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The History of Animal Crackers

The custom of shaping cookies to resemble animals dates at least as far back as the 17th century, when they were used during a midwinter festival and previously pagan feast known as Julfest. It is thought that even further in the past, those who were too poor to sacrifice their animals to the gods during the feast baked animal-shaped breads and cookies to offer in their stead. Eventually, these cookies are thought to have morphed into treats known as springerle. But it wasn’t until 1871 that animal crackers as we now know them came to be. David E. Stauffer founded Stauffer’s in York, Pennsylvania and began manufacturing “animal crackers.” The treats were designed to have smaller amounts of sugar and shortening than similar cookies. But while Stauffer’s may have been the first animal crackers, they were not the most famous. In 1902, Nabisco debuted their own animal-shaped cookies/crackers, then called Barnum's Animals. The name capitalized on the popularity of P.T. Barnum’s circus, but it is worth noting that the company was not affiliated with the famous impresario and Barnum never made any money from the sales. In 1948, Nabisco changed the name to Barnum's Animal Crackers. In 1958, the company began using rotary dies to create detailed crackers. This allowed consumers to easily identify the animals on each cracker/cookie and helped set Nabisco’s product apart from Stauffer’s and other competitor’s products. Over the years, many brands have created their own versions of animal crackers, but Barnum's Animal Crackers are by far the most famous and enduring. Part of their popularity may have arisen due to marketing. Nabisco was the first to sell animal crackers in boxes rather than small containers known as cracker barrels. The iconic imagery of the red circus wagon with animals behind bars and a string on top debuted during the 1902 Christmas season. The intention behind the string was to encourage customers to reuse the box as a Christmas ornament once the treats inside were consumed. The snacks have remained popular and largely unchanged since their debut, but recently, the packaging has undergone a few changes. The string was removed sometime around 2020 and in response to pressure from animal rights groups and changing societal attitudes about animal welfare, the boxes now depict cage-free animals walking across a savannah with tufts of grass and trees visible, rather than caged circus animals. Since the debut of Barnum’s Animal Crackers, there have been roughly 37 different animals featured. Today, a 2 oz. box will typically include a mix of 19 different animals inside. While Barnum's Animal Crackers are now one of the most iconic and beloved animal cracker brands, they certainly aren’t the only one available on store shelves. The longevity and variety of animal crackers overall shows that they are an iconic American snack beloved by multiple generations.

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