|By Jim Trautman
Cracker Jack, the caramel-coated popcorn and peanut treat, has been around for 120 years, but the prizes did not appear until 1912. The original business was founded in 1872 by William Brinkmeyer, a popcorn and candy manufacturer. It was then purchased by Francis William Rueckheim. He brought his brother Lewis into the business as a partner and the firm was renamed F.W. Rueckheim and Brother.
The big event that propelled the business onto success was the World’s Fair of 1893 in Chicago, better known as the Columbian Exposition. World’s Fairs were becoming known for introducing new products to the buying public; from ice cream to ice cream cones to hot dogs.
In 1893, the caramel-coated popcorn, peanut and molasses kernel product did not have a name, but the millions who attended the Columbian Exposition loved it. In fact, one of the company slogans came from a customer who said, “The more you eat, the more you want.”
In 1896, a salesman eating the product said, “That’s a Cracker Jack,” which was slang for something terrific. Another piece of the marketing strategy had fallen into place.
Another problem to be solved was how to keep the product from sticking together. It was being sold in large barrels. In 1896, H.G. Eckstein joined the firm and developed the wax-sealed package that most Cracker Jack fans have come to associate with the snack. In 1902, the company was reorganized and became Ruekheim Brothers and Eckstein. In solving the freshness problem with the wax-coated box, a large avenue of marketing was achieved.
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, and receive it fresh. The arrangement worked due to the fact that both Sears and Cracker Jack were located in Chicago. The product went straight from the plant to the Sears warehouse and distribution center.
In 1908, another piece fell into place through its connection to the song Take Me Out To The Ball Game, which is still heard at most American baseball parks.
Take me out to the ball game,
take me out with the crowd,
buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jacks.
I don’t care if we ever get back.
To increase sales, the company marketing department implemented the idea of putting a prize in every box. Prior to 1912 Cracker Jack contained coupons which could be redeemed for various types of premiums offered by the company. Sales skyrocketed and a new plant was opened in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Sailor Jack and Bingo the dog did not appear on boxes until 1918. Sailor Jack was modeled on the grandson of F.W. Rueckheim, named Robert. Bingo was the family dog, whose real name was Russell – a stray that had been taken in. The sailor suit and salute are a reference to U.S. involvement in World War I. Along with the snappy Navy salute, the box colors were red, white and blue – a patriotic product.
There is joy and difficulty in collecting Cracker Jack prizes. One source claims more than 20 billion have been issued. Some are clearly marked Cracker Jack or have the name of a company which produced them. Others have no markings and may have been issued only regionally rather than nationally.
The early items were made of wood, metal, clay, tin and lithographed paper. Later, but prior to World War II, some items were made of metal. In 1946, plastic prizes began to appear in the boxes, including a set of baseball players to continue the tradition of Cracker Jack’s connection to baseball.
For the past several decades items are all made of paper for safety reasons.
Many of the items of the 1930s were connected to mysteries – a nod to the era of the radio. Between 1933 and 1936, more than 200,000 kids mailed into join the Cracker Jack Mystery Club. Kids received a certificate featuring Jack the Sailor Boy, the Grand Magician and special rights and privileges.
During World War II, many items that were placed in the boxes promoted the war effort. In 1941 and 1942, a “Keep ’Em Flying” item was manufactured by the COSMO Manufacturing Co. It was a tin litho blow spinner with the words, “Let’s Go US” and “Keep ’Em Flying.” Aircraft are pictured on the round object; and when blown, appear to be flying. The entire item is 1 3/4 inches.
In Canada, Cracker Jack issued a series of 50 aircraft picture cards. The front of the colorful card has the aircraft in an action scene along with its name; on the back was aircraft information. The picture cards were so popular that a second set was issued titled United Nations Battle Planes. The cards measure 3 inches by 2 1/2 inches.
The most valuable items are the baseball cards of 1914-15. Player cards of the American and National League were issued. Players of the short-lived Federal Baseball League were included, too. The 1914 set contained 144 player cards and is the most difficult to complete since the cards were only issued in boxes of Cracker Jack. The 1915 set was larger with 176 cards, but could be secured by mailing in one coupon and 25 cents. In conjunction with Cracker Jack’s 100th anniversary in 1993, a miniature set of 24 players was issued in boxes.
A significant piece for the collector is one issued from 1950-52, a 2-inch baseball player. It is unique in that items usually had short runs. The baseball player with his classic stance was so popular that this item was re-issued. Through the decades many companies have been employed to manufacture items – some for one item, others an entire series.
The marketing team at Cracker Jack has attempted to keep up with societal trends. With the launch of the first satellites in 1957, Cracker Jack issued nine spacemen and aliens. The 10th figure in the series, and the most difficult to find, is Sailor Jack and Bingo. In the 1980s a space game was put in large tubs of Cracker Jack. The space game board measures 7 1/2 inches by 12 inches and the game figures are 3 inches by 3 3/4 inches.
The prizes or toys are important for many collectors, but so is the advertising. Cracker Jack has always advertised, and one of its favorite mediums was boy’s magazines. A November 1920 issue of Boy’s Companion ad says, “When you’ve got to study at home at night, a cold winter’s night, 10 math problems to do, three pages of history to study and on the table a box of Cracker Jack to keep your brain clear. How you whiz through those problems! How you memorize those history dates! Those crisp, delicious kernels of popcorn and roasted peanuts all covered with old-fashioned molasses can actually make it fun to study at home.”
Another ad in the 1930s included a coupon to mail away for a set of Akro Agate marbles. The front cover of a Life magazine from that period has the image of a boy shooting marbles. Inside there’s a story on the marble championship in Atlantic City, N.J. Cracker Jack provided an opportunity to get those same marbles and become a champ.
After 120 years, Cracker Jack remains popular and continues its connection to baseball and providing an almost unlimited collecting area.