Animal Crackers

By Julia Maish

"Animal crackers in my soup
Monkeys and rabbits loop the loop
Gosh, oh gee! but I have fun
Swallowing animals one by one
— Shirley Temple, 1935

This week, in case you missed it, Americans celebrated National Animal Cracker Day! Despite what the song says, these animal-shaped treats tend to be more of a cookie and are therefore not exactly top-of-mind when it comes to soup. But their popularity as a snack has endured, especially with children (and presumably with little Shirley back in the day). Where did the idea come from, and how long have they been around?

A very long time, as it turns out. Sometime between 600 and 700 AD, the Norse Yule Tribe launched an annual winter solstice festival, and an important part of this event was an animal sacrifice to the gods to ensure a mild winter and early spring. The poorer participants were understandably reluctant to offer up their precious livestock to be sacrificed, so the custom began of substituting similarly shaped breads, and subsequently, biscuits. The animal cracker was born, and was used for this purpose for centuries.

Commercially, animal crackers really came into their own in Victorian England, where they had become a Christmas tradition for children. As their popularity spread beyond the home, “Barnum’s Animals” — in their iconic small boxes with a string across the top — original price: five cents — were used as a promotional tool for P.T. Barnum’s Circus (oddly, Barnum himself — or the Barnum & Bailey Circus — never received a percentage of the profits). Contrary to popular belief, the string was not a handle — the box was meant to be hung on a Christmas tree.

At the same time, the animal cracker craze had made its way to America, and in 1871, the Stauffer Biscuit Company of York, Pennsylvania commenced manufacturing its own animal crackers. It is still going strong today, using the same recipe.

More animal cracker facts:

  • Since 1902, there have been 106 different animals represented in boxes of Barnum’s Animals. In 1995, Nabisco, which now manufactures the cookies at a factory in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, created a special collection of “endangered” animals with profits going to the World Wildlife Fund. This limited edition included Hawaiian monk seals, peregrine falcons, Bactrian camels, and Komodo dragons, among others.

  • Barnum’s animal crackers spend about four minutes in a continually moving, 300-foot-long oven, which produces 12,000 crackers every minute. This translates to 330,000 crackers each shift and more than 40 million boxes annually.

  • You may have wondered why each animal cracker has a small hole in it — these are known as “dockers,” made during the baking process to keep the dough from rising.

  • Before Barnum’s replaced its trademark string with a fold-out cardboard handle, six thousand miles of it were used on the boxes annually.

  • The four original Barnum’s animals still in circulation are the lion, bear, elephant, and tiger. To these are currently added the giraffe, bison, zebra, hippopotamus, camel, hyena, rhinoceros, polar bear, monkey, cougar, sheep, seal, kangaroo, elephant, and gorilla. In 2002, the koala bear (winner of a customer poll) was added. The boxes are available in yellow, blue, and red, with different combinations of animals in each.

  • The Stauffer animal crackers, which are often sold in a large transparent plastic container in the shape of a teddy bear, are far less detailed but boast more flavors, including vanilla, chocolate, cinnamon, cotton candy, and animals coated with icing and sprinkles. Stauffer’s animal shapes include the bear, mountain goat, lion, rhinoceros, bison, camel, tiger, cat, elephant, donkey, cow, horse, and hippopotamus.

  • The rabbit, despite its presence in the song, was never an animal cracker for either Nabisco or Stauffer; it is, however, part of a collection sold at the Austin Zoo, which also includes a ram, a turtle, and an owl. Cadbury also markets their own animal cracker, dipped in chocolate (of course); unlike its American counterparts, the collection includes a crocodile and a toucan.

  • A mother once tried to sue Nabisco over a monkey animal cracker she had given to her young daughter. The monkey was holding a banana, but the mother mistakenly thought it was something else. The case was dismissed.

Pick up some animal crackers today — for your own pagan ritual, or just for fun! (And word to the wise…most people eat the head first.)