In the late 1800's animal shaped cookies called "Animals" were imported from England to the United States. The demand for these crackers grew so much that American bakers began to produce them.
A number of them, including the Dozier-Weyl Cracker Company of St. Louis and the Holmes and Coutts Company of New York City, were predecessors of the National Biscuit Company, today's Nabisco Brands.
Sometimes called "Circus Crackers", other times simply "Animals" these slightly sweet crackers, if not part of a cottage industry, were certainly a local one. Each bakery made its own version, in limited supply, to meet the demands of customers in the immediate area.
As the 19th century drew to its close, bakeries began to unite. Under the name National Biscuit Company banner, Animal Biscuit crackers were made and distributed.
It was 1902 that animal crackers officially became Barnum's Animal and evoked the familiar circus time theme. Later in 1902 the now-familiar box was designed for the Christmas season with the innovative idea of attaching a string to hang from the Christmas tree. These five-cent cartons were a big hit and are still so today. (Up until that time crackers were sold in bulk or in large tins)
With each generation, there have been some changes in the number and variety of animals caged in that colorful little box. In total, there have been 54 different animals represented by animal crackers since 1902. There will probably always be lions and tigers, bears and elephants. But the dog and jaguar have fallen to the hyena and gorilla. Today each package contains 22 crackers with a variety of animals. The Koala is the newest addition, voted on by consumers, beating out the penguin, walrus and cobra. The Koala bear joined the 18 other animals in September 2002.
Although the circus box has gone through updates and changes over the years, it still remains true to its origin -- bright, colorful and fun. There have been three different and limited edition boxes produced in the last decade, still the same shape and size, but with a different design on the box. Endangered Animals box in 1995, the Chocolate Zoo in 1997 and the Marine Collection in 1998.
One thing hasn't changed though and that's the purity of the ingredients. Flour, sugar, shortening, corn flour, whey solids, salt, leaving and oil-of-lemon combine to make a not-too-sweet-cracker/cookie. In 1948 the company changed the product name to Barnum's Animal Crackers a designation still used today. Later, in 1958, production methods changed to improve the crackers' visual details. Until then animal shapes were stamped out of a dough sheet by a cutter. This produced outlines with little sophistication. By installing rotary dies, bakers actually engraved details onto each cracker, creating a much more intricate design. The rotary dies are still used today.
Animal crackers seem to a part of everyone's childhood - no matter how many years ago that was. They've also been written about, sung about and probably dreamed about by millions. Barnum's Animals crackers are just as popular with today's children as they were at the first Christmas in 1902.
They are all produced in the Fair Lawn, NJ Bakery by Nabisco Brands. More than 40 million packages of Barnum's Animal Crackers are sold each year, both in the United States and exported to 17 countries worldwide. The crackers are baked in a 300 foot long traveling band oven. They are in the oven for about four minutes and are baked at the rate of 12,000 per minute. Fifteen thousand cartons and 300,000 crackers are produced in a single shift, using some thirty miles of string on the packages. This runs to nearly 8,000 miles of string a year. Those bright circus boxes are produced in three colors - red, blue and yellow - with different variety of animals on each. They still hold promise of delightful surprises within and that oh-so-familiar string handle just seems to fit a youngster's hand to a tee.
This article is based on one that originally appeared in Tinfax (a subscription based newsletter) in 1994 and is reprinted with J. Tucker's permission. Unfortunately the newsletter is no longer available.
Resources also include the Nabsico Company and Nabiscoworld.com.