Aug. 26, 2002
-- How can one account for the lasting popularity of Cracker Jack? Might it be the friendly face of mascot Sailor Jack and his dog Bingo on the box? Could it be linked to an obsession with the fact that somehow, magically, those candy-coated pieces of popcorn don't stick together? Is it just the prize?
Whatever the reason, Cracker Jack has earned a place in the hearts and stomachs of many Americans, though in recent years the snack hasn't carried quite the same clout as it once did.
So what happens when something that's been part of American culture for over 100 years finds itself boxed in by health trends and junk food competition? For NPR's ongoing series Present at the Creation
, Susan Feeney reports on the declining popularity of Cracker Jack and finds that even though sales have been flat, it's still part of the American snack scene.
Cracker Jack first appeared, according to the official company history, at the World's Fair in Chicago, 1893, offered up by creator F.W. Rueckheim. The name came along three years later when, according to legend, Rueckheim's brother Louis gave the confection to a salesman, who proclaimed, "That's a Cracker Jack!" The brothers agreed, patented the name, and a brand was born.
Over the next 100 years, Cracker Jack managed to work itself into the national consciousness, making its way into popular song and even political cartoons. But while Cracker Jack has been an indelible part of the Americana for more than a century, its ownership hasn't been as consistent. In 1964, the Cracker Jack brand was sold to Borden Inc., which passed the baton to Frito-Lay in 1997.
Of course, it's likely that most people munching on Cracker Jack don't find themselves too concerned with the corporate history of the snack. In fact, some of them probably don't even think too much about the taste. So what's Cracker Jack's secret? Three little words: toy surprise inside.
One of the main ingredients that has helped Cracker Jack make a lasting impression, not to mention one of the first things that kids will look for on popping open a box, is the prize. And since 1912, when the company started putting one in each box, they have come in just about any shape imaginable, though they're all about the same size: tiny. Prizes have ranged from spinning metal discs to ornately decorated bird whistles to presidential trading cards, complete with vital statistics on the reverse side.
One place Cracker Jack retains its old popularity is at baseball stadiums. And as long as there's a seventh-inning stretch, the treat may never go completely out of style. In 1908, Jack Norworth wrote the words to "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" in just 30 minutes on a subway ride and then handed them over to Albert Von Tilzer, who pounded out the melody that can be heard emanating from ballparks on just about any given summer day.
The song helped boost Cracker Jack's popularity when it first came out, and continues to do so today. Even taking into account the inevitably inflated prices of stadium fare, Robert McKay, the reigning Cracker Jack vendor of the year, finds sales brisk. From the stands at Yankee Stadium, he basks in popularity that such a salesman would be hard pressed to find anywhere else.
"You hold it up, it's their favorite, and they will just ask for it. Basically that's all you have to do. I mean, I wasn't even selling hard," he explains. "We're walking around, 'Cracker Jack,' hand goes up."
That this endless support is largely due to two men who -- Surprise! -- never actually went to a game until about 20 years after the song was written doesn't bother most fans, who just see Cracker Jack as a part of the experience.
"I don't come to very many games," says Sally, a Yankees fan, "so I figure if I'm at a Yankee game you have to have Cracker Jacks because of the song."
Today Sailor Jack has had a few makeovers, Cracker Jack often comes in a bag, and the prizes have changed; you're more likely to get a Pokémon toy or a fake tattoo than a Rutherford Birchard Hayes trading card. But through it all, Cracker Jack has managed to stick around.
The official Cracker Jack
Web site includes a timeline
and interactive games
based on the snack's famous prizes.
Visit the Cracker Jack Collectors Association
The Cracker Jack Box
site has an extensive archive of prizes
and prize wrappers
as well as information about the Cracker Jack jingle and commercials
See the complete lyrics to Take Me Out to the Ball Game
, featuring the famous reference to Cracker Jack.
Learn about the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition
, Chicago's first world fair, where the forerunner to Cracker Jack was introduced.