Cracker Jack: A prize collection that’s a treat for the ages

By Karen Knapstein

Cracker Jack vendor box

This large, 12-inch by 19-inch Cracker Jack box contained 24 packages of Cracker Jack. It sold at Morphy Auctions recently for $175, excluding buyer’s premium. (Photo courtesy Dan Morphy Auctions, Denver, Pa.)

Cracker Jack is a brand made famous by its “prize inside” marketing tactic and its connection with baseball. Today’s fans appreciate the snack’s rich history and its nostalgic prizes, advertisements and packages.

Frederick (“Fritz”) Rueckheim, a German immigrant, began selling his molasses-coated popcorn out of a cart on the streets of Chicago in 1871. Many of Fritz’s customers were workers who were rebuilding after the Great Chicago Fire. Business was brisk, but small scale and generic.

In 1896, Fritz and his brother Louis, doing business as F.W. Rueckheim & Bro., officially began selling its now-famous candy-coated popcorn and peanut snack: Cracker Jack. The Rueckheims knew they had something special; they trademarked the Cracker Jack name and copyrighted the snack’s slogan: “The More You Eat, The More You Want.”

In 1902, the company reorganized as Rueckheim Bros. & Eckstein when Henry Eckstein became a partner. Eckstein developed the moisture-proof packaging that would keep the snack fresher, longer. Eckstein’s revolutionary packaging allowed for larger distribution in an age when many products were distributed in bulk tins, barrels, and bags.

In 1908, Cracker Jack experienced a surge of popularity when songwriter Jack Norworth (along with composer Albert Von Tilzer) wrote the song “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” The free publicity in the line, “Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack!” sent sales skyrocketing and would forever link the snack to America’s pastime.

Practice of Premiums Prompts Prizes

The company didn’t include prizes right from the beginning, however. Starting in 1910, Cracker Jack premiums (which included such items as silverware, sporting goods, toys, games and other useful “household goods”) were sent to distributors to dispense to Cracker Jack buyers who would turn in coupons that were randomly inserted in some of the packages.

In 1912, the company began including prizes in every package. The prizes were not wrapped, so collectors should note that contact with the sweet, sticky candy affected the condition of the prizes. Distributing series of prizes, rather than individual prizes, was a move that proved to be marketing genius; buyers would come back again and again for the treat and the prizes in effort to complete the sets.

Fast Fact:  Actor Jack Gilford (1907-1990) appeared in many of the 1960s Cracker Jack commercials, like the one below. (You may recall he didn’t appear often in films or on stage in the 1950s because he was blacklisted during the McCarthy Era.)

Cracker Jack included “one-off” prizes, but mostly they used series of prizes provided by companies such as Akro Agate, Cloud/Cloudcrest, TootsieToy, NOSCO, and Makatoy. Many prizes were made overseas and are marked “Germany,” “Japan,” and “Taiwan.”

Rueckheim Bros. & Eckstein embraced the immense popularity of its main product and changed the name of the company to the Cracker Jack Company in 1922.

The numbers of prizes distributed – and the prizes still available to collectors – are truly astounding. Alex Jaramillo Jr., President and founding member of the Cracker Jack Collectors Association (CJCA), explains that the Cracker Jack Company would buy anywhere from 200,000 to 5 million prizes at a time in the 1950s. In the 1980s, he says they were buying 15 million at a time. He explained that the company would mix up the prizes and load them in the shakers to be distributed among the boxes. He said if they had a more expensive prize (a prize that was more complicated and more expensive to produce) they might mix it in and include it in the product run once a week.

Treasured Prizes More Than Child’s Play

Long-time collector and CJCA Vice President Theresa Richter explains some prizes were not meant for children. For example, there is an early series of pretty lady pins that “were clearly not meant for children.” The series of 24 pins are made of celluloid, and the same images were used in cigarette company promotions.

Cracker Jack boxes also are keys to what was inside. From 1912-1925, the boxes are marked

Early Cracker Jack prizes

Early Cracker Jack pocket watch, Skeezix, and vehicles. In excellent condition, the lot sold for $40, excluding buyer’s premium. (Photo Courtesy of Milestone Auctions, Willoughby, Ohio)

“Cracker Jack Prize”; 1925-1932 boxes are marked “Cracker Jack Novelty”; and from 1933 on, boxes are marked “Toy.”

Jaramillo, who has been collecting Cracker Jack prizes for 42 years, says, like any other kid growing up in the fifties and sixties, he collected everything and kept everything. But, he says, he is one of the lucky ones: “I could have anything I wanted as long as I kept my room clean.”

He says he had about 200 Cracker Jack prizes as a child and put them in a drawer. In about 1975, he got interested in them again, and started ordering them and bidding on them through mail order catalogs. The appeal, he says, is there’s so many things you can collect, even if you’re “only” collecting Cracker Jack. “Cracker Jack is like the ultimate collectible,” he says. “You can get postcards, baseball cards, comic booklets, toys … you can get them all in Cracker Jack.”

Jaramillo estimates close to a million different series of prizes have been distributed. And what was going on at any given time helped determine Cracker Jack’s selection of prizes. “Prizes reflect the era in which they were made,” Jaramillo says. For example, there are a lot of politically incorrect premiums. During World War II, the Victoria Cross Heroes series of trading cards came out with horrific wartime scenes, complete with dehumanizing wartime slurs. Cracker Jack collectors have to compete with militaria collectors for World War II-era prizes, as many of them are very militaristic.

Jaramillo, who authored the book “Cracker Jack Prizes” (Abbeyville Press, 1989), says cowboys were popular in the 1950s; in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Cracker Jack prizes reflected what was going on with television and the early space age. In the 1970s, there was a lot of “flower power stuff.” His book examines Cracker Jack prizes by era.

‘Golden Age’ of Cracker Jack Prizes

As fascinating as the decade-by-decade breakdown of Cracker Jack prizes is, Jaramillo says the 1930s is “the golden age of Cracker Jack collecting.”

“They had everything,” he says. “If they could take it and fold it up and put it in a box of Cracker Jack, it went in a box of Cracker Jack.” He explains that prizes were made of wood, porcelain, Bakelite, paper, ceramics. “There were so many different series and prizes, you could concentrate on the thirties and you’d have a collectible hobby for the rest of your life because there were so many things,” he says.

The diversity is truly amazing. “There are no boundaries to the interest you can take in collecting [Cracker Jack],” Richter says. You can focus on patriotic wartime prizes, you can collect only prizes that say “Cracker Jack,” or prizes marked with their country of origin (i.e. “Germany,” “Japan,” “Occupied Japan,” etc.), or you can collect by theme (which are immense) … whatever your collecting interest is, Cracker Jack can satisfy the hunger.

Cracker Jack Standee set

This complete set of ten 1 1/8-inch wide by 1 7/8-inch tall die-cut tin litho set of standees sold for $280 at a recent Hake’s Americana auction. Each piece is marked on the base “One Of A Series Of Famous Cartoon Characters. Look For Others In Cracker Jack.” Dating to the circa 1930s, each standee has a full color Chicago Tribune character image on the front, including Smitty, Herby, Harold Teen, Chester Gump, Perry Winkle, Uncle Walt, Skeezix, Little Orphan Annie, Moon Mullins and Kayo. Each has had base bent as designed. The set is in Very Fine to Excellent overall condition. Hake’s Americana reports these prizes are rarely found complete as a set. (Photo courtesy of Hake’s Americana; www.hakes.com)

To make collecting less daunting, some fans choose to build their collections around a single prize. For example, Richter has a friend who only collects the Shiva round plastic prize, trying to collect as many colors and variations as possible.

Over the decades, items such as tattoos, stickers, dexterity puzzles, spinning tops, clickers, charms, whistles, and games were distributed, redesigned with different themes or materials, and then distributed again. For example, clickers, which Richter says were first made in the 1920s, continued to be used in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, but with different designs. Spinning tops, she said, were first made of cast metal, then tin litho, then plastic, and finally plastic with a paper insert.

Themes are also repeated. Some examples of popular Cracker Jack themes are masks and disguises, transportation, tricks, household miniatures, military, and animals to name just a few. Of course, baseball may well be Cracker Jack’s most prolific theme.

Cracker Jack’s Storied Relationship With Baseball

The highest valued Cracker Jack prizes are the 1914 and 1915 baseball card prizes.
Relatively speaking, Cracker Jack’s original 1914 and 1915 baseball card prizes carry astronomical values. According to the “Standard Catalog of Baseball Cards,” the 1914 issue (catalog designation E145) consists of 144 cards with tinted color images on red backgrounds. Each Cracker Jack baseball card is numbered on the back; the low-numbered cards indicate 10 million cards were issued, while the high-numbered cards boast 15 million were printed. Taking reprints into consideration, no one knows how many cards were actually printed. However, due to the sticky nature of the confection and the ephemeral nature of the prize, relatively few have survived in high grade, contributing to the remarkable prices paid for cards today.

The “Standard Catalog” reports the complete 1914 Cracker Jack set, in Near Mint condition, is valued at $375,000, while the 1915 set is valued at $150,000). During Heritage Auctions’ February 20-21, 2016, Platinum Night Sports Auction in New York, a 1915 Cracker Jack Walter Johnson #57, PSA-graded Mint 9, sold for a staggering $101,575. (Johnson, by the way, is the pitcher whom Ty Cobb credited as having “the most powerful arm ever turned loose in a ball park.”)

In 1993, to commemorate its 100th anniversary, Cracker Jack issued a 24-card set of miniature replicas of the 1915 set. They can be found in excellent condition for as little as $1 per card.

Nostalgia plays a significant part in the appeal for Baby Boomers. Theresa Richter says she became a serious collector more than 20 years ago when she was visiting antique stores to furnish and decorate her second home in Michigan. It was seeing the Cracker Jack prizes on display in the shops that triggered her nostalgia for Cracker Jack.

Fast Fact: According to the Standard Catalog of Baseball Cards, 5th edition, determining whether

Christy Matthewson card

Christy Mathewson

you have a 1914 or a 1915 Cracker Jack baseball card is quite simple: Cracker Jack baseball cards from 1914 will mention 144 cards on the reverse, while 1915 card reverses will say 176 cards. Also, if the image and card backs are reversed (upside-down), the card is from 1915. Pictured at right is a 1915 Cracker Jack Christy Mathewson #88 SGC 96 Mint 9, which sold for $31,070, during an auction at Heritage Auctions.

Richter explains, “I spent my summers [in the 1950s and early 1960s] on Lake Huron – from the day after school got out to the day before school started. My father would visit on weekends, and he would bring a couple of cases of Cracker Jack on the Fourth of July and we would share them all along the beach.” She says they played with the prizes for a little while, but didn’t keep them. Now, she’s enjoying Cracker Jack prizes again.

Cracker Jack in the 21st Century

Although Sailor Jack, a kid in a traditional sailor’s uniform, and his dog, Bingo, still appear on the face of boxes of Cracker Jack (but with an updated look), the packages of candy-coated popcorn no longer contain the sort of physical prize Baby Boomers grew up with. In April 2016, current Cracker Jack brand owner Frito-Lay announced it would no longer include physical prizes in boxes of Cracker Jack, grabbing media attention and prompting headlines like “Cracker Jack Is Getting Rid of the Best Thing About Cracker Jacks” (Fortune) and “Cracker Jack’s Prize In The Box Will Now Be Digitized” (NPR).

Cracker Jack would now include stickers and QR codes good for redeeming a smartphone app – one of four baseball-themed mobile games, as well as a baseball-themed sticker. A fitting choice for Frito-Lay, since Cracker Jack started including baseball-themed prizes in 1914 and has been a perennial presence at ballparks for more than 100 years.

When asked what she thinks of the new Cracker Jack prizes, Richter, who has been a serious collector for more than 20 years, says the new prizes are frustrating for collectors, since “you can’t put it on a shelf,” but they are prizes.

Cracker Jack whistles

Pair of Cracker Jack tin figural whistles from the 1930s (one silvertone, one goldtone), 1 3/4 inches tall, sold at auction for $27. (Courtesy of The Auctions Unlimited, Port Ewen, N.Y.)

She explains that paper prizes are nothing new: “During World War II, many prizes were paper because that’s the material that was available.” As far as the game-portion of the prize goes, she says she’s showed the baseball games to her grandkids and “they’re having fun with it. I applaud Frito-Lay for connecting with the young people.”

“Now we’re in the digital age. Every decade has come out with baseball-themed prizes over the decades, and now it’s a digital baseball application. I hope it helps them stick around,” she explains.

Jaramillo explains Frito-Lay’s switching to digital prizes, too. “It made a lot of people angry but it reflected the time.”

Measuring Size and Markings to Authenticate Prizes

Unfortunately, many small toys and premiums are often mistaken as Cracker Jack prizes. Jaramillo and Richter agree that experience is a valuable tool when it comes to identifying Cracker Jack prizes. Jaramillo says Cracker Jack prizes are between 1 1/4 inches or 1 1/2 inches; and most of them are marked [Cracker Jack, CJ, CJ Co.]. He says after collecting for 42 years, he’s come to learn how to identify them. With experience, “if it feels like Cracker Jack, and it looks like Cracker Jack, it probably is.”

Fortunately, collectors today can use any number of resources to help in identifying items. Available books include Jaramillo’s aforementioned “Cracker Jack Toys”; Larry White’s “Cracker Jack Toys: The Complete Unofficial Guide for Collectors”; and Ravi Pina’s “Cracker Jack Collectibles.” Reaching out to members of the Cracker Jack Collectors Association at www.crackerjackcollectors.com is also an option.

To date, an estimated 24 billion Cracker Jack premiums and prizes have been distributed. The longevity, popularity, and nostalgic appeal of the snack that’s been called the “first junk food” have contributed to a near-perfect situation of diverse selection and immense supply for collectors. The collecting possibilities are virtually limitless.

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