and molasses. After a hit showing at the 1893 World’s Fair, F.W. Rueckheim & Brother, as the company was known, was officially in business.
2. A SALESMAN COINED THE NAME.
Phil Beard via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
The story goes that upon first trying the mixture, company salesman John Berg exclaimed, “That’s a crackerjack!”—a common phrase at the time meaning something was high in quality. Some believe Rueckheim may have come up with the name himself and sold people on the story. Either way, he copyrighted the name Cracker Jack in 1896.
3. IT WAS A PACKAGING PIONEER.
simpleinsomnia via Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Back in the day when most snacks came in bulk or were sold in tins, bags, or jars, Cracker Jack developed cardboard packaging that allowed it to distribute far and wide. Invented by company partner Henry Eckstein, the company’s "triple-proof packaging" was one of the first wax-sealed cardboard containers in the industry.
4. A VAUDEVILLE ACTOR WROTE “TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALLGAME” DURING A TRAIN RIDE.
In 1908, Jack Norworth, a 29-year-old entertainer who had never been to a baseball game, penned the now-iconic song while riding the old Ninth Avenue El train to midtown Manhattan, where he was performing. An advertisement for the Polo Grounds, the ball field where the New York Giants played, inspired him. The reference to Cracker Jack ("buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack") didn’t come through any deal with the snack company, but it became a godsend for sales as the song rocketed up the charts, forever linking the popcorn snack to the game of baseball.
5. BEFORE SAILOR JACK AND BINGO, THERE WERE THE CRACKER JACK BEARS.
Don the UpNorth Memories Guy via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
The iconic image on Cracker Jack boxes is of the boy decked out in a sailor’s outfit and his little dog. But before those two, the company mascots were two fun-loving bears shown doing everything from fishing to playing baseball to climbing the Statue of Liberty. One postcard from 1907 depicts the bears in a tree with a gun-toting Teddy Roosevelt below. “Don’t shoot, Mr. President!” one says.
6. SAILOR JACK WAS MODELED AFTER THE FOUNDER’S GRANDSON.
An ad from 1918. clotho98 via Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0
Young Robert Rueckheim served as the model for Sailor Jack, whose image first appeared in advertisements in 1916 and was printed on every Cracker Jack box beginning in 1918. Sadly, Robert died of pneumonia at the age of 8, but Sailor Jack lives on today alongside his dog, Bingo, who was said to be modeled after a stray belonging to Eckstein.
7. BOXES ORIGINALLY CONTAINED COUPONS INSTEAD OF PRIZES.
hermanturnipvia Flickr // CC BY 2.0
In 1910, Cracker Jack began slipping coupons into its boxes that could be collected and redeemed for watches, silverware, sewing machines, and other goods. In 1912, the company decided to do away with the coupons and focus on appealing to kids. It began putting a small prize inside each box, and sales went through the roof.
8. WHOLE BOOKS HAVE BEEN WRITTEN ABOUT THE PRIZES.
Tekhne via Flickr // CC BY 2.0
When it comes to toys, Cracker Jack doesn’t play around. In just over a hundred years, the company has developed thousands of prizes—everything from animal figurines to tin whistles to handheld puzzles. It even put tiny porcelain dolls in boxes back in the '20s. With so many toys, and so many available for a limited time, a collector’s market sprang up. There’s a Cracker Jack Collectors Association, along with several books cataloguing the prizes and discussing their history.
9. CRACKER JACK BASEBALL CARDS ARE WORTH A LOT OF MONEY.
Neil R via Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0
Further cementing its connection with America’s pastime, Cracker Jack offered a collectible set of baseball cards in 1914 and again in 1915. They featured such classic players as Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, Christy Mathewson and “Shoeless” Joe Jackson. Today, a full set of cards from either year is worth more than $100,000. A mint condition Mathewson, widely considered the most valuable card in both sets, goes for as much as $40,000.
10. THE NUMBER OF PEANUTS IN EACH BOX DECLINED OVER TIME.
Michael Verhoef via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
For years, Cracker Jack fans lamented what they saw as a decrease in the number of peanuts inside each box. The company refused to address the issue, but unofficial tests proved the fans right. In 2005, for instance, The Seattle Times found that boxes contained around six peanuts. Compare that to Cracker Jack’s early days, when boxes typically contained 25 to 30 peanuts, and its years under Borden’s ownership (1964-1997), when it promised 12 to 15 peanuts per box, and it’s clear a peanut conspiracy was afoot. In 2013, parent company Frito-Lay tried to set things right by upping the peanut count. But some fans still long for those peanut-filled days of old.
11. THE “PRIZES” ARE PRETTY LAME THESE DAYS.
Don Shall via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Most fans agree that Cracker Jack prizes have gone downhill in recent years. Instead of figurines and temporary tattoos, the company has offered riddles, folding games and slips of paper with a web link to downloadable content. The Oatmeal is less than impressed, as is super collector Jim Davis. There’s even a Facebook community called "Put the PRIZE back in Cracker Jack."
12. THE YANKEES TRIED REPLACING CRACKER JACK AT THEIR STADIUM.
Lindsey Turner via Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Back in May 2004, the Yankees announced they were doing away with Cracker Jack in favor of a competitor, Crunch 'N Munch. The decision, officials said, was due to Cracker Jack’s recent transition from boxes to bags, and because Crunch 'N Munch tasted better. Fans disagreed, and they let the team know. A month later, the storied franchise reinstated the classic snack.
13. THERE’S AN ENERGY LINE CALLED CRACKER JACK’D.
theimpulsivebuy via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
When it came out a few years ago, Cracker Jack traditionalists bemoaned the amped-up offshoot, made with extra protein and enough caffeine to make nutrition advocacy groups queasy, and sales have proven less than stellar amongst those fickle Millennials. More successful are Cracker Jack’s other flavor offshoots, like kettle corn and chocolate peanut butter.
14. YOU CAN MAKE THEM AT HOME.
chotda via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Turns out that combination of popcorn, peanuts, and molasses is a snap to DIY. The Kitchn has a recipe that uses lots of butter and Spanish peanuts, while Alton Brown offers a darker, clumpier version called Slacker Jacks. The best part about making them yourself is that you don’t have to skimp on the peanuts.