Among the food gifts brought to that first Thanksgiving feast at the Plymouth Colony back in 1621 by the Wampanoag Indians, was an item whose long-term significance could not even have been guessed at by that gathering of delighted English expatriates. In fact the brother of Massasoit¬- who was probably the donor of that gift- would have had no idea himself that his handful of familiar seeds already represented a food history reaching back to the most ancient of this continent’s civilizations. In pre-historic Peru, the Aztecs popped corn from tiny, intact cobs roasted on a stick, and Cortez probably observed its daily use. Kernels recovered from excavations near Mexico City had been so well preserved that they still held enough moisture to pop when recovered centuries later.
To the colonists, the seeds looked no different than those which had already become an important grain replacement for their ill-suited barley plantings, thanks to their new Indian friends. Maise – or “Indian Corne” as they called it - would become a food mainstay for the Plymouth colony, and ultimately, much of the rest of the world. The Pilgrims had probably already noticed the decorative necklaces sometimes worn by Native American women, seemingly made from strings of strange white “puffs”. Now they were to see how those puffs were made as the Wampanoags placed these particular maise seeds in ceramic pots buried in the hot coals.
At that long-ago harvest feast, the new settlers not only learned about “popping corn” and its magical qualities, but they were also introduced to the confection which resulted from coating those white puffs with thickened maple syrup. In fact, those colonists may also deserve the credit for inventing the whole idea of cold breakfast cereal made from “puffed grains” when they added sugar and cream to popped corn for their first meal of the day.
During the depression years of the 1920s and 30s, when ordinary candies and confections became a luxury for most Americans, popped corn really came into its own. While country families had long enjoyed the starchy novelty as a matter of nightly course, residents of cities and towns got theirs from street vendors, whose entrepreneurial drive rewarded them handsomely. After all, who couldn’t find a few pennies or even a nickel for a bag of popped corn, when there was so little else to take their minds off the hard times they were experiencing. One of my fond memories is shopping in a nearby town whose main street was usually plied by a colorfully-dressed “organ grinder”, who played music from his mechanical music box, and sold red hot peanuts and popcorn while a pet monkey sat on his shoulders, holding out a small hat into which I would happily drop my nickel allowance for the street treat.
The movie theatres of the day at first tried to shoo away the vendors who would work the waiting ticket lines, where the pickings were easy. It didn’t take the showmen long to discover that inviting the vendors into the lobby, and splitting the “take” with them was a better idea. Of course we all know what the next step was !
When Frederick William Reuckheim stepped off the ship from his native Germany in the late 1800s, he was quick to catch on to the eating foibles of his new neighbors. After saving up his hard-earned money as a farm laborer until he had the $200. necessary to purchase a steam-powered popping machine, he began selling popcorn to the workers pouring into Chicago to support the giant rebuilding effort following the Great Chicago Fire in 1871. Two years later, and joined by his brother Louis from Germany, he invested in candy-making equipment in order to turn sugar into marshmallow, and the brothers expanded their product line.
After several moves and setbacks, they finally perfected their marriage of popcorn, peanuts and molasses in time for the 1893 Chicago World Fair. It was an immediate hit and an enthusiastic sales person exclaimed his opinion with the words “that is a crackerjack!”. The brothers liked that enough that they copyrighted it.
In those early years, Crackerjacks were sold in large tubs for eating fresh on the spot, but that would change when an inventive genius named Henry Eckstein joined the Reuckheim brothers, bringing with him the idea of making boxes treated with a wax protective coating. The red, white and blue color scheme came with WW I, and the sailor boy with his dog, was a salute to Frederick’s grandson who – sadly – died shortly after the box was introduced. Beginning in 1912, the legendary “prize” in every box was added.
What is thought to be the most valuable bit of free advertising ever associated with a named product was born on a subway train in 1908, when Vaudeville notable Jack Norworth was inspired by a sign advertising an upcoming baseball game. His friend, composer Albert VonTilzer wed music to Norworth’s verse, and “Take Me Out To The Ball Game”was the offspring. Interestingly neither had ever seen a baseball game, and wouldn’t for another two or three decades.
The song that features the lament. . . and buy me some peanuts and crackerjack is considered by music historians to be a true American folk song; one which – like the molasses-covered popcorn it celebrates – is part of the story which sweetens our national memory and a five thousand-year-old gift to the world.
Even Henry Ford contributed to the national craze for hot peanuts and popcorn with this
classic Model “T” vending truck on display at the Transportation Museum at Owl’s Head Maine.