Back in 1872, a German immigrant named Frederick Rueckheim began selling popcorn out of a street cart in Chicago. He was so successful that he brought his brother, Louis, over from Germany to help out. Between them they began experimenting and tweaking a recipe for a combination of popcorn, peanuts and molasses. Their success at the 1893 World’s Fair resulted in the formation of F.W. Rueckheim & Brother.
According to legend, when a salesman named John Berg first tried the mixture he exclaimed, “That’s a crackerjack!” You don't hear the term "crackerjack" any more, but at the time it meant something was high quality. Others believe Rueckheim came up with the name and just invented the story. Either way, he copyrighted the name Cracker Jack in 1896.
Back in those days snacks were generally sold in bulk or in tins, bags, or jars, but Rueckheim developed cardboard packaging that was invented by a company partner named Henry Eckstein. The packaging featured what they called triple-proof packaging that was one of the first wax-sealed cardboard containers.
In 1908, a 29-year-old entertainer named Jack Norworth, who had never been to a baseball game, was on a train to Manhattan for his performance when he wrote the song Take Me Out To The Ball Game with its line "buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack" and as a result sales skyrocketed.
The iconic image on the Cracker Jack box is a boy in a sailor outfit and a little dog, but originally the company mascots were two bears shown doing things like fishing, playing baseball and climbing the Statue of Liberty.
Rueckheim's grandson, Robert, was the model for Sailor Jack, who first appeared in advertisements in 1916 and was printed on every Cracker Jack box beginning in 1918. Robert died of pneumonia at the age of 8. The dog is said to have been a stray named Bingo, that belonged to Eckstein.
In 1910, the company began putting coupons in the boxes that could be collected and redeemed for stuff like watches, silverware, sewing machines, etc. In 1912, the company decided target kids and began putting a small prize inside each box. The result was another round of skyrocketing sale. Prizes included everything from animal figures to whistles to puzzles. It even put tiny porcelain dolls in boxes back in the '20s. One result was that a collector’s market sprang up and today there exists a Cracker Jack Collectors Association.
In 1914 and 1915 Cracker Jack boxes had a collectible set of baseball cards. Today, a full set of cards from either year is worth more than $100,000.
Like many things these days, over the years the quality of the product has deteriorated. For one thing, the number of peanuts has decreased. And, like most companies, they refused to address the issue. In 2005, The Seattle Times found that boxes contained only about six peanuts! In the old days Cracker Jack boxes contained 25 to 30 peanuts.
Between the years 1964-1997 Cracker Jack was owned by Borden who upped the count to 12 to 15 peanuts per box. Then in 2013, parent company Frito-Lay upped the peanut count again, but it's still short.
Also, the prizes have gone downhill. Instead of neat little figurines and temporary tattoos, the boxes contain slips of paper with riddles, folding games and web links to downloadable stuff.
In May of 2004, the New York Yankees did away with Cracker Jack and replaced them with Crunch 'N Munch, a caramel-coated popcorn and peanuts that comes in its original form of Buttery Toffee, as well as Maple, Caramel, Chocolate and Caramel, Molasses, Almond Supreme, French Vanilla, Kettle Corn, Fat Free, Sweet and Salty, Sweet and Hot and Premium Nut.
The Yankees made the move because Cracker Jack had changed its packaging from boxes to bags and besides, the Yankees claimed Crunch 'N Munch tasted better. Fans howled so loud that a month later Cracker Jack replaced its replacement.
In recent years Cracker Jack has offered a version made with extra protein and enough caffeine to make them really unhealthy. The company also offers other flavors like kettle corn and chocolate peanut butter.
Actually, you can duplicate the original recipe at home using just popcorn, Spanish peanuts and molasses. One advantage is that you can add as many peanuts as you want. Click HERE for the recipe. Another thing: if you want to, you can slip a really nice prize in the mix.