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Popped and Packaged

Black and white photograph of exterior of Cracker Jack plant with billboard

It’s National Popcorn Day! A whole lot of kernels were once popped and packaged at the Cracker Jack plant in Chicago’s Clearing neighborhood.

In 1869, F. W. Rueckheim emigrated from Germany to Chicago, and by 1872, he and his brother Louis formed F. W. Rueckheim & Bro., a small candy and popcorn shop. Business grew steadily, and by the 1880s the brothers had relocated to a three-story plant on South Clinton Street. The Rueckheim brothers’ products were very popular at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, and by 1896, the company began to sell its caramel-coated popcorn under the “Cracker Jack” brand name, which would become immortalized in Jack Norworth’s 1908 song, “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” In 1912, when the company employed about 450 women and girls and 250 men and boys at its large new factory on South Peoria and Harrison Streets, it began to insert small toys into the packages with the popcorn. This “prize in every box” marketing strategy proved successful. In 1922, the name of the company, which made marshmallows and candies as well as its signature popcorn product, became Cracker Jack Co. During the 1950s, the company employed more than 1,000 Chicago-area residents. During the last decades of the twentieth century, Cracker Jack was purchased by a number of large international food companies. After being held for many years by Borden Foods Inc., the Cracker Jack brand was purchased in 1997 by the Frito-Lay division of PepsiCo, the food giant based in Purchase, New York. In 2016, the prize became digitized when the company announced that each box will include a QR code that, once scanned, will unlock an online game.

Learn more about Chicago’s food processing history in our Encyclopedia of Chicago entry.

Image: Cracker Jack plant at 4800 W. 66th St., Chicago, June 30, 1958. HB-21557, CHM, Hedrich-Blessing Collection.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago

“The Encyclopedia of Chicago is no mere collection of fun facts. It is a work of stunning scholarly achievement.” —Tom McNamee, Chicago Sun-Times 

Published by the University of Chicago Press, the Encyclopedia of Chicago is the result of a ten-year collaboration between the Newberry Library and the Chicago History Museum. This project brought together hundreds of historians, journalists, and experts on everything from airlines to Zoroastrians to explore all aspects of the rich world of Chicago and its surrounding metropolitan area.

Chicago History Museum Sharing Chicago Stories