First invented in 1872 and introduced to the wider public in 1893 (and then later branded as Cracker Jack in 1896), this classic American treat brought together the delightful pairing of popcorn and peanuts, all glazed in a sweet molasses coating.
Yet, it wasn’t until 1912, 19 years after the snack hit the market, that Cracker Jack decided to up the ante. Wanting to add an extra dash of excitement — and increase their appeal to kids — they began to include small prizes in every box.
This clever marketing ploy sparked the imaginations of children and adults alike, making the process of reaching the bottom of the box just as thrilling as the crunchy sweetness that preceded it.
By offering a range of prizes over the years, from tin toys to decoder rings — and, more recently, digital codes — Cracker Jack’s tradition of snack plus surprise has firmly established it as an enduring part of American pop culture.
All go for the prize in Cracker Jack box (1977)
By Micheal Vermeulen from The News Journal (New Castle County, Delaware) September 6, 1977
The first thing they go for is the prize.
If you’ve ever watched a kid attacking a box of Cracker Jack, you know. Maybe they’ve never had a box before, maybe they’ve never heard of the stuff, but they’re born with some kind of radar, blipping out the shape of plastic do-dads wrapped in white paper from a sea of corn syrup, molasses, peanuts, and popcorn. Rip, ruffle, reach, Eureka!
They can’t even read the box, but they know it’s in there. Must be chromosomes.
And it’s not just kids. Adults do it too. Anywhere you find people, you find Cracker Jack, and anywhere there’s the two of them, there are people reaching, sometimes fighting, for the prize. They know it’s there.
No one ever finishes the whole box, pours out what they think will be one last handful, and, in an astonished tone of voice, say “Ho-ho, what’s this?” No one. No one in any of the 50 states, no one in Canada, Mexico, Europe, Japan. Young and old, the whole world over, when it comes to Cracker Jack, we’re nobody’s fool.
“Actually, it’s not the prize, but the surprise.” says H.P. (Jack) Byrd, the former president of the Cracker Jack Co. and recently promoted vice president of its parent corporation, Borden Foods. He’s done well for the company Cracker Jack headquarters, in suburban Summit, reports that sales are up 40 percent in the past seven months.
But the subtlety of this point is lost on a civilization which for more than 100 years has lusted after Tiny Tattoos, Nutty Note Pads, Winky Watches, and SpaceNits. As sure as Cracker Jack’s magic formula will always remain the same, as sure as Jack and Bingo will always remain on the wrapper, we’ll always go for the prize.
And yet, though it may be hard to imagine, there was a day when Cracker Jack was just a snack and not a receptacle for bb pinballs, chintzy rings, and the other buried treasures that childhood dreams are made of.
Yes, back in 1872, Cracker Jack wasn’t even Cracker Jack, but only a spark of an idea in the mind of F.W. Rueckheim, a German immigrant and soon-to-be popcorn entrepreneur.
That was the year Rueckheim arrived in Chicago to help clean up after the Great Fire. He had only $200 in his pocket, his savings from working a two-year stint on his brother’s nearby farm (quite an accomplishment, considering his annual salary there was only $150). But those two C-notes were apparently enough — within the year he’d found himself a partner, a popper, and a stand.
What they called it in those days is anyone’s guess. The name we know and love it by today did not come about until 1896, when a salesman, upon tasting the caramelly concoction, exclaimed that’s a “cracker-jack,” and cagey old F.W. slapped a trademark and the slogan “the more you eat, the more you want” onto it.
Apparently, it was a success from the start, or at least it was from F.W. After two years, he bought out his partner, imported his brother Louis from the homeland, and founded F.W. Rueckheim & Bro., blood ancestor to The Cracker Jack Co.
The plant moved around a bit over the next five years, finally sticking at one place long enough to survive a fire in 1887, and introduce itself to the 21 million people attending the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Jackson Park — the same place the Ferris Wheel made its debut. The corn was popped and covered on the spot, sometimes by F W.’s and Louie’s own hands.
In the year Cracker Jack got its name, Louie Rueckheim discovered a revolutionary method for keeping the kernels from sticking together after they were immersed in the brown goo (more on that later).
An even bigger technological leap came three years later when one E.G. Eckstein perfected a wax-sealed package, and later a moisture-proof one, to keep Cracker Jack crisp at the ballpark and on the grocery shelf. (Old-timers will remember getting that awful wax under their fingernails while trying to open the box. That was before they instituted foil packages in 1956.)
In 1912 however, Cracker Jack snatched The Prize, or rather, they appropriated it for their own uses. In what may well be the most brilliant marketing decision of all time. F.W. figured that even those people who didn’t like his popcorn mix because it stuck in their teeth, or because it tasted to them like old horse glue, even they couldn’t resist The Prize. He was right.
With The Prize and The Name, “Cracker Jack” is one of the five most recognized product names in the business, according to the Brand Ratings Index. Ninety-nine percent of the American public has heard of it, which ranks it up top along with “Ford“, “Tide“, “Coke“, and something else I forget. The rest was just fine-tuning.
Of course, being indelibly connected to our American heritage doesn’t hurt. In 1908, before prizes. “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” was written, including the immortal line “Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack…”
The ‘Take Me Out to the Ball Game’ song immortalized Cracker Jack (and didn’t hurt sales, either!)
“Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” an iconic song known to nearly every baseball fan, includes a mention of Cracker Jack. The song was written in 1908 by Jack Norworth, who, interestingly enough, had never been to a baseball game at the time he penned the lyrics.
The story goes that Norworth was riding the subway when he spotted an advertisement for a game at the Polo Grounds, which inspired him to write the song. One of the song’s famous lines, “Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack,” reflects popular snacks sold at baseball games.
The placement of Cracker Jack in the song was not a marketing ploy or an advertisement but rather a reflection of the snack’s popularity at baseball games. This line in the song has since immortalized Cracker Jack in baseball culture and American nostalgia. It also helped cement the snack’s place in ballparks across the country, where it continues to be a beloved part of the baseball experience to this day.
Frank Sinatra & Gene Kelly performing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game”
Cracker Jack history through the years
From The News Journal (New Castle County, Delaware) September 6, 1977
In 1916, Cracker Jack mixed the military fervor of World War I and everyone’s love affair with terminally cute children and dogs by putting Jack and Binge on the wrapper. Through the years, Jack’s uniform has changed in accordance with the styles of the Navy, and Bingo has changed doggy barbers, if not species. But the box and his dog logo remains instantly recognizable.
The stuff inside the Cracker Jack box is the single constant in the company’s ever-expanding history. The essential Cracker Jack hasn’t changed one iota since F.W. Rueckherm mixed up the first batch in 1872. There are still approximately 9-1/2 peanuts per ounce, just like Day One, even though cutting that by one ounce could save the company more than $200,000 year today.
Visiting the factory
Driving up to the Cracker Jack plant, you can smell the sweet boiling syrup and hear the racket of millions of popping kernels of corn even before you leave your car.
This is where all of the Cracker Jack in America and Europe is made, as it has been since the company settled here in 1930. Two other plants, one in Canada and one in Japan, make the snack under licensed franchises.
It is a huge structure, an entire city block big, 420,000 square feet in all, and containing a conveyor belt five football fields long that takes each kernel of corn, each peanut each drop of molasses or corn syrup, and each prize from their anonymous beginning through the metamorphosis into Cracker Jack.
Underneath the entrance to this building is a sizable carport where senior workers may park their cars. The carport is testimony to how much people enjoy working here. You must be with the company 39 years before you get a space.
People start working with Cracker Jack when they leave high school and stay there until they retire. Many recall the days before automation, when working there meant shoveling tons of sticky caramel corn into troughs filled with fiery hot Spanish peanuts.
Forrest Wanberg Jr. vice president in charge of operations at the plant, signs up approximately 200 farmers early to grow about acres each of special popping corn in towns like Odebolt, Iowa, Stanford, Illinois, Middlebury, Indiana, and Shawneetown, Illinois. He develops and supplies these farmers with their seed. Cracker Jack is the largest user of popcorn anywhere, and he oversees it all in the empire of popcorn. Forrest Wanberg is czar.
Wanberg tells you that it takes millions of tiny explosions — of moisture within each heated kernel to make popcorn pop. He explains that some kinds of corn pop open into fist-like shapes others like a butterfly, and still others don’t pop at all.
Wanberg knows that some years ago a few kernels of popcorn were found in an ancient bat cave in New Mexico, they were found to be about 5,600 years old, and they still popped!
“I like working with popcorn,” he says, “I learn something new every day.”
How much popcorn and peanuts end up in the snack?
Two shifts, some 600 workers in all make Cracker Jack 16 hours a day, six days a week.
For the caramel coating, they use about 90,000 pounds of corn syrup — of a railroad tank-car full — 80,000 pounds of granulated sugar, and 20,00 pounds of molasses daily. The peanuts — 33,000 pounds daily — are cooked for 45 minutes at 305 degrees, then covered with a syrup different from the stuff for the corn (if you’re a connoisseur, you can taste the difference).
TRY MAKING THIS: Karo Crazy Crunch caramelized popcorn (1964)
On another floor, 30 tons of popcorn are doing a Dresden number inside six enormous poppers. They pop their corn with hot air instead of oil. That much oil would be expensive, and it would prevent the popcorn from taking its coating
After being popped, the corn flows through a rotating screen which removes unpopped kernels (these are sold for hog feed) and into a pneumatic tube that transfers tall into a giant hopper.
The caramel syrup pours out of pipes and collides with all that virginal white corn. Then comes Loule Rueckheim’s patented method for preventing hot, sticky caramel corn from gluing itself into basketballs.
Louie used to run it through a big wooden barrel that rotated and knocked the balls up against dozens of baffles in the sides — breaking the corn into small pieces as it cooled. Today’s machine operates the same way, but it’s stainless steel.
Adding the toy prizes & surprises
The last leg of the Cracker Jack journey consists of being mixed up with the now-cooled peanuts and placed on a 359-foot conveyor leading to the packaging room. Here, it meets its most important ingredient: A prize.
The one thing we can’t do” says Wanberg, “is automate stuffing prizes.” Reassuring, isn’t it? Several dozen little gray-haired ladies (or is it their hair nets?) — they’re strict around here, everyone wears one and you have to hook another across your chin and over your ears if you have a beard — sit high up on stools and shove prize after prize into passing boxes.
These days, the Cracker Jack people use about 600 different prizes mixed up, so that only by some absurdly small chance could you get the same one twice in a row.
A toy that makes it into a Cracker Jack box must appeal to boys and girls between the ages of 5 and 10. It must pass a battery of hairy tests imposed by the FDA: It must be larger than a small child’s esophagus and thus un-swallowable. It must not contain any potentially poisonous metals or paints,and it must not have any sharp points or anything about it that could hurt the child in other ways.
It must also live up to Cracker Jacks’ own standards — fit the image, so to speak, No flaming hot rods or slinky bikinied dancers, thank you. And not too expensive; each prize costs about a third of a cent, some more (like the BB pinball game) some less (like their line of tiny spinning tops).
“You know,” says Dick Ballard, “funny thing about this stuff; it gives people a good feeling. You go out and mention that you work at Cracker Jack to people, and they smile — they always smile.”
At Cracker Jack, they go for the prize, too.
Vintage Cracker Jack prizes
Cracker Jack boxes have included a wide variety of items as prizes over the years. While a comprehensive list of every prize ever included would be enormous (there are entire books on the topic!), here are a few examples of some vintage Cracker Jack prizes/toys/surprises you might remember.
Paper fortunes: Some of the earliest Cracker Jack prizes were little more than tiny pieces of paper with printed fortunes. These were similar to the fortunes you’d find in a fortune cookie today. Later versions included slightly more dynamic fortune telling cards. Bend the cardboard backing, and depending on how the plastic film curled, it would reveal your fortune.
Tin toys: In the early 20th century, small tin toys became a common prize. These were often small figures, cars, or other miniature versions of everyday objects.
Metal charms: Cracker Jack included small metal charms, often in the shapes of animals, common objects, or symbols, as prizes in the mid-20th century.
Flicker-tilt lenticular flasher cards: These little cards had two pictures underneath, and what you saw depends on your angle and how you bent or twisted the card.
Baseball cards: Perhaps some of the most famous Cracker Jack prizes are the baseball cards, which were included in boxes in the early 1910s and again in the 1980s and 1990s.
Stickers: Throughout the 20th century, Cracker Jack has included various stickers as prizes. These often included images of popular characters or cultural icons.
Plastic figurines: Later in the 20th century, small plastic figurines — often animals or popular characters — were common prizes.
Decoder rings: Popular in the mid-20th century, these rings were part of a wider cultural trend of including coded messages in children’s toys.
Tattoos: Temporary tattoos have long been a recurring type of prize in Cracker Jack boxes, and featured hundreds of different designs through the years.
Puzzles and games: Various small puzzles, games, and activities — including the beloved little dexterity/palm games where you need to roll a tiny ball into a certain spot — have also been included as prizes.