What do you get when you walk under a friendly cow?
A pat on the head.
What’s a dentist’s favourite musical instrument?
A tuba toothpaste.
Jokes as bad as these – and worse – will spill out over dining tables across the land tomorrow when the nation sits down to Christmas dinner and the annual cracker pulling contest to decide who gets to wear the silly paper hat.
It’s one of those long-held traditions that we all hold dear but few of us stop to wonder about the history of the ubiquitous Christmas cracker. Except, of course, for the people who collect Christmas antiques and the band is growing – we saw a box of six 1930s German-made glass shiny balls at recent car boot sale and now, having decorated our own tree with the plastic excuses for tree decorations, we wished we had bought them. At £10, they seemed like a bargain, given their longevity. That’s the problem with Christmas crackers. They are meant to be pulled apart and destroyed, ending up in the dustbin with the armfuls of gift wrapping paper. So I guess surviving early Victorian and Edwardian examples are few and far between, but there’s no harm in looking. You never know.
For some unknown reason, I always thought that the cracker was invented by the Chinese. Perhaps I linked them with gunpowder and firecrackers. I was wrong, but not completely.
In fact, we have a baker and confectioner called Tom Smith to thank for Christmas crackers, so as we all prepare for the festive season, I thought I’d tell his story.
What’s large, red and wears a bikini
An elephant with sunburn.
Young Tom left school at an early age and in early 1830, he found work in a London bakery, which in addition to bread, made and sold sweets, wedding cakes and their icing sugar ornaments and decorations. He was a quick learner and a hard worker and before long he started up his own business in Clerkenwell, East London.
Clearly the business was a success, enabling Tom to travel abroad in search of new products and ideas. One one such trip to Paris in 1840, he tasted his first “bon bon”, a simple sugared almond but sold wrapped in a twist of waxed paper.
Bonbonnieres were – and still are – all the rage in Paris, making healthy profits from handmade sweets wrapped and presented in pretty boxes and Tom brought the idea back to London. His bonbons went on sale in time for that Christmas and were an instant success.
What’s large, red and wears a bikini?
An elephant with sunburn.
However, sales fell away in the months that followed and competitors also started selling their own wrapped sweets. Tom quickly realised he needed another unique idea to keep him ahead.
Although he had never visited country, he heard about the Chinese tradition of celebrating the New Year with fortune cookies with predictions about the future concealed inside. Tom seized the idea and began double-wrapping his bonbons, the waxed paper outer layer with a motto appropriate to his market concealed beneath.
As his sweets were enjoying great success among young ladies, he hit on the idea of making the mottos like little love notes, which suitors were keen to give to their bows.
Again the sweets were successful and again, without the protection of copyright laws, his competitors were hot on his heels.
What did one plate say to the other?
Lunch is on me.
Tom’s next brainwave was to include a small charm or trinket, which he decided he would place with the sweet and motto inside a small cardboard tube enclosed by an outer wrapper. Because they had always been associated with Christmas, they were marketed as “Christmas Bonbonnes Complete with a Surprise”. The cracker was born, although there was one more process yet to be thought of.
Again Tom hit the jackpot and sales soared to the point where he was employing more and more staff to cope with demand. But greater things were to follow.
Ever eager to stay one step ahead of the competition, Tom wracked his brains for the next unique idea. Tradition has it that inspiration came one day sitting in front of a log fire. When the flames had died down, a log fell on to the hearth and as he kicked it back into place, it spluttered and sparked back into life.
What does a proud computer call his son?
A microchip off the old block.
That was it. Instead of the tube of sweets being unwrapped, it would be made to pull apart so the sweet, motto and trinket fell from it with a bang!
It took two years to perfect the means of producing the effect safely and effectively and the design is still in use today. Two narrow strips of cardboard were pasted with a small, thin layer of saltpetre, a compound used in the manufacture of gunpowder, and stuck together facing each other. As the strips were pulled apart, the friction caused the saltpetre to crack and spark.
It was down to trial and error: too little saltpetre made the crack inaudible. Too much caused the whole thing to burst into flames! But manufacture was perfected and in the Christmas of 1860, Tom’s crackers were launched under the brand name “Bangs of Expectation”.
What is green and goes dah-dit, dah-dah, dah-dit?
A morse toad.
Interestingly, the crackers were first known as “Cosaques” because the noise they made sounded like the sound of cracking whips used by Cossacks who were infamous for their part in the Franco-Prussian wars.
Several other English manufacturers jumped on the cracker bandwagon, notably confectioners Caleys of Norwich; ice-cream maker Neilsons and Hovells of Holborn. Their products were inferior with their designs copied those of Tom Smith, forcing Smiths into litigation.
In the Smith’s catalogue for 1893 a notice read: “Important notice to the trade; the names and designs of the principal Novelties in Tom Smith’s Crackers are protected under the Trades Marks Acts. Persons copying or in any way infringing same are liable to legal proceedings”.
What did the dolphin say to the whale when he bumped into him?
I didn’t do it on porpoise.
By then Tom’s company was producing almost 100 different sets of crackers which sold for prices ranging from 1/8d (about 8 pence) for a dozen plain white or coloured crackers containing just one sweet and a motto, to 42/- (£2.10p) for the deluxe set of “Cosaques for our Christmas Party”. Each of the 12 crackers were decorated with fine chromolithographed picture scraps of Father Christmas and appropriate scenes, and contained in an elegant box with brass handle.
Compare those prices with today’s top of the range box of crackers from Harrods which contain sterling silver gifts and retail at £290.
The golden era for crackers was the period between 1880 and 1930. Tom Smith remained the dominant manufacturer producing sets linked by common themes. They included Shakespearean crackers containing party hats and quotations from the Bard’s plays; “Aesthetic Crackers” inspired by Oscar Wilde; “Stereoscopic Crackers” containing tiny kaleidoscopes and other optical toys and trinkets in a box which when empty became the stereoscope; and a vast range of others which echoed topical events that had caught popular imagination during the year in question.
What is yellow and dangerous?
Sharks in custard.
Thus, it was possible to celebrate the discovery of gold in America with “Klondyke Gold Rush” crackers; Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922 with a set of “Treasure from Luxor” crackers and there were “Crackers for Married Folk”; “Crackers for Bachelors” and an entire range of crackers supporting the armed forces.
Other sets were created for war heroes, Charlie Chaplin, the wireless, motoring, the Coronation and even the plan to dig a Channel Tunnel … in 1914. Exclusive crackers were also made for members of the Royal Family and still are to this day.
So, give as you enjoy a hearty Christmas lunch and pull a cracker, give a thought to Tom Smith and his inspired imagination. And if you find an “antique” Christmas cracker on your travels, don’t pull it, preserve it for posterity!
A man walked into a bar…
Pictures show, top: A Victorian advertisement for Tom Smith and Co Ltd, manufacturers of Christmas novelties. In addition to crackers, the firm made all manner of festive bric-a-brac and was awarded a raft of gold medals as can be seen at the top of the picture Below, large image: Ho ho ho! Tom Smith enjoyed Royal patronage, as proudly proclaimed on the cover of this trade catalogue. Smaller pictures: some of the huge range of Tom Smith’s Victorian and Edwardian Christmas crackers