Cookie Week! Day One: Animal Crackers

Posted by Brette in Food

It’s cookie week here at Putting It All on the Table. Each day I’m going to share great cookie tidbits with you from my book Cookie: A Love Story. Today’s post showcases a cookie most of us enjoyed as kids – animal crackers! You probably played with the box and cookies just as I did as a kid, but did you ever wonder about their origin?

“Do vegetarians eat animal crackers?” – unknown

Barnum’s Animals and Nabisco are registered trademarks of Kraft Foods and used with permission.

Barnum’s Animals and Nabisco are registered trademarks of Kraft Foods and used with permission.

Animal crackers are a favorite of children and a grocery store staple. Animal crackers did not, however, begin as an American cookie. In the late 1800s crackers called animals were imported from England. They were very popular among children and American bakers soon began to bake them here – the Dozier-Weyl Cracker Company and the Holmes and Coutts Company, both predecessors of the National Biscuit Company (which became Nabisco) and Stauffer Biscuit, which began making the cookie in 1871. The American made versions were called animals or circus crackers. Like today’s animal crackers, they were slightly sweet, crunchy cookies in the shape of animals. Philadelphia’s Centennial Exposition in 1876 included animal shaped cookies called ‘zoologicals,’ which were made by baker Walter G. Wilson. Popularity of the crackers increased in England after P.T. Barnum’s circus appeared there in 1889, although his name was not applied to them yet.

If you enjoyed this small taste of cookie history, there’s lots more to be found in Cookie: A Love Story, where I trace the history of the cookie from its origins on hot rocks next to prehistoric fires to today’s highly processed and packaged versions.

An early recipe for the crackers appeared in Secrets of the Bakers and Confectioners’ Trade, a commercial cooking book written by J. D. Hounihan in 1883:

Animals or Menagerie
1 bbl flour, 40 lbs sugar, 16 lard, 12 oz soda, 8 ozs ammonia, 6 3/4 gals milk.

No instructions were included.

In 1902 the National Biscuit Company began selling the cookies nationally. The famous circus box was released for Christmas, 1902, at a price of 5 cents per box, and was designed to hang on a Christmas tree by the string handle (this design is still used today, although you can buy the cookies in zipper bags and tins as well).

The name Barnum’s Animal Crackers was first used in 1948. The cookie was named after the famous circus owner, P.T. Barnum, although he never was paid for the use of his name. Since the first box, there have been 53 different animals included at different times. Current boxes contain a variety of 22 different animals, including the koala which was voted in by consumers in 2002 for the 100th anniversary of the cookie (beating out the penguin, cobra and walrus). Each box has 260 calories.

Today the cookies remain very much the same as they always have been. The ingredients remain the same. The manufacturing methods have slightly changed. Until 1958, the cookies were made in a sheet of dough and stamped out by a cutter. After that date, rotary dies, which are still used today, were implemented.  The cookies take only four minutes to bake. Over 40 million packages are sold per year.

Animal crackers are also sold by Austin (a division of Keebler) and Stauffer Biscuit (which uses some spices in their cookies). Cadbury’s makes chocolate covered animal crackers. Borden also made animal crackers until the 1970s. Two by Two Animal Biscuits are made by Artisan Biscuits in Derbyshire, England in the shape of animals from fables, such as the tortoise and the hare.

Animal crackers have spurred some artistic creativity. In 1971, Christopher Morley’s book The Philosopher Poet  included this poem:

“Animal crackers and cocoa to drink,

That is the finest of suppers I think;

When I am grown up and can have what I please’

I think I shall always insist upon these.”

The cookies have also inspired a song sung by Shirley Temple, “Animal Crackers in My Soup,” in the 1938 movie “Curly Top.”

If you enjoyed learning about animal crackers, there is an entire chapter in Cookie: A Love Story that tells the stories of different types of cookies.

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