Cracker Jack has delighted children for more than a century as they dig into a box, or nowadays, a bag of the caramel-coated popcorn and peanut treat searching for the prize inside. It’s in baseball stadiums across the country where the snack truly stands out, though, as thousands of fans sing out “Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack!” as part of baseball’s unofficial anthem, Take Me Out to the Ball Game.
“So what’s Cracker Jack’s secret?” Susan Feeney asked in her 2002 NPR report. “Three little words: toy surprise inside. One of the main ingredients that has helped Cracker Jack make a lasting impression, not to mention one of the first things that kids will look for on popping open a box, is the prize.”
The earliest version of Cracker Jack was introduced at the 1893 Columbian Exposition. “Candied Popcorn and Peanuts” was the creation of Frederick and Louis Rueckheim. It wasn’t an instant hit.
“People at the World’s Fair didn’t like the stickiness and the hardness of the early Cracker Jack,” wrote Linda Stradley, author of What’s Cooking America. “So Louis made a formula that made a great molasses coating that was crispy and dry. This secret formula is still a secret in the Cracker Jack Company today.”
Jim Davis, who has written two books about Cracker Jack prizes and prize collecting, said the World’s Fair story may not be entirely accurate. “Documentation says just the opposite; the Rueckheims were not listed among a detailed and comprehensive list of World’s Fair vendors. They could have been outside the gates, I suppose,” he says.
While coming up with the new recipe took time, coming up with a name took three years. According to the Odebolt Chronicle Progress Edition, a company salesman and Frederick were sampling the latest batch of the popcorn confection, when the salesman said, “That’s a cracker jack!”
“Why not call it by that name?” Frederick said.
“I see no objection,” the salesman said.
“That settles it then.”
And Cracker Jack was born.
H.G. Eckstein joined the company in 1896 after he came up wax packaging that kept the popcorn from sticking together in one large clump and ensured freshness. This expanded the market for Cracker Jack tremendously since it could be shipped much further away. “In 1902, Cracker Jack was featured in the Sears catalog which meant that even individuals without access to a large city grocery store could order the product through the catalog and when it arrived it would be fresh,” Jim Trautman wrote in his article, “Crackerjacks and Those Wonderful Prizes.”
Cracker Jack’s big competitor in the early 20th century was Checkers. Checkers’ edge was that it offered prizes in each box. At the time, Cracker Jack offered coupons that could be redeemed for premiums. “You could save up the coupons and redeem them for big items like furniture and appliances,” says Harriet Joyce with the Cracker Jack Collectors Association.
Such premiums appealed to adults, though, and the bulk of the Cracker Jack market was children. In 1912, the Rueckheims copied a good idea and began offering their own prizes. They improved on the idea, though, by offering the prizes in series to encourage repeat business. That, plus a better product, allowed Cracker Jack to overtake Checkers in sales and eventually buy the company that made the popcorn treat.
As America entered World War I, expressions of patriotism could be seen everywhere. Cracker Jack introduced the red, white, and blue stripes to its boxes and created a patriotic mascot.
F.E. Ruhling, general sales manager for F.W. Rueckheim & Bros., wrote in the April 7, 1921, issue of Printer’s Ink, “It was entirely logical, therefore, that the trade character which we created should be a boy, jovial, happy, his arm full with three packages of his favorite. It is a trade character designed to appeal to children to work its way into their memory and make friends of them. And because every boy should have his dog for a pal, we gave the Cracker Jack boy his Bingo—a hybrid pup of questionable pedigree, but just the sort that every boy loves.”
The model for Sailor Jack is said to be Robert Rueckheim, Frederick’s grandson.
“I’ve seen a picture of Robert in the white sailor suits that were popular at the time,” Joyce said. “He was a blond-haired boy, but he didn’t look anything like Sailor Jack.”
That’s probably just as well since Robert died from pneumonia in 1920 at the age of 7.
Bingo is said to have been based on a stray dog Eckstein had adopted named Russell. Russell died in 1930.
The initial Sailor Jack advertising campaign in 1918 was followed by consumer testing to see if they both liked and remembered Sailor Jack and Bingo. Due to an overwhelming positive response, Sailor Jack and Bingo were added to the packaging a year later, according to Ruhling.
Cracker Jack continues to be popular today, though it has gone through a couple of corporate changes and has been owned by Frito-Lay since 1997.
You can even find collectors clubs made up of people with a passion for collecting the different prizes that Cracker Jack boxes have hidden over the years. Some of them can be worth thousands of dollars, depending on their rarity. Trautman wrote that the Chicago office of Cracker Jack kept in a vault at least one of every item ever manufactured.
Cracker Jack also remains available in every Major League Baseball stadium, where it can sell more than 1,000 bags a game, depending on attendance. When the New York Yankees tried to change the popcorn treat in their stadium, fans were outraged, and within two months Cracker Jack was back. Yankees’ chief operating officer, Lonn Trost, said at the time, “The fans have spoken.”