Cracker Jack… An American Tradition

What’s in the Attic?
by Linda Hamer Kennett

(reprinted with permission)

cracker-jackThe world’s Fair of 1893 offered visitors a strange concoction of popcorn, nuts and maple syrup. This confection, unnamed at the time, was an instant hit with the public. For the next three years the inventors of the popcorn treat, William and Louis Ruedkheim, worked to find a way to keep the sticky confection from clumping together. They discovered that by adding a small amount of oil during mixing that the cornels of corn would remain separated. They packaged their tasty treat in a small box bearing a picture of “Sailor Jack” and his dog Bingo. They named it “Cracker Jack”.

While the snack has been regaled in song {“…buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jacks”} and consumed by millions, it is the “prize” in every box that has sustained it’s popularity for over one hundred years. Is there anyone among us who has not gone “digging” for that elusive “prize in every box”?

In it’s first six years of production Cracker Jack issued 144 different baseball cards featuring such greats as “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, Ty Cobb and Christy Mathewson. Other early “prizes” included wooden toys, tin and metal machines and lithographic paper items. The odds of finding any of these pre-1920 pieces are very slim, but well worth the search. If you doubt me, just ask the Rochester, New York man who sent his collection of the 144 original baseball cards to auction where they brought $800,000!

An overview of the prizes through the years offers us a fascinating look at the trends and fads of America in the 20th century. The earliest prizes consisted of paper-dolls, yo-yo’s, baseball cards and song books. The first toys made of wood, tin and metal appeared in the late 1920’s. “Made in Japan” lithograph tin whistles were the best find in the 1930’s. During the 1940’s, propaganda and war toys were a favorite. With the end of the war, the 1950’s Cracker Jack boxes contained toys of a happier nature with dolls and colorful plastic animals being a common find. The race for space in the late 1960’s was reflected with space ships and polyethylene space men. Coin holders, magnifying glasses, and slot machines appeared in the 70’s and 80’s and the favorite toy of the 1990’s saw the return of paper goods in the form of metallic stickers. Cracker Jack toys have delighted children for decades. In fact, Cracker Jack is recognized as fact the world’s largest purveyor of toys, with a distribution of over 17 billions pieces since 1912.

Determining the age of a Cracker Jack toy can be difficult as most of the fifteen million variation were unmarked. An exception to this rule are some of the very early paper dolls, song books and post cards. These may be marked either Ruedkheim Brothers or Reliable Confections. If you are new to this are of collecting beware of pieces with a “CJ” marking on the bottom .This is most commonly found on a piece called the “Toonerville Trolley”. According to company records this was never an official Cracker Jack toy. The letters CJ are rather an indication of the size of the trolley not a company mark.

Other factors used to determine age are the two major changes that came during the 1940’s. In 1945 toys changed from metal to plastic toys, and in starting in 1948 all toys were required by law to be wrapped in paper. Collector have also learned to watch for changes on the box. Reliable Confections sold out to Borden Inc, in 1964, who in turn passed the company legacy to the Frito-Lay Corporation in 1997.

In addition to Cracker Jack toys, collectors also look for mint condition die-cut lithograph display adds, old boxes and advertising material. There is also a considerable interest in memorabilia from Checkers Confections and Angelus Marshmallows, the two sister companies of Reliable Confections.

While finding early pieces in mint condition is rare and costly, there are an abundance of mid-20th century pieces to be had for $10 or under. If you come across miniature toys at flea markets or garage sales they can often be had for pennies! Do you home work and learn what to watch for and you will be surprised just how often these unassuming pieces turn out to be authentic Cracker Jack toys.

Cracker Jack is truly an American tradition, and American’s don’t like their traditions tampered with. Case in point: In 2004 the New York Yankees organization decided to remove Cracker Jack from their concession stand and replace it with a similar product called Crunch ‘N Munch. The public outcry of disapproval was so great that after two weeks…. you guessed it…. the Crunch “N Munch was removed and the Cracker Jack returned.

{Linda Hamer Kennett is the owner of “What’s in the Attic?” Estate Liquidation Service, specializing in down-sizing for seniors, valuation of antiquity and estate tag sales and may be reached at 317-356-8967 or lkennett@indy.rr.com}

Some current live auctions for Cracker Jack items:

Cracker Jack is a U.S. brand of snack consisting of caramel-coated popcorn (caramel corn) and peanuts. It is also well known for being…