Alex Jaramillo Jr. may not go to baseball games, but he sure loves Cracker Jack. With over 35,000 items, Jaramillo is one of the world’s greatest collectors of items related to the famed popcorn snack. “I like everything about the company,” says the current president of the Cracker Jack Collectors Association and one-time spokesman for Cracker Jack , “I’m interested in the prizes, I’m interested in the history, I’m interested in the people that worked for the company, where they came from... I’m just fascinated about it all!”
For over a century, Cracker Jack (which is now owned by Frito-Lay) has put “prizes” in their boxes - be it a metal trinket, a paper booklet, a plastic toy or a colorful sticker. Here’s the story of why the snack manufacturer started doing this and why, even today, people like Jaramillo still love to collect those prizes.
According to the legend, Cracker Jack was invented by German immigrants Frederick and Louis Rueckheim in the streets of Chicago. Older brother Frederick arrived in the Windy City following the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and helped an elderly man rebuild his popcorn stand that had burned down. In a fairy tale-like twist, the elderly man soon handed over his business to Rueckheim. In hopes of succeeding in the popcorn industry, he invested his life savings of two hundred dollars (about $4000 today) and asked his brother Louis to join him in America to help with the task. Louis arrived and the two brothers created the “F.W. Rueckheim & Brother confectionary firm.” It took a long time for their business to pop, however.
Twenty years of experimenting, taste tasting and middling sales led them to the concoction that would make them millionaires. The brothers first tried out a new recipe that incorporated molasses-coating popcorn and peanuts at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in their hometown of Chicago. Leaving their new product unnamed, it didn’t stick with customers perhaps due to the stickiness of the molasses. The brothers didn’t let this experience get them down, devising a way to quickly dry the molasses prior to packaging and serving. By 1896, they relaunched their product, this time with a name.
The most famous anecdote surrounding the naming of “Cracker Jack” is likely apocryphal. The Rueckheims, so that story goes, allowed a friend to taste their newest creation, who thenexclaimed “This is cracker jack!” In actuality, it was likely chosen after much deliberation -“cracker jack” was a common slang at the time. Either way, the Rueckheims officially trademarked the name “Cracker Jack” in early 1896.
While the product sold modestly for the next decade, Cracker Jack really took off thanks to free advertising from the 1908 song “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” and the introduction of “prizes” in (or on) the boxes. Conceived as a way to separate themselves from competitors (like the copycat “Jack Cracker”), the first so-called prizes were postcards on the side of the wax Cracker Jack boxes in 1907 and 1908. “They were in full color and you could use them,” says Jaramillo, “I have some in my collection where somebody has used them to send to friends.” In 1912, the company first started putting prizes inside of the boxes with the first ones being metal trinkets. Cracker Jack continues to have prizes in their boxes (or bags) to this day, over a century after they were first introduced.
Today, Cracker Jack prize collecting is big business. Jaramillo estimates that there are between 200 to 300 serious collectors, many of whom will convene in Memphis for an annual convention in May. Everything that Cracker Jack has put in their boxes over the years is collected, from 1915 baseball trading cards featuring Ty Cobb to anything noted prize designer C. Carey Cloud came up with to 1930s presidential coins (some of which are now in the Smithsonian). Items can be worth anywhere from a few dollars to thousands, for example the complete 176 card set of 1915 baseball cards goes for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Jaramillo was a research scientist at the City of Hope National Medical Center in Southern California before he made collectible dealing his full-time job, even opening a store called “Collectors Dreams.” Jaramillo says he stopped counting items after his collection reached 35,000 and declined to comment on exactly how much it was all worth. His favorite items, though, aren’t the ones that are grandiose or worth the most. “The paper (booklets) you have to wonder how did this not get used up,” says Jaramillo, "If it’s an activity book, kids are supposed to draw in it... but if it’s still intact and no one used it... they must have liked it so much, that they wanted to save it.” He especially likes a small 1915 paper booklet featuring a sepia-colored Teddy Roosevelt with moving eyes. According to Jaramillo, there are only three that are known to still exist. When asked how much it cost him, Jaramillo laughs and says, “Way more than you think a little prize would be.”