Among the culinary delights that we loved when we were kids was a treat that our parents craved when they were our age, and possibly that our grandparents did also. They are commonly known as animal crackers, although cookies is a much more accurate moniker. And despite the ravages of new-age political correctness, they are still around for our own grandchildren to beg for at the grocery store.
It all began back in the late 19th century. Animal-shaped cookies were a hit over in Britain, and they began to be imported to the US. They were a hit over here, too, and US bakeries took note. Stauffer’s Biscuit Company began producing them on this side of the pond in 1871 in York, Pennsylvania. Several other bakeries jumped on the bandwagon as well, and some of these later merged to become the National Biscuit Company, aka Nabisco.
In 1902, Nabisco gave the diminutive cookies the name “Barnum’s Animals,” and began marketing them in a wagon-shaped box with a string attached. The boxes I remember had perforations on the bottom, which allowed the wheels to be extruded from the package, allowing the whole thing to sit up like a real wagon. Some kid probably got a paper cut, and the likely ensuing lawsuit likely made them vanish. (sigh)
Stauffer’s and Nabisco have had a bit of a rivalry over the centuries. The original US-made animal cracker was Stauffer’s creation, but for whatever reason, the concept was never copyrighted. Perhaps it was because it was copied from British bakeries in the first place. Nowadays, Stauffer’s advertises their product as the original animal cracker. But it was Nabisco’s wagon-shaped box that permeates my own memory of what constitutes an animal cookie.
Stauffer’s has made their money by selling their own product, as well as creating them for many other companies that sell them under their own names. However, I have to give Nabisco the game, set, and match for coming up with that box. It was in time for Christmas, 1902 when a bright mind came up with the idea of a circus wagon-shaped box, complete with a string that would allow it to be hung from the old Tannenbaum. The brilliance of the idea became manifest after the holiday season was over, when kids were seen all over the country carrying the nickel-priced boxes by those cotton straps.
My poor mom was verbally assaulted by waves of begging every time I went with her to Farrier’s IGA and approached the candy aisle. She would frequently give in. I guess she viewed the now steep price of ten cents as a good investment, since the box would be played with long after its sweet contents were devoured.
Barnum’s Animals, as well as Stauffer’s original animal crackers continue to survive today. Of course, it’s not without the stench of political correctness. The bars on the little boxes are long gone. We wouldn’t want the kiddies traumatized by the idea that animals in the circus are forced to be there against their will, now would we? But at least the contents are still made from the same formula that we remember so well.
Maybe one reason that mom frequently bought animal crackers for me is that she knew that the sugar content was far below that of the snacks that I normally inhaled. They were JUST sweet enough. The animals have remained the same as well, with occasional additions made over the years. The most recent for Nabisco was the koala, added by popular demand in 2002, celebrating 100 years of Barnum’s Animals. The dies that make their distinctive shapes have remained pretty much unmodified, as well. We should be grateful that nothing politically incorrect has been spotted there by the police (yet).
So here’s a suggestion: head down to the store and pick yourself up a box of Barnum’s Animals. Enjoy a treat from your past. They’re still around, they’re not too fattening, not too sugary, and taste just like you remember. How many childhood treats can you say THAT about?