Love them or hate them Christmas just wouldn’t be the same without Christmas Crackers – the silly paper hats, the worthless, useless novelties and of course the bad jokes. The Christmas Cracker has been part of the English Christmas for over 160 years. Pulling the Christmas Cracker is part of the Christmas fun.
The inventor of the Christmas Cracker was a man called Thomas Smith from London. In the early 1830s he started work as a small boy in a bakers and ornamental confectioners in London, selling sweets, pralines and gum pastilles. He took a great interest in his job and worked hard. He was particularly interested in wedding cake ornaments and decorations and experimented to create new and exciting designs in his spare time. Before long he was successful enough to leave and start up his own business in Clerkenwell, East London.
Tom had a good eye for business and a sense of humour. ‘What people like,’ he used to say, ‘is something new. And if it’s not new, the art is to find a new way of selling it!’
During a visit to France in the 1840’s Tom came across a variety of sweets wrapped up in a twist of paper. These ‘bonbons’ seemed very popular, so Tom decided to copy the idea and back home he began to wrap sugar almonds. The new wrapping made the sweets look rather special and they sold well in the weeks before Christmas but after that sales began to drop off.
Tom noticed that young men liked to buy sweets for their sweethearts and he came up with the idea of placing ‘love mottoes’ on small slips of paper inside the sweet wrapping. This novelty sold even better than Tom had expected. People went out of their way to visit his shop and buy this new kind of sweet.
In 1846 Tom turned his thoughts towards Christmas again and came up with the idea of wrapping little toys and novelties in the twisted wrapping instead of sweets. After some experimentation Tom designed a wrapping that could be pulled apart – just like the cracker as we know today.
As he had hoped, the Christmas novelty was a great success, but he was still not completely satisfied with it. One evening he was standing idly in front of the fire and as he kicked a log into place there was a shower of sparks and the log crackled and popped making Tom jump. He decided that he needed something in the wrapping to make a ‘snap’ when it was pulled open.
He worked on the idea for months before he found a way that was safe, easy to make, and would produce a noise just loud enough to amuse without frightening the customers and in 1860 Tom Smith’s ‘Bangs of Expectation’ were launched.
The new ‘crackers’ were a sensation and Tom had to open a factory to produce them on a full-time basis.
In those early days, the crackers were still quite small, about six inches long and fairly plain. They were known as ‘Cosaques’ because the noise they made reminded people of the cracking of the Cossack’s whips and the name remained for the next decade or so.
In the early Victorian times the merriest parties were held after Christmas, on Twelfth Night, the last day of the season. Twelfth Night parties were usually Masques, when people dressed up in fancy costumes. Crackers were part of this gaiety and the hats in the crackers were used as part of the fancy dress. Later, at the request of Queen Victoria, Twelfth Night parties were officially banned as being too rowdy, but unofficially, the parties and fancy dress masques continued.
The period between 1880 and 1920 was the heyday of the themed cracker. The ingenuity and craftsmanship which went into the production of the themed cracker during that time is without parallel. There were specially shaped boxes, such as a cottage for a set entitled, ‘Love in a Cottage’; a Trunk containing ‘Mrs Brown’s Luggage’, and a perfect model of the then, recently demolished Temple Bar. There were stand-up model landscapes, which popped up on the lid to make a fine centre-piece for a table; and then there were the games – not the plastic trinkets of today, but real games! Some sets of crackers contained musical toys to make up an orchestra, with real music supplied so that tunes could be played, there were also ‘charade’ crackers with all the ‘props’ required for a game, many of the novel ideas could not be contained within the confines of a small cardboard tube. So the box itself either became part of a game, or held contents apart from the crackers.
‘Stereoscopic Crackers’ for example contained tiny Kaleidoscopes and other optical toys and trinkets, while the box itself became a proper stereoscope, with glasses which took the standard slides of the day.
Around the turn of the century a new idea came to the fore, boxes of quite ordinary crackers, but one of the crackers contained a prize ticket which entitled the lucky holder to the game which was enclosed in the box for example it might be Ludo or Snakes & Ladders. There were also sophisticated crackers for lovers of Bridge, Kino and Consequences, as well as optical illusions, squeaking crackers, and firework crackers.
Topical events were also covered in the themed crackers such as the Indian Cracker set for the ‘Empire’, ‘Klondyke Gold Rush’ crackers, and ‘Treasure from Luxor’ crackers were released during the Egyptian digs which found the Tutankhamen tomb. Crackers were produced for other topical occasions, such as the 1900 Paris exhibition, and the Prince of Wales’ World Tour in 1927.
The 1920’s began the popular craze for Crossword Puzzles, and true to its topical form, a cracker was released in time for Christmas 1925, which contained crossword puzzles.
A rather romantic story is that of an unknown gentleman who in 1927 sent a diamond ring and a ten-shilling note to the Tom Smith Cracker factory, with a letter requesting that a special cracker be made with the ring inside, as a proposal to his ladylove. Sadly this never happened and the request and the ring were found in a safe at the factory in 1997. Staff at the company made unsuccessful attempts to contact the two people involved. The ring, the money and the letter are still kept by Smiths in their archives.
Later crackers appealed to people from all walks of life – including the armed forces. ‘The Royal Flying Corps’ ‘Naval Crackers’ (in tasteful blue crepe!) ‘Regular Volunteers Military Crackers,’ ‘Crackers for Married Folk’, ‘Crackers for Batchelors’, ‘Smart Set Society Crackers’, which goes to prove the popularity of crackers – no-one felt too staid, too proper or too sophisticated for a cracker at their dinner party.
The designs of Tom Smith alone were into many thousands by the time the factory was hit by the Blitz 1941, in the City of London, and all but wiped out their entire archive.
Today Christmas Crackers are manufactured by many different companies, are as popular as ever and sell all over the world. Tom Smith, the man who liked to amuse his customers back in the 1840s would be amazed to know that his sense of fun started a Christmas tradition that has lasted into the 21st century.