Cracker Jack prizes and childhood nostalgia
  • A real-life homespun cracker barrel
  • Jumping jack black woman toy
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    Auction Finds

    A box of Cracker Jill (not Jack) charms

    Cracker Jack I had heard of, but not Cracker Jill. That was the first thought that leaped into my head when I saw the name Cracker Jill. It was printed in bright red letters on paper inside a plastic container, not on the cover of a paper box like the Cracker Jack from my childhood.

    Most everyone is familiar with the Cracker Jack boy and his little dog on the front of a box filled with caramel popcorn and a prize. So what if the little bitty prizes were plastic throwaways that we couldn’t find an hour later. It was the hunt for them among the morsels of popcorn that kept us digging.

    But who was this Cracker Jill smiling brightly from a box lying on a tray with a handful of other small playful items at auction? I didn’t remember her alongside the little boy those many years ago, so where did she and her Scottie dog come from? Looking closely at the box, I saw the year 1982 printed just below her feet. The product had been manufactured by a company called SSF Inc., made in the USA.

    Cracker Jill charms

    An up-close view of the Cracker Jill container.

    So, she was a new take on an old idea. Her container did not hold popcorn but “Authentic Metal Charms.” Inside were small vintage airplanes in colors ranging from lavender to white, held together by a black twill rope.

    Wanting to know more, I Googled Cracker Jill, who seemed to have come into existence in 1982 purely as a jewelry line. A jewelry maker named Peggy Shure (Snyder) was visiting Chicago’s Tootsietoy, the family business of her late husband, when she found barrels of pre-World War II Cracker Jack toys in the warehouse. There were also molds and catalogs belonging to the company. The company had made the miniature toy prizes in Cracker Jack.

    Shure and her partner Lynn Foster decided to make jewelry from the actual toys under the name Cracker Jill. When they ran out of toys, they used the molds to make more. The jewelry became immensely popular, and was sold in boutique and specialty shops, department stores and museums across the country. I came across a “tout” about them in Texas Monthly magazine  in 1982 announcing their sale at a specialty shop in Dallas: $6.50 for earrings and $15 to $60 for necklaces, and a mention in 1983 in the New York Times of them being sold for $42 to $45 at Bergdorf Goodman on Fifth Avenue.

    Cracker Jill charms

    Cracker Jill airplane charms that were sold at auction.

    There were all manner of Cracker Jill charms, from airplanes like the ones at auction to shoes to trains to teddy bears to shovels to thimbles, and much much more. You could also buy a kit to make your own.

    Those toys were the basis for our love of Cracker Jack, which goes back to the late 19th century in Chicago. It started with a German immigrant named Frederick William Rueckheim, who sold popcorn on the streets of the city. He and his brother in the 1890s came up with a combination of molasses, popcorn and peanuts, which they eventually perfected (the molass-ed popcorn kept sticking together) and also developed a “waxed sealed package” to keep it fresh.

    Their new concoction got a boost when the 1908 song “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” included the lyrics: “Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack.” In 1922, the company’s name was changed to the Cracker Jack Co. Its promise of a “prize in every box” also helped catapult the snack.

    Cracker Jill

    A full view of the front of the Cracker Jill container.

    The first prizes were introduced into the boxes of caramel-coated popcorn in 1912. The mascot boy and dog on the box appeared later. The boy was modeled after the brothers’ nephew Robert and named Sailor Jack, and the dog was a stray named Russell, who was given the name Bingo. The metal toys were said to have been discontinued in 1942, and followed by plastic and paper items.

    Even so, Cracker Jack prizes are collectible and have their own fan club, the Cracker Jack Collectors Association. If you’re interested in collecting them, here are some suggestions from the organization. There are plenty of the charms for sale on the web.

    As much as we fondly remember Cracker Jacks, we also recall the prizes as low-grade, so much so that someone’s cheap ring or jewelry evoked the snide remark (on the sly, or maybe not): “Looks like it came out of a Cracker Jack box.”

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