Christmas Tips & Fun

Learn interesting, unusual, unique and useful facts and tips about Christmas and the winter holiday season, in America and around the world.

Decorating for Christmas

How Animal Crackers Became Christmas Ornaments


ack before 1900 the Brits came up with little animal-shaped biscuits (that’s what they call crackers – and sometime cookies, but that’s another thing entirely). They were an instant hit. They almost immediately started being exported to America and became so popular so fast that a bunch of American bakeries started baking animal-shaped crackers on their own to fill the demand.

The ones we all know and love have their own interesting history. It seems that American bakeries started becoming regional mini-monopolies back in the 1830s as they consolidated to achieve economies of scale and production efficiencies. By the 1880s the regional mini-monopolies started consolidating and eventually became one company called the National Biscuit Company. The shorter, more popular name, Nabisco, first appeared on a sugar wafer in 1902.

So, when those little crackers shaped like lions and tigers and bears (oh my) started invading our shores shortly thereafter Nabisco was ready to come up with their own version.

They called them "Barnum’s Animals" after the famous Phineas T. Barnum (of the "there’s a sucker born every minute" fame – even though he may well not have said it – as well as the Barnum and Bailey Circus among a lot of other enterprises). Instead of traditional bulk packaging – in barrels or tin boxes – Barnum’s Animals were packaged in a cardboard box shaped like a circus wagon with pictures of the animals inside colorfully displayed on the box. Until not all that long ago you could punch out the bottoms of the wheels and bend them so that the wheels would support the box as they would a real circus wagon.

The real marketing genius was putting a string on the box so that it could be hung on a Christmas tree – either full for Christmas morning or empty as a decoration. In either case, for a nickel a box it was a good deal.

Over the years the animals inside have come and gone with the current menagerie consisting of some variation of a tiger, cougar, camel, rhinoceros, kangaroo, hippopotamus, bison, lion, hyena, zebra, elephant, sheep, bear, gorilla, monkey, polar bear, seal and giraffe and a late addition (by a popularity contest to celebrate their centennial in 2002, a koala.) If you’re lucky there may be around 20-plus whole animals in each box, ready to hang on your tree if you can wait that long.

Written by Dianne Weller
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