MIKE WAGONER

MIKE WAGONER

If America had a “snack food hall of fame,” two of the charter members would be a pair of German immigrants, the Rueckheim brothers of Chicago – Frederick and Louis.

These are the guys who invented “Cracker Jack” in 1893. They are heralded as “snack food pioneers.”

 Confectioner Frederick coated his popcorn with molasses and added roasted peanuts. His younger brother, Louis, developed a secret method of keeping the popcorn from sticking together and globbing up.

Someone took a bite and exclaimed: “That’s crackerjack!” Frederick replied: “So it is.”

Andrew Clayman of the Made in Chicago Museum said: “Cracker Jack’s product tag line, introduced in 1896, was classically simple and straightforward – ‘The More You Eat, The More You Want.’”

One of the Rueckheims’ business partners was Henry Eckstein. He came up with a way to better preserve the freshness and crispness of the snack, Clayman reported.

“In 1899, Eckstein’s ‘waxed sealed package’ enabled the company to sell its product in slim waterproof cartons instead of expensive, bulky tins,” Clayman said.

Then, along came Jack Norworth and Albert Von Tilzer in 1908 to collaborate on the novelty song “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” Norworth wrote the lyrics that every American baseball fan knows by heart.

Take me out to the ball game,

Take me out with the crowd;

Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack,

I don’t care if I never get back.

Let me root, root, root for the home team,

If they don’t win, it’s a shame.

For it’s one, two, three strikes, you’re out,

At the old ball game.

The amusing song subsequently became the year’s biggest hit, Clayman noted. “Without lifting a finger, the guys at the Rueckheim offices became the beneficiaries of perhaps the greatest pro bono marketing campaign in American history.”

“It was the country’s first great sports anthem, and by a stroke of luck, it permanently correlated the Cracker Jack name with America’s pastime,” Clayman wrote.

Beginning in 1912, a special “prize” – a tiny toy or a collectible – was inserted into every individual box of Cracker Jack. Customers clamored to obtain complete sets.

In 1916, as an expression of its American patriotism, the company rolled out an official mascot. He was young “Sailor Jack” and his dog “Bingo.” They become prominent on new red, white and blue packaging.

In 1922, the Rueckheims and Eckstein officially changed the company’s name to The Cracker Jack Company.

The second generation of Rueckheims and Ecksteins took the reins in the 1930s, and the company continued to prosper. Shareholders agreed to sell Cracker Jack to the Borden Company of Columbus, Ohio, in 1964.

Cracker Jack was absorbed in 1997 by Frito-Lay, part of PepsiCo. During the Borden era, consumers complained that the number of peanuts per box had dwindled from 25 to 30 peanuts to about half that amount.

Frito-Lay promised to fix that, after an investigative reporter in 2005 revealed the average box of Cracker Jack contained just six peanuts.

Consumers say it’s gotten even worse. One recent social media post read: “My childhood memory is several decades old, but I remember a much higher popcorn to peanuts ratio when I was a kid.”

“Did I just get a bad batch? Was the peanut inserting machine having trouble that day?

“I’m so disappointed that the snack containers of carrot sticks and celery are beginning to look like a good option.”

Frito-Lay needs to pony up...and up the peanut count in Cracker Jacks, pronto.

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