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David Lissner
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Chicago cracks out a prize candy-coated treat

Cracker Jack early box

This summer marks the 120th anniversary of the World’s Columbian Exposition. The Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 introduced quite a few new foods, both directly and indirectly. The six-month-long fair put the blue ribbon on Pabst Beer, brought Chicagoans tamales and led to the invention of the brownie. The fair also brought the DeJonghes, who would later create their garlicky namesake shrimp dish, to the city. The lady managers of the fair produced a cookbook, as well.

The fair shaped American breakfasts with the first pancake mix and the first cold breakfast cereal and launched such iconic products as Juicy Fruit gum and, our subject today, what would eventually be Cracker Jack.

Cracker Jack

The combination of peanuts, popcorn and molasses introduced by F.W. Rueckheim and Bro. at the 1893 fair wasn’t yet dubbed “Cracker Jack.” They just called it “Candied Popcorn and Peanuts,” and it was an even stickier confection than the treat is today.

Fairgoers were not impressed. They thought the stuff was too gooey. It took another three years before Louis Rueckheim, the “Bro.” in the company, developed the still-secret formula for creating dry, crisp, candy-coated pieces that didn’t stick together.

The product’s new moniker came from a slang-spouting salesman whose own name has been lost to time. Sampling the new treat, he exclaimed, “That’s cracker jack!” F.W. Rueckheim agreed and trademarked the brand name.

The Rueckheim brothers were German immigrants. Frederick William, the eldest, came over first, working on a farm until he’d saved $200, enough to buy a steam-powered popcorn machine. He and a partner set up shop at 113 Fourth Ave. (now Federal Street) in 1871, selling snacks to the construction workers making restorations after the Great Chicago Fire.

A couple years later, Reuckheim bought out his partner, sent for Louis, and expanded into candymaking. By 1885, their firm had grown into a three-story brick factory at 266 S. Clinton St.

Until 1899, the Reuckheims sold Cracker Jack in large tubs to grocers and candy stores, which would portion it out to customers. Then a partner, Henry Eckstein, developed a “triple proof package,” waxed-sealed in moisture-proof paper, so the confection could be packed in individual boxes and stay fresh on store shelves.

By 1908, the snack was so popular that it wound up in the lyrics of Jack Norworth and Albert Von Tilzer’s song “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” But the company did its own promotions as well. In 1912, they began to entice sales by adding a small toy as a premium in every package: “A Prize in Every Box.” 1918 introduced Sailor Jack and his dog, Bingo, the Cracker Jack mascots modeled on F.W. Rueckheim’s grandson, Robert, and his pet, who’ve appeared on the boxes ever since.

From 1930 to 1986, the manufacturer, renamed the Cracker Jack Co., produced the snack at 4800 W. 66th St., Bedford Park, candy coating the popcorn and peanuts in batches in large tanks. Production was then moved to Northbrook, where the now dissolved Borden Inc., which bought the brand in 1964, replaced the tanks with a high-speed automated assembly line. Snack giant Frito-Lay, part of PepsiCo, acquired Cracker Jack in 1997, and ended its Chicago presence soon thereafter, moving production to Grand Rapids, Mich.