Cracker Jack collectors keep their eyes on the prize

The annual convention of the Cracker Jack Collectors Association met in Memphis for the first time.USA TODAY

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — While tens of thousands of rib-basters and rubberneckers pig out on porkish pleasures at the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest in Tom Lee Park, some 20 miles to the east, in a quiet hotel, a much smaller band of enthusiasts has gathered to celebrate an edible treat that may be appreciated more for its nostalgia value than for its flavor.

“Candy-coated popcorn, peanuts and a prize.”

The words are simple and matter-of-fact, like a police report describing the contents of a perp’s knapsack. But add a sing-song melody and you’ve got an earworm forever burrowed into the minds of millions of Baby Boomers, who grew up hearing the jingle over and over on television and can easily supply the kicker:

“That’s what you get in Cracker Jack.”

The annual convention of the Cracker Jack Collectors Association has come to Memphis for the first time, so its members can tour the city’s rock ’n’ roll shrines in between study sessions, “fun and games,” trading events and other activities devoted to the prizes, boxes and memorabilia associated with a snack that has been on shelves since 1896, making it one of the first mass-produced and trademarked forms of what haters call “junk food.”

The convention has brought close to two-dozen collectors to town from all over the country. If you meet one of these people, mind your P’s and Q’s — and S’s. Said longtime collector and Cracker grammarian Alex Jaramillo: “A lot of people put an ‘s’ on the end — ‘Cracker Jacks.’ That makes our skin crawl.”

Jaramillo, 65, is the Cracker Jack Collecters Association president and one of five collectors who haven’t missed a convention since the inaugural event was held in 1996 in Columbus, Ohio — home base of Borden Foods, which in 1964 purchased the snack brand from the private company created by Cracker Jack founder F.W. Rueckheim.

In 1997, Borden (now defunct) sold Cracker Jack to its current owner, PepsiCo, a specialist in salty/sweet confections via its Frito-Lay division. But the company’s attempts to update the snack — the prize currently inside boxes contains a QR code so kids can download an app for Cracker Jack video games — hasn’t restored the brand to market prominence or removed the patina of quaintness that clings to Cracker Jack with the tenacity of molasses-flavored corn-syrup on a burst corn kernel.

“I can remember sitting on my grandmother’s porch on the Jersey shore, and her big thing was to give me and my brother a box of Cracker Jack,” said collector Ann Brogley, 66, whose Philadelphia home contains what she calls a “smallish” collection of some 10,000 Cracker Jack items. “When you found the prize inside, it was such a special feeling.”

Taking its name from a Victorian slang term that today would be synonymous with “cool” or “awesome,” Cracker Jack hasn’t changed much in 120 years, even as its competition has thrived on gimmicks, sugar-shock levels of sweetness and diversity (Doritos have been marketed in dozens of flavors).

The snack still comes in a handy rectangular cardboard box that contains “Caramel Coated Popcorn & Peanuts” (to quote the current packaging) and a “New Prize Inside!” Drawings of the Cracker Jack mascots — Sailor Jack, a kid in a traditional sailor’s uniform, and his dog, Bingo — still appear on the box. The famous prizes once came in almost all shapes and sizes, and included a wide variety of magnifying glasses, whistles, rings and other items; but for the past decade, the prizes mostly have been paper — press-on tattoos, stickers, and so on — so they would not be choking hazards. (This may be a moot point, considering what else is inside the box.)

These prizes — most of which have been lost forever, due to their tiny size — are the primary source of Cracker Jack collector mania, and their history offers a crash course in American interests and obsessions.

“The prizes reflect the era in which they were made,” said Jaramillo, a former research scientist who lives in Fontana, Calif.

During World War II, for example, prizes included toy soldiers, tiny machine guns and miniature propaganda posters (“Loose lips sink ships”). In the 1950s, some prizes had rock ’n’ roll or “space race” themes, while 1960s prizes became “psychedelic” — “Flower Power” buttons, for example.

Because they are so varied, the Cracker Jack prizes attract many subsets of collectors: people who are interested in trains, the military, baseball and so on. Most of the more valuable prizes and even vintage boxes aren’t worth more than a few-hundred dollars each, but the Cracker Jack baseball cards from 1914 and 1915 can go for thousands of dollars each. (After all, one of Cracker Jack’s key claims to immortality is that the brand is name-checked in the 1908 song “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”)

Pre-internet, Cracker Jack collectors were a loosely connected bunch who found one another mostly through the ads in the back pages of various nostalgia and collector’s market magazines. Now, the 100-member association communicates online, with a website and a quarterly newsletter (“The Prize Insider”).

Frito-Lay doesn’t offer much help. The company now does little advertising for Cracker Jack, a brand that the New York Times has reported earns about $51 million in annual sales, making it just a bit player in the $11 billion in revenue collected each year by Frito-Lay.

The Memphis convention began Wednesday and ends Saturday, after a 9 a.m. to noon exhibit and sale that will be open to the public for the first time in association history.

“It’s going to be a nostalgic trip in time for some people, but every age will find something that appeals to them,” said Chicago’s Theresa Richter, 68, a self-described “serious collector” whose home is a “wall-to-wall display” of Cracker Jack memorabilia.

But if the prizes have universal appeal, the confection itself doesn’t. Ironically, many Cracker Jack aficionados prefer other snacks.

“I’m one of those who actually eat Cracker Jack,” Jaramillo said. “A lot of collectors don’t. They feed it to the squirrels.”

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