A box of Cracker Jill (not Jack) charms
  • Pedometer from childhood hero Jack Armstrong & Wheaties
  • A real-life homespun cracker barrel
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    Auction Finds

    Cracker Jack prizes and childhood nostalgia

    The sign on the open flat box clearly identified the tiny metal items, but plenty of us auction-goers knew instantly what they were. “Vintage Cracker Jack Prizes,” the sign stated.

    Who among us Baby Boomers wouldn’t recognize the small charms, many with loops, that we had pulled out of boxes of popcorn covered in sweet molasses and combined with peanuts? Who among us wouldn’t remember the box with a picture of caramel corn, red lettering and the boy in the sailor suit with his dog.

    Cracker Jack was one of the most popular treats of our childhood, but the jewel was the prize tucked inside among the sticky candy. We couldn’t wait to see what we had – even if it wasn’t worth much. That has changed, however: There are stories on the web about people finding stashes of Cracker Jack baseball cards from a century ago that are very valuable.

    An up-close view of Cracker Jack prizes in a box at auction.

    An up-close view of Cracker Jack prizes in a box at auction.

    I had not come across a set of Cracker Jack prizes before, but a box of Cracker Jill charms appeared on the auction table a few years ago. I was not familiar with Cracker Jill, which was made by another company in 1982 purely as a jewelry line.

    At this auction, only a handful of Cracker Jack prizes were in the box, which also contained other pieces: a 1964 Kennedy half dollar, a mini advertising glove for Chamberlin Rubber Co., a wooden advertising disk for a Key West conch-fritter stand, a bell, a baseball and bat, and Mickey and Minnie Mouse and other Disney characters.

    I’m not sure if Disney characters ever appeared in Cracker Jacks, but I found plenty of celluloid versions of them being sold on eBay as Cracker Jack prizes. In one eBay listing, I came across a Huey duck metal figure being sold as a prize.

    A full view of the flat box of Cracker Jack prizes and more.

    A full view of the flat box of Cracker Jack prizes and more.

    You won’t find prizes in Cracker Jack boxes today. Frito-Lay, which owns the company, eliminated them in 2016. Now, you have to download an app, scan a prize sticker from inside your Cracker Jacks and participate in a baseball-themed “experience.”

    That change was a long time coming. It was 1912 when the Cracker Jack Co. started putting metal prizes in the boxes and came up with the slogan “A Prize in Every Box.” Those apparently were not the first, though: Four to five years earlier, the company apparently printed postcards on the side of the boxes. Another site mentioned that in 1910, coupons were placed in some boxes and folks could redeem them at distributors. The coupons also could be redeemed from a catalog. Some items were also sold in sets, spurring people to buy the product often to complete their sets.

    The company was founded in 1871 by Frederick William Rueckheim, a German immigrant who made popcorn by hand in Chicago. By 1893, he and his brother seemed to have created a concoction of popcorn, molasses and peanuts, and spent some time experimenting with ways to keep the stuff from sticking together.

    In 1908, the song “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” made the product an instant hit with the line “Buy some peanuts and Cracker Jack.”

    A Cracker Jack Ty Cobb baseball card prize. Photo from psacard.com.

    A Cracker Jack Ty Cobb baseball card prize. Photo from psacard.com.

    Among Cracker Jacks’ first prizes were baseball cards with major league players and the then-Federal League. Those cards are among the most valuable prizes among collectors today. The 1914 baseball cards are rare, so most collectors look for the 1915 cards.

    Last June, Heritage Auctions sold a Ty Cobb card in mint condition for $432,000. That’s remarkable when you consider that the cards were dumped in with the candied popcorn in the boxes.

    Not all of the prizes are so valuable, but many are still collectible, and can sell for few hundred and thousands of dollars. There is also a Cracker Jack collectors’ association.

    Over the years, millions of prizes found their way into Cracker Jack boxes – all made by companies in the United States and abroad. The prizes have included rings, figurines, booklets, games, whistles, puzzles, clicker, stickers and tattoos. In the 1930s, the boxes contained presidential coins. Here’s a William Henry Harrison coin in the Smithsonian American History collection.

    Cracker Jacks are still popular today. When the New York Yankees in 2004 decided to replace them with Crunch ‘n Munch at its home games, fans went nuts. So, the team went back to its old standby.

    Non-Cracker Jack pieces in the box.

    Non-Cracker Jack pieces in the box.

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