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Cracker Jack

a popular "candied popcorn" treat immortalized in an equally popular song

In 1869, Frederick William Rueckheim emigrated from Germany to Chicago, Illinois, where he began selling popcorn from a cart. In 1872, he and his brother Louis formed F. W. Rueckheim & Bro., a small popcorn and candy shop. That same year, the brothers came up with a candied popcorn-and-peanuts confection that quickly became a local sensation. Business grew steadily, and by the 1880's the brothers had relocated to a three-story plant. In 1893, the brothers decided to try mass marketing their confection, and took it to the World's Columbian Exposition (1893 Chicago World's Fair). The word "crackerjack" was, at that time, a popular slang expression meaning "something very pleasant or excellent," and it is assumed that that is how the treat got its name. In 1896, the brothers devised a way to keep the popcorn kernels separate; the mixture had been difficult to handle because it tended to stick together in chunks. The wax-sealed, moisture-proof box was introduced in 1899. Cracker Jack was given a huge marketing boost in 1908, when it was immortalized in the lyrics of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game."

box of Cracker Jack

Lasting Cracker Jack success was assured when prizes were tucked into every package in 1912, and they have been in every package since. From the very beginning the prizes were quite inventive. There were whistles, watches, watch fobs, and even Cracker Jack banks that held exactly five pennies -- just enough to buy the next box. With prizes numbering into the thousands (almost from the beginning), a child could (and still can) expect a true surprise with every new package opened. Sports fans could collect several series of baseball cards, including one for the short-lived Federal League. There were elaborate paper cutouts, including an "Indian" headdress that, unfolded, was almost two feet long. There were also tin buggies and cars, mini games, temporary tattoos, stickers, and much, much more. Today's range of prizes is just as staggering. The final marketing change came in 1918, when "Sailor Jack," modeled after Frederick Rueckheim's grandson, and his dog "Bingo" debuted.

Cracker Jack surprise

F.W. Rueckheim & Bro. became Cracker Jack Company in 1922. It remained a privately-held company until 1964, when it was purchased by Borden Foods, Inc. In 1997, Borden sold the brand to the Frito Lay division of Pepsico, which still produces the tasty snack today.

Discovering America's Past. Pleasantville, NY: Reader's Digest Association, 1993.

1893 Chicago World's Fair

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The Robinson Library >> Miscellaneous Industries

This page was last updated on June 15, 2018.