Cracker Jack and Its Burlesque Beginnings

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It’s the tasty concession foods that enhance the memories at baseball stadiums around the country. One of these most beloved baseball treats, Cracker Jack, has a past similar common with Cincinnati Chili.   Both became popular through their connection to Burlesque theatre.   Cincinnati Chili started in the Empress Burlesque Theatre, where audiences could see the “Hindu Belles” or the “Empress Runaway Girls”, and headliners like Carrie Finnell and Hinda Wasau.   Cracker Jack was boosted into popularity by a song written for the 1909 Ziegfield Follies, one of the most famous American burlesque shows.     By 1914 Cracker Jack was also the title of a burlesque show that had over 40 performers.

Cracker Jack was invented by German immigrant Fredrick Rueckheim in 1893, when he combined peanuts, popcorn and molasses. Urban legend has it that he and his brother exhibited this new confection at the Chicago World’s Fair, with the uninspiring name of “Candied Popcorn and Peanuts.”   However, there’s no evidence that they had an exhibit at the fair, and perhaps the brothers just had a cart outside the fair grounds.

What was innovative about Rueckheim’s creation, was that he discovered a way to keep the molasses coated popcorn from sticking together with the addition of a bit of oil in the rotating coating machine.   Most caramel corn at the time, because of the stickiness, was served in balls or in fritters because of this phenom.   That included the local Doscher Brother’s candy version, Pop’s Corn Fritters, which was served at the Redland Field concession nearly two decades before Cracker Jack was introduced in 1893.

Legend has it that in 1896 a customer tried the Rueckheim product and proclaimed, “This is a real cracker jack!”   At the time, cracker jack was a slang term meaning something excellent.    Rueckheim quickly trademarked Cracker Jack that same year under F. W. Rueckheim & Brother of Chicago.

By 1899 a triple proof package of waxed sealant was invented by partial owner Henry Eckstein to retain product freshness.   This new package allowed the company to mass produce what was formerly sold in large tubs and not very travel-friendly.

In 1908, Jack Norworth, vaudeville entertainer and songwriter wrote the lyrics to the song Take Me Out to the Ballgame for a vaudeville show.   The song was sung by his wife, Nora Bayes, in the Ziegield Follies of 1909.   The couple didn’t stay married very long, they divorced by 1912, but the song leaped into popularity.   If it weren’t for the popularity of the song, Cracker Jack might have settled into a small regional confectionery product, and not been the national icon that it became.

The song’s original theme was set around Katie Casey, an empowered woman who wanted to root, cheer and eat Cracker Jack in the grandstands with the crowd and enjoy a baseball game.   But in suffragette America, the idea of a woman being a knowledgeable and enthusiastic baseball fan , rather than staying at home tending to her womanly duties, was a bit of a curveball to the norm.     By the time the song made it into baseball as an anthem, the first two verses of Casey’s feminist message of empowerment had been removed and long forgotten.

And, by 1949, when just the chorus of Take me Out to the Ballgame was made the baseball national anthem, Cracker Jack was already a nationally known product.

The original 1908 song:

Katie Casey was baseball mad,
Had the fever and had it bad.
Just to root for the home town crew,
Ev’ry sou
Katie blew.
On a Saturday her young beau
Called to see if she’d like to go
To see a show
But Miss Kate said “No,
I’ll tell you what you can do:”
 
[Chorus]
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.
Katie Casey saw all the games,
Knew the players by their first names.
Told the umpire he was wrong,
All along,
Good and strong.
When the score was just two to two,
Katie Casey knew what to do,
Just to cheer up the boys she knew,
She made the gang sing this song:

 

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