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Andy, Rex, and Sailor Jack

Cracker Jack box, ca. 1970

Here’s the family story: my father always said that his father designed the Cracker JackⓇ box and the boy and dog were based on his older brother Andrew Jr. and their dog Rex. He told this story so many times that it even appeared in his friend James Harvey’s oral history for the Archives of American Art back in 1963: Harvey, himself the package designer of an iconic box—for Brillo, repeated the story as an example of successful package design, claiming that it had been honored by the Museum of Modern Art (that’s wrong, though true of Andrew Sr.’s design for yet another box—for Kleenex).

It’s not like Cracker JackⓇ came up very often: it was an old-fashioned treat and not that popular with me and my sisters as kids in the 1970s. In what I consider the “classic” design (ie. the one I grew up with) Sailor Jack and his dog Bingo face outward and Jack salutes them. Even today the ad copy emphasizes nostalgia and memory, claiming that it tastes “just as good as you remember. And…who can forget the thrill of opening the surprise inside?”

Earle, Andrew Jr, and Rex

Here’s some evidence: in this photo my father is the boy standing on the right in the white sailor boy suit. His brother, curly-topped, holds their black and white dog in a similar position to the pose in the ad, with the dog between his legs. They may be at Pennelwood, a family resort where they spent many summers in cabins on a small lake in Berlin Springs, Michigan. My guess is that it was taken around 1933, when the boys were about six and ten. On the back of the photo is inscribed, cryptically: Merry Christmas Here are two friends of mine that I thought maybe you would like to meet. Don’t you think they’re pretty nice? Claudia

I’ve never heard of any Claudia and don’t know why our family would have this photo if she sent it to someone who didn’t know the boys. Is the inscription an inside joke of some kind? Why does it mention Christmas if the photo is clearly in warm weather? My father’s family took a trip to California in 1932 but he seems older here. My father died eight years ago. His brother has been dead since 1944. There’s no one to ask. And there’s no evidence of any designs for Cracker JackⓇ in the scrapbook my grandfather carefully kept of his work.

Sailor outfits are surprisingly common in Olsen photo albums: in one Andrew Sr. stands on their front lawn with both of his sons in sailor gear. In another young Andrew Jr. stands at attention, saluting in a naval cap. In yet another he (or a similar-looking boy) wears the same kerchief as Sailor Jack, which raises the possibility that the photos themselves were studies of some kind, though this particular album was compiled by Andrew Jr, not his father. In 1942 Andrew Jr would enlist in the Army Air Force, but my grandfather and father served their wars at the Great Lakes Naval Station near Chicago without being deployed abroad.

sample page from Andrew Jr.’s album

Here are the facts: Cracker JackⓇ company lore tells a different story. The company was founded by Frederick William Rueckheim and his brother Louis in Chicago; they sold the candy at the World’s Columbian Exposition there in 1893. They later added Henry Gottlieb Eckstein to the company (his contribution was the wax-coated inner lining that kept the candy popcorn fresh). In 1908, when “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” was released, Cracker JackⓇ earned its now indelible association with America’s favorite pastime. The iconic package, still more or less in use today, emerged during World War I and the boy and dog were registered as a trademark in 1919. The company claims that the boy was a grandson of Frederick’s who died at age eight in 1920. The dog was a stray Eckstein adopted.

Cracker Jack ad 1918

You can see already the problems this story poses for my family’s version. Andrew Jr. wasn’t even born until 1923 so how could he have inspired a package design trademarked in 1919? My grandfather Andrew Sr. was indeed active in the Chicago advertising world by the 1920s but the best we could argue for our side is that he could have worked on the package design for the cardboard box in the 1930s, not that he created the figures. Yet the family story was so specific! The dog, the sailor suit, the brother. Why make it up? Besides, the official version seems a little too neat. The fact that the boy died “shortly after the image appeared” is a little too perfect, no? It’s a cliché ending for a sentimental story about a candy swathed in nostalgia, which the baseball anthem reinforces. Even in 1908 the song lay the foundation for an American mythology: sunny days, leisure, and simpler times when all you needed to do was “root, root, root for the home team” and count to three strikes.

My father loved candy (and root beer, incidentally) as much as he loved that Cracker JackⓇ story. When we three were kids we’d all happily sing “The Candy Man” song as we downed our caramel apples or ice cream, bouncing off the leather seats of his vintage cars and stuffing gum wrappers into the ashtrays of their doors. My dad was that candy man, making the sun shine and the world taste good. There were no particular limits on our sugar consumption, or his. No one in my family ever dieted or exercised, though both of my parents eventually stopped smoking in the 1970s. We paid zero attention to our health or nutrition, and that seemed normal to me too. When McDonald’s started appearing on the East Coast we stopped at a drive-thru en route to my dad’s summer house in Greenport, Long Island, getting frosty shakes, several orders of French fries, and apple pies. Sweets were a huge part of any time spent with my father, and a big reason why we loved those party-like weekends with him after the divorce. Sports were for other people. The only sport we ever watched occurred once every four years: Olympics gymnastics and figure skating. When asked as a child what my favorite football team was I said “the Mets” because I thought all New York sports teams were called the Mets.

The 1918 ad, though, makes the argument that Cracker JackⓇ is healthful, full of “vital food elements.” Its “food values” are comparable to potatoes, eggs, steak (the holy trinity of nutrition for American diets), apparently— though it doesn’t say what those values or elements are. It was important in war-time especially to argue for the candy’s healthfulness, and its ability to satisfy “the candy appetite” with abundant calories. Like Planter’s Peanuts, which advertised itself as a “nickel lunch” during the Depression, Cracker JackⓇ was also a cheap meal for those down on their luck. It had a patriotic role to serve: the ad claims eating it actually saved sugar and wheat for the war effort. Sailor Jack kept saluting until well after the war and the package still maintains its red, white, and blue palette.

This advertising logic seems crude or transparent now, but it was an industry still in its infancy and would get more sophisticated during my grandfather’s career. Andrew Sr. started out in graphic design, working in the advertising department of a magazine until he was drafted in 1918. At around the same time, the newly-formed Cracker JackⓇ Company started packing their caramel-covered popcorn and peanuts in “patented wax-sealed packages,” as the ad copy above mentions. Before then peanuts were typically bought from street vendors, wrapped in cellophane papers and intended to be eaten right away, not saved or stored on a shelf. As the marketing and sale of food shifted from niche vendors to grocery stores, the cardboard box was a key innovation (as Walter Paepcke realized in founding the Container Corporation of America, another Chicago company, in 1926, the year my father was born there).

My grandfather rode that shift, moving from designing and illustrating print ads (including Planters Peanuts) to package design for Kleenex, the star of Kimberly-Clark’s paper products empire. A comparison of the 1918 Cracker Jack adⓇ and my grandfather’s KleenexⓇ box from the 1950s (below) is a lesson in advertising and art history: the representational figures of boy and dog, drawn like a loose sketch on top of a realistic photograph of the candy itself, couldn’t be more different than the modern “streamlined” and abstract design of the tissue box. If Cracker JackⓇ wanted to evoke the past, this KleenexⓇ design was all about being modern and looking forward.

Kleenex tissue box designed by my grandfather and framed by my father

Cracker JackⓇ still has an avid fan base: a Cracker JackⓇ Collectors Association, for example, tracks and catalogues its prizes across the decades. When the New York Yankees tried to replace Cracker JackⓇ at Yankee Stadium with a different popcorn, there was an uproar until they switched back. A simple Google search reveals many customer complaints about how much better Cracker JackⓇ “used to be”: more peanuts, better toys…. In other words, the candy is virtually synonymous with nostalgia: for an American past but perhaps more specifically for childhood, for that boy and dog frozen in time.

The fact that the models died may be necessary to holding them there in the suspension of memory—and since Andrew Jr. too died young (though much later, in the second World War at age 21) the story was bound up for my father (and perhaps for my sisters and me) with an idealized past. In fact, maybe that’s still visible in my description above…. Andrew Jr.’s photo album displays the same poignancy toward Rex, with one of the many photos of the dog inscribed “REX. He left us on July 21, 1939. We gave him away.” Why did they do that? If my father ever said, I’ve forgotten. Another image in that album shows my father as a boy on their front lawn, holding a baseball bat as if to swing it; Andrew Jr. labelled it “Years ago.” There’s a similar one of Andrew himself, just labelled “Watch Out!!! About 1937.” Associated with the games and play times of youth, Cracker JackⓇ became a potent symbol of good times lost—a prequel to the poignant evocation of “putting away childish things” by a much-later Andy in Toy Story.

(But is that interpretation too simple, like the nostalgia itself? Where’s the surprise in this box? It may be buried in my father’s relationships to his father, to James Harvey, and to the complicated intermingling of commercial and fine art in his life. And that’s a post for another day.)

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