Wandering through the supermarket on Monday I came upon a snack display of what may be the original junk food, a name swimming up out of childhood. Snacks aren’t always a regular item in my shopping basket and apart from Chex Mix and potato chips, what’s available in that line is pretty much a mystery these days. What a surprise to come upon a tall rack of the old Cracker Jack snack with Sailor Jack and Bingo still smiling out from the package. Couldn’t stop myself and a bag of this ‘blast from the past’ ended up in my basket.
A German immigrant named Frederick Rueckheim arrived in Chicago after the Great Chicago Fire in 1871 to work on the massive clean up of the city. When not busy with the clean up he and his brother Louis sold popcorn from a cart. They came up with an idea of combining candy, popcorn and peanuts and the first Cracker Jack snack was born. The Rueckheim’s original mixture was made up of popcorn, peanuts and molasses, and rather blandly called “Candied Popcorn and Peanuts.” It was a small street cart business for a number of years, their product not made in very large quantities.
The Rueckheim brothers first mass-produced and sold their product at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, and it was a big success, with the exception of one problem: the popcorn stuck together in chunks because of the molasses. It took three years but Frederick finally came up with a solution by adding a small amount of oil to each batch as it was mixed in a large drum. Around the same time a customer unwittingly came up with the name Cracker Jack, when he exclaimed after a mouthful, “That’s crackerjack!” using an idiom of the time meaning ‘of excellent quality.’
In 1899, businessman Henry Eckstein developed a wrapping he called the ‘wax sealed package’ or the ‘Eckstein triple proof package’— a revolutionary new paper package that kept dust, germs, and moisture out. A few years following this the company was reorganized as Rueckheim Bros & Eckstein. The snack became a favorite at baseball games and in 1908 Cracker Jack achieved immortality via the popular song “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” Jack Norworth wrote the lyrics to the song and first came up with the line, “Buy me some peanuts and a Tootsie Roll” but felt that just didn’t work. He came up with the alternative, “Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack.” The song is still sung during the seventh-inning stretch at most baseball games.
Prizes were first included in Cracker Jack boxes in 1912 and the mascots Sailor Jack and Bingo were introduced in 1918, becoming official a year later. Sailor Jack is based on Rueckheim’s eight year-old nephew who died of pneumonia shortly after his image appeared on boxes. Interestingly, the image of Sailor Jack & Bingo is carved on Frederick Rueckheim’s tombstone.
The company was sold to the Borden Food Corporation in 1964 and bought by Frito-Lay 1997.