Which came first, the Cracker Jack snack or the Cracker Jack prize? The answer is clearly the snack, but when did the prize first appear?
Cracker Jack history has the "A Prize in Every Box" concept dated back to 1912. However, Cracker Jack wasn't the first company to use free premiums to promote its product. As its longevity has proven, it just did it better.
It's Not Just a Snack, It's Cracker Jack!
For years, the Cracker Jack snack has been synonymous with the Cracker Jack prize. There is no Cracker Jack without the prize.
Like other snack manufacturers in the turn of the 20th century, Rueckheim Bros. & Eckstein promoted their product by offering premiums. When Cracker Jack was distributed in bulk, the snack vendor handed out prizes. After Eckstein developed the "waxed sealed" package facilitating national distribution of Cracker Jack, Rueckheim Bros. & Eckstein experimented with including free prizes in random Cracker Jack boxes. They also included mail-in coupons that customers could redeem to receive or purchase items via mail.
Starting in 1912, Rueckheim Bros. & Eckstein began putting a prize in every box of Cracker Jack. By then, they were no longer just snack manufacturers, they were toy distributors. Since the early 1900s, it is estimated that Cracker Jack has given away over 17 billion toy prizes in their Cracker Jack boxes. In 1912, the items were made of paper, pot metal or tin with some prizes made of wood or early plastic. The prizes came largely unwrapped, mixed in the box with the candied popcorn and peanuts.
As a way to encourage sales, Cracker Jack wisely started issuing certain prizes in a set or series. This marketing ploy gave rise to another type of Cracker Jack customer--the prize collector. After all, why buy one when you can have them all. The Cracker Jack slogan may have been "The more you eat, the more you want," but for Cracker Jack prize hoarders the slogan may as well have been "The more you collect, the more you want to collect."
Early Cracker Jack Prizes and the Baseball Cards
The mix of free premiums that Cracker Jack distributed in its early years reflected many toy and items popular during that time--miniature furniture, tin or metal tops, paper dolls, riddle or joke booklets and postcards.
As World War I broke out in 1914, Cracker Jack included as prizes a pair of sheet metal toy U.S. soldier figures, a Private and an Officer. Though they were flat, a bendable base allowed the figures to stand. The standing figures were each about 2" in height and painted or lithographed on the front side.
Of all the early Cracker Jack prizes distributed in the early years, probably the best known and most coveted are the 144 baseball cards issued in 1914. In today's market, one of these 2.25" by 3" baseballs could garner several hundred or even thousands of dollars. Cracker Jack issued an additional series of 176 baseball cards in 1915, but as a full set of those cards could be ordered by mail, they are slightly easier to obtain. The 1914 card set had to be collected the hard way, one Cracker Jack box at a time. In those day, Cracker Jack prizes were not wrapped, so many cards in circulation will have molasses residence or grease stains.
Introducing Sailor Jack and Bingo
On current Cracker Jack packaging and merchandising, there always appears a little sailor boy and his cute dog. Known as "Sailor Jack and Bingo," the Cracker Jack Collectors Association website has these mascots dated to 1918, but other Cracker Jack sources say that they appeared several years earlier in 1916. According to Wikipedia, Cracker Jack owners Rueckheim Bros. & Eckstein registered a trademark for the mascots in 1919. Legend has it that the mascots were modeled after Frederick Rueckheim's grandson, Robert, and Henry Gottleib Eckstein's dog, Russell.