Cracker Jack has not included a prize since 2016, ending a tradition that began in 1912.
That’s right. The striped package with a saluting Sailor Jack and his dog Bingo now ONLY contains the caramel-coated popcorn and peanuts. For those that didn’t know this, take a moment to mourn your lost childhood…
When it first came to market, Cracker Jack was an immediate hit. Everything about it was iconic: the Sailor Jack and Bingo mascots. The barber pole stripes. Even the coated cardboard box stood out, a container which kept Cracker Jack dry, fresh, and delicious.
In 1907, America’s favorite junk food and America’s favorite pastime became forever united in the song “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” a song still belted out in the 7th inning stretch and including the line “Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack…“
If you’re enjoying this story, check out Mysteries of the Midwest a collection of our oddest stories from America’s Heartland, available now on Amazon
For most kids, the snack and box meant little compared to the Toy Surprise Inside! Prize Inside! or New Prize Inside! (the wording changed several times). Ripping the box open became a rite of passage, peering inside, shaking it from side to side, and finally spotting that paper envelope.
Prior to World War II, the Chicago-based Cracker Jack Company included small metal toys as prizes, made by the same company that produced the Monopoly pieces. In 1946, the invention of injection molding replaced metal toys as a cheaper, faster, more colorful method of mass production. Kids didn’t complain.
Although small and inexpensive, the toy prizes were still toy prizes, and they remained unchanged until 1997, when Frito-Lay purchased the brand from Borden (which had purchased the original Cracker Jack Company in 1964). Frito-Lay inserted mostly mini-pamphlets with riddles and jokes, a temporary tattoo, or, after 2013, a QR code for a mobile phone game.
A QR code? That one really hurts. In 70 years, the company went from colorful plastic bombers and whistles to a code printed on the box’s interior.
Cracker Jack didn’t offer an immediate or clear answer for this dramatic change. Cereal companies pulled their toy prizes around the same time. Press releases presented only the same upbeat PR chatter. Some statements hinted that “in-depth research” prompted the change, but not one brand, Cracker Jack included, published this research.
The Cracker Jack Prize Inside has been as much a part of the nostalgia and love for the brand as the unforgettable combination of caramel-coated popcorn and peanuts. The new Prize Inside allows families to enjoy their favorite baseball moments through a new one-of-a-kind mobile experience, leveraging digital technology to bring the iconic Prize Inside to life.
The Cracker Jack Prize Inside Arcade is an ambitious (and a little underhanded) way to both milk consumer nostalgia and distract us from the missing toy by offering visitors four online games for free. Maybe Cracker Jack deserves a little sympathy, since the brand is trying to appeal to literally every generation.
Since companies have kept quiet, the American public can only rely on educated guesses for the missing toys. One theory: In 1988 several companies decided the some included toys could pose a choking hazard for inattentive kids. These companies either placed the toys between the box and bag (not an option for Cracker Jack), or removed the toy all together.
Another theory has some hard evidence to back it up. In a 2014 study, a media research firm discovered (see above graphic) that among children 12 years and younger, the touchscreen was the most preferred “toy.” Preferred over dolls, action figures, Legos, crayons, and even video game consoles. Based on that information, making the switch from physical to online toys seems logical. Heartbreaking AND logical.
Today, Cracker Jack nostalgia is big business in secondary markets. Collections of these prizes from different eras can sell for hundreds or thousands of dollars. A collection of Cracker Jack necklace charms from the 1980s can net a seller over $200. According to PSA, the professional sports card authenticator, a mint 1915 Ty Cobb card, included in the early years of the snack, sells today for $350,000+.
Outside a lower peanut to popcorn ratio, the snack itself hasn’t changed much in the last century, and Cracker Jack will always be associated with our national sport, thanks to “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” It seems no mobile game can rival the excitement of searching for that toy prize, no matter how trivial.
For the latest stories and exclusive content on Indiana and Midwest history, be sure to follow our Facebook page HERE.