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The beginning of Cracker Jack

Caramel corn has been around in some form or other for more than 120 years, and that it is made in America? Frederick William Rueckheim began selling popcorn out of a street cart on Chicago’s Fourth Avenue. The venture was so successful that he brought his brother, Louis, over from Germany to help out. Hoping to stand out from other manufacturers, the two began tinkering with Frederick’s recipe, and eventually perfected a combination of popcorn, peanuts and molasses. After a hit showing at the 1893 World’s Fair, F.W. Rueckheim & Brother, as the company was known, was officially in business. The popcorn was well-received in general, but it was very sticky on fingers and hands. So the pair went back and tweaked the recipe and came up with a lighter coating of caramel instead of molasses that was not nearly as sticky and still had much of the sweetness that the previous mixture had.

The name came about when a company salesman John Berg exclaimed, “That’s a crackerjack!”—a common phrase at the time meaning something was high in quality. Rueckheim liked the phrase and copyrighted the name Cracker Jack in 1896. 1804161275_8697378d8c_oMost snacks came in bulk or were sold in tins, bags, or jars, Cracker Jack developed a cardboard packaging that allowed it to distribute far and wide. Invented by company partner Henry Eckstein, the company’s “triple-proof packaging” was one of the first wax-sealed cardboard containers in the industry.

In 1908, Jack Norworth, a 29-year-old entertainer who had never been to a baseball game, penned the now-iconic song while riding the old Ninth Avenue El train to midtown Manhattan, where he was performing. An advertisement for the Polo Grounds, the ball field where the New York Giants played, inspired him. The reference to Cracker Jack (“buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack”) didn’t come through any deal with the snack company, but it became a godsend for sales as the song rocketed up the charts, forever linking the popcorn snack to the game of baseball.

In 1910, Cracker Jack began slipping coupons into its boxes that could be collected and redeemed for watches, silverware, sewing machines, and other goods. In 1912, the company did away with the coupons and focused on targeting the youth. They began putting a small prize inside each box, and sales went through the roof.

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In just over a hundred years, the company has developed thousands of prizes, everything from animal figurines to tin whistles to handheld puzzles. It even put tiny porcelain dolls in boxes back in the ’20s. With so many toys, and so many available for a limited time, a collector’s market sprang up. There’s a Cracker Jack Collectors Association, along with several books cataloguing the prizes and discussing their history. Prizes today have not been as favored by the buyers as they did in yester year, with fans evening setting up Facebook page to get better prizes back in the favored treat.

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They still hold strong in the baseball world as well, by being the iconic ball game snack at any ball game across America.

So for today Happy Caramel Popcorn Day, and have a Cracker Jack of a day further.

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