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The Columbian Exhibition: Cracker Jack, Baseball, and Chocolate

Advertisement piece of art for the World's Columbian Exposition (also known as the Chicago World's Fair), held in 1893

The year was 1893. The event, the Columbian Exhibition, otherwise known as the 1893 World’s Fair. History was made on that day… so was Cracker Jack.

Created to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ journey to the new world, the 1893 Fair brought us three everyday items, the electric lightbulb, Hersey’s Milk Chocolate, and Cracker Jack.

It was there that Thomas A. Edison got his first major publicity. The Westinghouse Company of New York won a contract to supply the artificial lighting to the Fair.  The electric light bulb was new, and this allowed it to be seen as a wonder to the hundreds of thousands who visited the event.

It was also where Milton Hershey came across a machine to manufacture chocolate. The invention was not practicably used, but Hershey had away to mass market the sale of chocolate, so he purchased the patent and the entire display from its inventor, brought it to the village of Derry Church (later Hershey) on the outskirts of Harrisburg Pennsylvania, and there sweet history was made.

Another sweet snack idea being exhibited was a caramel-covered popcorn. It had already been around for 20 years, but someone found a way to coat it so it wasn’t just one big glued-together lump.  There are two people who have been named as inventor’s of the treat, Frederick Gunther and William Rueckheim, but we know that it was Rueckheim who exhibited it at the World’s Fair, and it became an immediate hit.

Three years later, Rueckheim began to market it as “Cracker Jack.” At the time, the term was used as a colloquialism meaning “Of Excellent quality.” After the invention of a wax-covered box to keep it fresh, in 1902 the company was reorganized as the Rueckham Brothers & Eckstein.

In 1908, the treat was popularized when vaudeville writer Jack Norworth penned the lyrics to a song, “Take Me out to the Ball Game,” and forever cemented the treat with the game of baseball, with:

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.

They began to add prizes into their boxes, to increase sales. The little metal toys were manufactured by the same company that made the “Monopoly” playing pieces. Then Cracker Jack decided to use this to bond with the growing sport of baseball. In 1914, they issued a series of small baseball cards as prized in their boxes. They re-issued these cards in 1915, with most of the same players and only minor technical differences. These cards are now some of the most collectable in the industry.

1915 Cracker Jack Joe Jackson #103. Source: Heritage Auctions
1915 Cracker Jack Joe Jackson #103. Source: Heritage Auctions

Included in the Cracker Jack cards of 1914 and 1915 was one of the few period baseball cards of the famous (or infamous) “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, which in mint condition is now selling for $100,000.  This is dwarfed by his 1909 tobacco company rookie card, which has gone for up to one million!

So go out and grab a box. They are still as good as you remember, although the toys pretty much suck. Unless they decide to raise sales by sneaking a Joe Jackson

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