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Issue No.117
13 November 2018

Pull! A history of the cracker

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Paul Kerensa explores an explosion in the Victorian era


LONDON IN THE 1840S SAW CHRISTMAS EXPLODE. 1843 alone gave us Christmas cards, A Christmas Carol and O Come All Ye Faithful. Millions were descending on the capital for work, so Christmas now had a new sense of returning home. Workers took new festive customs with them; London lit each fuse, while the country stood back to see if it went bang.

For the cracker, we thank London confectioner Tom Smith. On holiday in Paris in the 1840s, Smith admired the packaging of some sugared almond bonbons, delicately wrapped in wax paper, twisted at each end. Wrapping food - how very French. Smith's English upper-class clientele were always on the look-out for culinary fashion, so he combined these French fancies with mottos from Chinese fortune cookies, selling them at his shop on Clerkenwell's Goswell Road.

Smith's bonbons were a hit among party hosts. They were so popular each December, Smith spent the other eleven months concocting new twists on the old formula. His customers couldn't wait to see this year's innovation, from trinkets to new patterns. By rebranding them as party essentials, Smith made multiple sales per customer.

In need of another redesign, Smith was sitting by the fire one night, when he heard the fi ery crackle of a log burning. Eureka! Next Christmas, he added what he called 'bangs of expectation'. By the 1870s they were called 'cosaques', named for the cracking sound like the whips of Cossack horsemen. A decade later, they became 'crackers'.

As for the mottos, what began as love verses became New Year predictions, then jokes in the twentieth century. As long ago as ancient Rome, little messages were given at midwinter festivals - so this, like many Christmas innovations, was just a twist on an old theme.

By the time Smith's sons took over the business, 13 million crackers left the factory each year. Walter Smith thought to add paper hats, like the mock crowns worn at Twelfth Night parties. This celebration was on the wane, but the hat stayed, yet another cracker insert. With no room for the bonbons, the Smith factory - originally a confectioner's - removed the confectionery.

How that toilet roll cardboard got in there, who can say...


Extract revised by the author, from Hark! The Biography of Christmas by Paul Kerensa (published by Lion Hudson in Sept 2017, RRP £12.99)