Cracker Jack is one of the most ubiquitous snacks in American history, and it is impossible to think of this delicious popcorn delicacy without picturing the world-famous logo: a smiling and saluting boy dressed as a sailor with an adorable dog tucked between his legs. Many have wondered about the history of these two mascots, as they don’t readily describe the product. Unlike the competitor Planter’s snacks, which feature a logo of a dapper peanut wearing a top hat and monocle, the boy sailor and his dog were selected for reasons completely unrelated to the caramel peanut snack found within.
This is the story of a stray dog who, under an amusing pseudonym, would become one of the most famous canines in America and arguably throughout the world.
A Brief History of Cracker Jack
Frederick Rueckheim, nicknamed Fitz, was certainly not the first person to coat salty peanuts and popcorn with sticky, sweet molasses. This combination of flavors dates to the early 1800s, and was sold throughout the United States. Originally, this snack food was made by mixing peanuts, popcorn, and molasses into a giant sticky blob, and consumers would eat it by taking bites out of the mass, almost like one was eating an apple.
The big change that separated Cracker Jack from other competing snacks occurred in the late 1800s when Frederick Rueckheim bought out his partner and arranged for his brother to join him in America to take his snack food to greater heights.
The Secret Cracker Jack Ingredient
The secret was engineering a way to prevent the individual popcorn kernels from sticking together so that the snack could be consumed more like regular popcorn, piece by piece. It was Frederick’s newly immigrated brother, Lou, who came up with the ingenious solution that rocketed Cracker Jack from a side-street novelty to an American staple.
After the popcorn kernels were popped (using the latest in steam technology), they were thrown into a large steel drum and coated in a molasses mixture. This was the original manufacturing process. Lou’s contribution was to add a tiny bit of oil during the mixing step. The rotating drum coated the sticky popcorn in the oil, which prevented the pieces from sticking together.
A Cracker Jack by Any Other Name
The Rueckheim brothers first started selling molasses-coated popcorn at the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, and it was an immediate smash hit. The actual origin of the name is somewhat of a mystery, but legend says that a customer loved the product so much, that he enthusiastically shouted “That’s a crackerjack!” at the proprietors. “Crackerjack” was a slang term meaning “superior” or “very fine,” and the name stuck.
Three years later, when Lou engineered the oil-coating technique, the product was packaged and sold with a new tagline: “The More You Eat, The More You Want.” The name Cracker Jack was still used, and the snack food continued to gain popularity.
The Famous Cracker Jack Dog
In 1916, 20 years after the snack food was first manufactured and sold, the company founders decided that a mascot was needed to supplement the brightly colored branding featured on the Cracker Jack packaging. Frederick Rueckheim chose his grandson, Robert, to be the model of the new company mascot, who was nicknamed Sailor Jack. Sadly, Frederick’s grandson died very shortly after his image was used on the snack food’s packaging: a sudden and tragic death caused by pneumonia.
The sailor motif of the mascot is likely due to the snack food’s partnership with Navy recruitment efforts. Advertisements for the product touted the snack as a U.S. Navy enlistee’s favorite, and early advertisements included information detailing how young men could enlist in the Navy. When Frederick Rueckheim died, he requested that the image of his beloved grandson be engraved on his tombstone, and visitors can still see the famous sailor engraving in Chicago at St. Henry’s Cemetery.
So What About the Dog?
Not to be outdone by the Rueckheim brothers, Henry Eckstein decided that he wanted some representation on Cracker Jack packaging as well. A year after Sailor Jack was designed and implemented on Cracker Jack, Henry adopted a stray dog named Russell. Because of his status as a partner in the company, Henry demanded that his dog be added to the packaging, and thus Sailor Jack’s dog, Bingo, was born.
Bingo is usually depicted as a small, terrier-sized dog with a spot on either his right or left eye. The original artwork was black and white, but more modern iterations of the Sailor Jack and Bingo design feature a brown and white dog. The illustrated dog appears to be related to the Jack Russell breed, but this is purely coincidence, as the real Russell was a stray mixed breed.
Original Design and Subsequent Changes
The original design of the Cracker Jack mascots featured Sailor Jack clutching several boxes of Cracker Jack snacks in one hand and offering up a cheeky salute with the other hand. Tucked squarely beneath Sailor Jack’s legs is the somewhat-scruffy dog, Bingo. Interestingly, in some original packaging, Bingo doesn’t reside between Sailor Jack’s legs, but sits on the outside of the boy’s left leg.
Eventually, the logo was formalized with the dog between the boy’s legs, and the blue captain’s hat that Sailor Jack originally wore was swapped for the more widely recognized white sailor cap. In newer iterations, Sailor Jack is often seen carrying Bingo because the full body design of the boy was pared down to include just his torso behind the Cracker Jack text logo.
The two mascots were officially licensed and registered in 1919, three years after the first appearance of Sailor Jack and two years after Bingo first appeared. As for the inspiration of the world-famous Bingo, Russell was kept by Henry Eckstein until the dog died in 1930 of old age.
Why Henry Eckstein’s Dog?
Many have wondered who Henry Eckstein was in relation to the company and why his demand to incorporate a stray dog was honored by the Rueckheim brothers without question. While the original recipe and production of the Cracker Jack snack is attributed solely to the Rueckheims, Eckstein did make an important contribution.
Henry Eckstein developed and patented a special type of candy packaging that utilized a wax seal in order to keep the contents fresh while ensuring that dust, debris, and even germs were kept out of the inside product. Eckstein called this development the “Eckstein Triple Proof Packaging,” so named for the three wax barriers utilized. The Rueckheim brothers so relied on this packaging to keep their product fresh that they decided to incorporate with Eckstein, and the Cracker Jack manufacturing company was renamed Rueckheim Bros. & Eckstein in 1902.
It would be another 15 years before Henry Eckstein adopted his soon-to-be famous dog, and by then the Cracker Jack snack and its impenetrable packaging were so intrinsically linked, that the Rueckheim brothers had no qualms incorporating their partner’s beloved dog into the design. As it turns out, the boy and dog were adored by fans, and Sailor Jack with his faithful Bingo are just as much associated with the snack as the game of baseball.
Bingo the Farmer’s Dog
One common misconception is that the name of the Cracker Jack dog derives from the well-known children’s song Bingo, or vice versa. The song features the lyric “There was a farmer had a dog, and Bingo was his name-o.” This old Scottish song is first found on sheet music dated to the late 1700s, so the song most definitely precedes the molasses popcorn snack food. There is also no indication that Rueckheim Bros. & Eckstein utilized this song lyric to come up with their Bingo’s name, so associations between the two are purely conjecture.
The Expanding Fame of Cracker Jack
One of the reasons why Cracker Jack and, by extension, Sailor Jack and his trusty dog Bingo are so world famous is a short lyric in one of the most American songs ever written. “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” is a song written by Jack Norworth and Albert Von Tilzer. Norworth, the song’s lyricist, penned the famous line “buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack,” and the song was played in baseball stadiums across the Eastern Coast to celebrate this American pastime.
The Cracker Jack founders didn’t pay Norworth anything for this valuable inclusion in his song. Simply put, the song features the lyrics because that is the snack that was commonly sold at baseball games. It may be the salty-sweet combination of the Cracker Jack snack food was a good complement to beer and other refreshments sold at baseball games, but whatever the reason the song solidified Cracker Jack’s inclusion as a timeless American snack food.
In fact, the song gained such notoriety, that the Rueckheim Bros. & Eckstein changed the name of their company to The Cracker Jack Company in 1920. This was only one year after the Sailor Jack and Bingo images were licensed, and the rest of the story is, as they say, history.
A Snack for All Ages, Through the Ages
Cracker Jack went through several significant changes throughout the 20th and into the 21st century. The company was sold first to Borden in the 1960s and then sold from Borden to PepsiCo in 1997. PepsiCo was already finding great success with its Frito-Lay line of snack food products, and Cracker Jack fit seamlessly with these foods.
After 15 years manufacturing Cracker Jack, PepsiCo announced some changes, including the addition of more peanuts, changes to flavoring and ingredients, and the elimination of the prizes historically included in each box. Still, throughout nearly a century of changes, the snack food has continued to feature its characteristic mascots: Sailor Jack and his faithful friend Bingo.