Frederick Rueckheim portrait

Frederick Rueckheim portrait

Frederick Rueckheim


Integrating his German-inspired dedication to education with the newfound economic opportunities in the United States, Frederick Rueckheim recognized the profitability of popcorn, a nineteenth-century commodity product, and turned that commodity into a differentiated, branded product: Cracker Jack. This iconic American confection of molasses, popcorn, and peanuts in a recognizable brand packaging is still sold globally.


Integrating his German-inspired dedication to education with the newfound economic opportunities in the United States, Frederick Rueckheim (born April 18, 1846 in Japenzin, Germany; died January 2, 1937 in Chicago, IL) recognized the profitability of popcorn, a nineteenth-century commodity product, and turned that commodity into a differentiated, branded product: Cracker Jack. This iconic American confection of molasses, popcorn, and peanuts in a recognizable brand packaging is still sold globally. Frederick incorporated other members of his family into his confectionery business and created a two-generation popcorn dynasty. Both he and his family fought anti-German sentiments during World War I and used that attack on their patriotism as inspiration for Sailor Jack and Bingo, the little boy and his dog who still appear on the front of Cracker Jack boxes. Rueckheim’s marketing skills also spawned the Cracker Jack baseball cards and prizes, which remain prized by collectors. That determination to overcome adversity and constant pursuit of business opportunities built an empire based on popcorn.

Family and Ethnic Background

Frederick William Rueckheim was born in Japenzin, Germany in 1846 to John Rueckheim and Maria Zander.[1] The family included a younger brother, Louis (1849–1927), who helped invent Cracker Jack. Little information is available about their youth in Germany. Japenzin is located in northeast Germany roughly midway between Rostock and Stettin (now Szczecin, Poland), but was then part of Pomerania in the kingdom of Prussia. During Frederick’s youth, he witnessed a changing Germany. Tensions between Prussia and Austria increased. Otto von Bismarck rose to power, advocating and eventually achieving a unified Germany.

Economically, Germany was transitioning from a rural to an urban society. Research and investment in technology expanded; urban manufacturing centers with large, capital-intensive businesses began forming. Education became essential for young men to find employment and rise in society. An individual’s self-identification as a German grew from the literature, art, and music studied in school, rather than devotion to a government or state. Allegiance to the Prussian monarchy was also separate from a German identity. Then, the Prussian kingdom had almost twenty states, with different religions, dynastic families, and internal territorial battles with considerable differences between regions such as Protestant eastern Prussia where Frederick was born and the Rhineland in Catholic western Prussia.[2] These distinctions among national, cultural, and ethnic identities created problems for Frederick in his later years when anti-German sentiments rose in the United States during World War I.

Education was also a key factor in the German unification wars fought between 1866 and 1871. The Prussian army believed that education was necessary for soldiers to use the then-new breech-loading rifle, to maintain discipline, and to reduce waste.[3] That discipline and education created the Prussian victory in 1866, which settled the borders between Prussian Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.[4] Frederick Rueckheim served in the Prussian army from 1865 to 1869, fighting in the Prussian-Austrian war of 1866. During his army service, he attended night school and studied with a private tutor—embracing that Prussian dedication to education.[5] Young Frederick had participated in a critical re-alignment of power in Central Europe and seen how education and discipline could defeat a powerful foe.

After serving in the army, twenty-three-year-old Frederick immigrated to America in 1869. His uncle had a farm in Washington Heights, a small town south of Chicago, Illinois later incorporated into the city, and needed a farmhand. Frederick received $150 per year ($2,480 in 2010 dollars), to work on his uncle’s farm.[6] But farm life was not for Frederick. After the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, Frederick moved to Chicago to help remove debris from the city’s streets. There he experienced the boom of the Gilded Age—the time in American history when the modern infrastructure of the country was created and Chicago rebuilt. Frederick began making his living in the new mass food production industry.

Business Development

Even while working on his uncle’s farm, Frederick began entrepreneurial ventures like selling popcorn – a popular nineteenth century treat due to its low manufacturing cost and then low consumer price. Street vendors began selling popcorn treats in the 1840s. After the Civil War, popcorn production became a national industry. At the beginning of the twentieth century, popcorn stands and wagons were fixtures at fairs, theatres, political rallies, circuses, and all kinds of public events and entertainment venues.[7] Popcorn wagons also roamed city streets, providing entertainment and a tasty treat. By 1907, independent popcorn vendors could make $150 per week ($3,590 in 2010), selling from their wagons.[8]

So when Frederick used his $200 life savings ($3,680 in 2010) to start a popcorn and confectionery company in 1872, he was entering a high-growth, high-profit industry. He partnered with a man named William Brinkmeyer, whose confectionary business had been destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire. The details of their meeting and partnership are unknown. Frederick purchased the business in its entirety by the end of the year and asked his brother Louis to come to America—creating the F.W. Rueckheim & Brother confectionary firm and establishing Frederick’s preference for family members as the core corporate executives. Frederick was responsible for overall strategy and marketing; Louis was responsible for manufacturing.

Louis Rueckheim (1849–1927), Frederick’s brother, was a key person in Frederick’s life and the real inventor of Cracker Jack. Like Frederick, Louis served in the German army and fought in the 1870 Franco-Prussian War. Little else has been uncovered about Louis’ life in Germany. After his army service, Louis accepted Frederick’s invitation to join the burgeoning Rueckheim confection business in Chicago, arriving in 1871 and remaining as vice-president of manufacturing throughout the company’s subsequent name changes and expansions.

The brothers sold popcorn bricks and other popcorn-based products using the general brand name Reliable Confections.[9] Cracker Jack, the company’s signature product, was invented only after the company had been in business for twenty years—such was the popularity and profitability of unbranded popcorn as a snack during the nineteenth century.

F.W. Rueckheim & Brother built its first factory on East Van Buren Street in Chicago, focusing on popcorn products. In 1874, the Rueckheim brothers purchased candy-making equipment from a Dutch confectioner who was returning to Holland. By 1885, operations expanded into a rented three-story brick factory on South Clinton Street. Though that factory burned down in 1887, the brothers were able to rebuild within six months. The 1887 fire cost the company $35,000 ($828,000 in 2010) in equipment and stock. The factory night watchmen suspected arson, but Frederick publicly blamed firecrackers shot by neighborhood children.[10] In 1895, they moved again into a new factory on Desplaines Avenue, incorporating industrial equipment and a sprinkler system.[11]

The Rueckheim brothers were not satisfied with selling popcorn and began to experiment with a new recipe, incorporating popcorn, peanuts, and molasses. This gooey confection debuted at the 1893 Columbian Exposition and later evolved into the product now known as Cracker Jack. The prototype sold at the 1893 Columbian Exposition was unnamed. The basic recipe was the only similarity; the stickiness of the molasses proved uninviting to consumers. The official company history does not mention the 1893 Columbian Exposition or that early version of Cracker Jack. The company itself referred to Cracker Jack as the “1896 Sensation,” ignoring the 1893 prototype. F.W. Rueckheim & Brother began promoting the product nationally in the spring of 1896. Four and a half tons of Cracker Jack was manufactured daily and shipped throughout the United States for this initial promotional campaign.[12]

How did that first, unsuccessful 1893 prototype become Cracker Jack? Since the sticky molasses was the problem, Louis re-invented the recipe with a dry, crispy molasses coating for the popcorn, a trade secret to this day. That dry molasses coating proved successful for both consumer fingers and shop owners’ storage.[13] The recipe for Cracker Jack has only changed once since 1896. After Borden purchased Cracker Jack in 1964, the recipe exchanged white sugar for corn syrup.[14] F.W. Rueckheim & Brother trademarked the name “Cracker Jack” in 1896.[15]

The story of how Cracker Jack was named is legendary in American brand-name history. According to popular lore, when a salesman (or sometimes a customer) tasted the product, he exclaimed, “That’s a cracker jack!”—a newly coined slang term meaning “something exceptionally fine or splendid.”[16] Lost in time is the fact that the conversation was held in German, not English, and was between Louis Rueckheim and his manufacturing foreman, who were both German. According to an article in the March 1896 Chicago Daily Tribune, Louis asked his foreman to try a new recipe. Upon tasting the confection, the men cried: “Das ist ausgezeichnet!”—”This is excellent!” The explicit link between “excellent” and “cracker jack” is not made in that article, though the Rueckheims' trademark of the term “cracker jack” is noted.[17] That simple, evocative name continues to resonate with customers, even though the slang meaning of the term is no longer popular. The product tag line, introduced in 1896, is also simple and straightforward: “The More You Eat, The More You Want.”

Individual packages allowed the Rueckheims to enforce consistent portion sizes, ensure a high quality product, and create a brand identity. While Louis supervised product manufacturing, Frederick was responsible for marketing, but he had nothing to do with the most famous inadvertent publicity campaign for Cracker Jack: the 1908 song “Take Me Out to the Ball Game”—referring to the American sport of baseball. The lyrics of the song reference Cracker Jack:

Take me out to the ball game,
Take me out with the crowd.
Buy me some peanuts and cracker jack,
I don’t care if I never get back,
Let me root, root, root for the home team,
If they don’t win it’s a shame.
For it’s one, two, three strikes, you’re out,
At the old ball game…

Frederick did not commission the song and had no connections with its writers, Jack Norworth and Albert Von Tilzer. Cracker Jack did include baseball cards and score counters in Cracker Jack boxes.[18] However, baseball cards were not introduced until 1914. The initial set numbered 144 cards. The 1915 set had 176. Both card sets remain popular with collectors.[19] The song “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” is still sung at American baseball games.

Frederick Rueckheim might have borrowed the idea of prizes in popcorn boxes from the Checkers candy company, who claimed to have created the “prize in a box” concept. Some sources state that Frederick introduced prizes in the 1890s, relying on vendors to hand out prizes after scooping Cracker Jack from tubs.[20] Other sources date the introduction of prizes from the late nineteenth century through 1912. The Cracker Jack label added the phrase “A prize in every box” in 1912, which may be the source of the confusion about the prize introduction date.[21] The official company history, 50 Years of Cracker Jack, does not discuss the development or introduction of prizes.[22]

Regardless of their official launch date, the prizes were a key marketing technique for the company and ultimately launched a separate subculture of Cracker Jack prize collectors. The prizes were initially made of paper or metal. The Tootsietoys Company, also headquartered in Chicago, manufactured the metal prizes, like banks, animal figures, and tops. The paper prizes included Indian headdresses, paper dolls, and pictures of movie stars like Bette Davis. Coupons printed on the sides of all the company’s products could be redeemed for toys, books, watches, jewelry, silverware, linens, and sporting goods, too. Since both boys and girls enjoyed Cracker Jack, the prizes had to appeal to both sexes.[23]

Cracker Jack was not the company’s only product. Angelus Marshmallows were introduced in 1907 and were the company’s second-most popular product. The history of marshmallows actually begins in ancient Egypt, where mallow root and nuts were mixed together as a treat for royalty. In the nineteenth century, French candy makers whipped and sweetened that mallow root into a foamy confection, inventing what consumers today recognize as a marshmallow. The mallow root itself was replaced by gelatin and starch in the early twentieth century—creating a more stable and longer-lasting treat and enabling mass production of marshmallows.[24] Rueckheim’s company introduced the Angelus Marshmallow to capitalize on consumer demand for what, at the time, was a novel product. Angelus Marshmallows were promoted with the tag line: “Fluffy and Light as a Feather.” An Angelus Chocolate product was introduced in 1909. Similar to Cracker Jack’s prizes, Angelus Marshmallows had cookbooks and a mystery book with puzzles and recipes. The Hunky-Dory bar, another product, combined popcorn, chocolate, cream, and pecans. New Wrinkle included popcorn, coconut, sugar, molasses, and peanuts.[25]

Frederick was willing to try a variety of advertising and marketing techniques. Company ads typically stressed the protective wax wrapper and the freshness of its products. The wrapping was invented by Henry Eckstein, who became a partner in the company. Window displays, banners, streamers, and cards were available to retailers to promote Cracker Jack, Angelus Marshmallows, and other products. The company boasted that Cracker Jack was the only nationally advertised popcorn confection.[26] During the first decade of the twentieth century, Rueckheim Brothers & Eckstein manufactured over seven hundred and fifty confectionary products, producing forty tons of candy per day.[27]

Cracker Jack was initially promoted using cartoon bears. Introduced as early as 1907, the bears attended the circus, shook hands with Theodore Roosevelt, climbed the Statue of Liberty, and played baseball.[28] The bears were adventurous, participating in the same fun activities as children (attending the circus) and capturing children’s imaginations (climbing the Statue of Liberty). Thus, the Cracker Jack brand meant fun and excitement. Today consumers all over the world are familiar with the Sailor Jack and Bingo the dog graphic on Cracker Jack boxes. The story behind Sailor Jack and Bingo, like the story behind the Cracker Jack name, has been muddied over time. Though introduced in Cracker Jack ads in 1916, Sailor Jack and Bingo were not added to the front cover of the boxes until 1918.[29] Robert Rueckheim, Frederick’s grandson, was the inspiration for Sailor Jack. Robert was born in 1913 and was the son of Edwin Rueckheim, Frederick’s second son. Some web sites claim that Robert died of pneumonia soon after Sailor Jack appeared on the boxes and that Bingo was Henry Eckstein’s dog. Robert did die young, but he died in 1920 from meningitis. Reliable sources for the story about Bingo could not be found. In a 1921 trade journal article, F.E. Ruhling, a general sales manager for Rueckheim Brothers & Eckstein, explains that Sailor Jack represented a happy boy whose friendliness would appeal to children. Bingo, “a hybrid pup of questionable pedigree” was “just the sort that every boy loves.” Little girls had Miss Angelus as a friend. Miss Angelus was a brunette who wore a white sailor suit with a puffy white chef’s hat. Miss Angelus did not replace the blonde angels featured on the Angelus Marshmallow tins; she was a companion to Sailor Jack in Rueckheim Brothers & Eckstein ads.[30]

In 1920, a jingle contest attracted over 18,000 entrants from all over the world. The Angelus Mystery book inspired one Rueckheim Brothers & Eckstein employee to dress as a fortuneteller and pass out the books for a day at a Chicago department store. Her efforts proved so successful that the department store asked her to stay for an additional two weeks.[31] The company’s most successful marketing campaign was 1932’s Cracker Jack Mystery Club. Over 200,000 children were members from 1933 to 1936. Cracker Jack boxes displayed a question mark on the front. The prizes were hidden inside cardboard sections of the main box and included pictures of movie stars and coins with images of U.S. presidents.[32]

Frederick’s marketing would not have been successful if Louis had not resolved the initial stickiness issue. Another manufacturing issue, the moisture-proof packaging, was also key to Cracker Jack’s success. From 1872 to 1899, the Rueckheims’ early popcorn products and later Cracker Jack were sold in large wooden tubs to retailers. When consumers came to stores, the retailers scooped Cracker Jack into their own boxes or bags.[33] Henry Eckstein (1860–1935) attended the Oakland Methodist Church with the Rueckheims and was also German, though born in Illinois. Henry had retired from a successful career as an inventor in the soap industry in 1898. He developed processes to extract fats for a soap manufacturer and to deodorize cottonseed oil.[34] For the Rueckheims, Eckstein invented the moisture proof bag in 1899, later patented in 1904, that is still used in Cracker Jack packaging. Without Eckstein’s invention, Cracker Jack could not be sold in individual boxes. Eckstein’s contribution garnered him a position as company treasurer in 1899 and led to a new company name in 1902: Rueckheim Brothers & Eckstein.[35]

The new company name coincided with another address change. Rueckheim Brothers & Eckstein built a factory that covered an entire city block at the corner of Harrison Street and Peoria Street and cost $125,000 ($3.27 million in 2010 dollars).[36] The five-story facility included steam vacuum heating, artificial lighting, two artesian water wells, and modern machinery. The factory could produce 40 to 60 tons of confections daily. By 1912, 250 men and boys and 450 girls and women worked at the factory.[37] In 1914, the company founded a plant at Bush Terminal in Brooklyn, New York to serve its East Coast and overseas customers. An additional eight-story plant at Congress and Sangamon in Chicago built in 1915 cost the company between $150,000 and $200,000 ($3.36 to $4.48 million in 2010 dollars).[38] By 1930, Cracker Jack products were also sold in Asia, Africa, Europe, South America, and Australia.[39]

Global success did not come easily. Frederick Rueckheim faced three key obstacles: counterfeit products, labor strife, and World War I–era anti-German sentiments. The counterfeit problem emerged first. In 1900, F.W. Rueckheim & Brother placed ads in newspapers warning consumers about “cheap candied pop corn” sold in boxes resembling Cracker Jack boxes. The Rueckheims asked consumers who purchased counterfeit products to contact the company as part of its ongoing legal battles against counterfeiters.[40]

Labor strife had two components: strikes and child labor abuses. Chicago in the late-nineteenth century and early-twentieth century was a hotbed of labor discord. Chicago’s German workforce was considered radicalized, consisting of anarchists and socialists. Chicago’s Germans were also unionization leaders and proponents of the eight-hour movement, forcing employers to respect their skills and craftsmanship.[41] Nineteenth century union leaders focused on factories with highly-skilled craftsmen, like printers, machinists, or ship builders or on key industries like lumber, construction, railroads and the stockyards. After those industries were unionized, labor leaders turned their attention to the smaller industries, like garment manufacturing, box factories, and candy factories.[42] Rueckheim Brothers & Eckstein and nine other Chicago candy factories experienced a serious strike in 1903. Striking union workers threatened customers, and temporary workers had to be imported from other states.[43] The child labor issue was a more serious problem for the Rueckheims.

Children were both the target audience and the labor pool for the Rueckheims. By the end of the nineteenth century, the Rueckheim Brothers, other confectionery firms, and other industries were investigated for poor working conditions for their child laborers. Women’s societies and representatives from Hull House conducted their own inspections of the Rueckheims and other firms into the early twentieth century. Their motivation was to ensure that children were receiving a proper education before beginning their work lives, believing that education should lead to a higher paying job. The first Child Labor Law was passed in Illinois in 1893; at that time 8.2% of children in Illinois were employed. Before that Child Labor Law, 9% of Illinois children were employed. Twenty-nine percent of Illinoisans started working when they were under the age of 14, and 61% of Illinoisans began working under the age of 16. The 1893 Child Labor Law prohibited employment of children under the age of 14 and allowed children between 14 and 16 to hold jobs with parental consent. Activists still complained about the lack of a compulsory school attendance law, the lack of an English literacy requirement, and the lack of a prohibition against nighttime child labor. The Chicago Board of Education retained the power to issue non-factory work permits to children under the age of 14, until an 1897 law revoked that power. The 1893 Child Labor Law and subsequent acts did reduce child labor. By 1909, 1.3% of Illinois children were employed. The Child Labor Law was revised in 1903, prohibiting nighttime work for all children under the age of 16.[44]

The Rueckheim Brothers & Eckstein factory employed 181 children in 1901, the sixth-largest employer of children in Chicago according to the Chief State Factory Inspector of Illinois—making the company a popular target for women’s groups. The Industrial Committee of the Illinois Federation of Women’s Clubs was refused admittance to the Desplaines Street factory in December 1902. The committee immediately went to the office of the Illinois factory inspector, who had recently fined the company $126, (equivalent to $7,400 in 2010 dollars), for forcing girls to work overtime. An investigation into underage workers came to naught. By 1908, Rueckheim Brothers & Eckstein had reduced its child labor force to 95, but rose to the fifth-ranked employer of children in Chicago.[45] Children were used to run errands, file paperwork, pack orders, and wrap candy.[46] Rueckheim Brothers & Eckstein were one of many companies investigated for child labor law infractions.

Frederick himself became the target of anti-German sentiments when the United States entered World War I. Even prior to America’s entry in World War I, Americans were growing wary of Germany. Beginning in May 1915, the imperial German Embassy in Washington, D.C., ran notices in newspapers, reminding American sea travelers that Germany and Great Britain and their respective allies were at war. Ships with enemy flags “are liable to destruction”, so “travellers [sic] sailing in the war zone on ships of Great Britain or her allies do so at their own risk.” On May 7, 1915, a German submarine sunk the passenger liner, the Lusitania, killing 1,198 people. Resentment against German-Americans increased when German-American organizations excused the sinking as an act of war. Bernhard Dernburg, the head of the German Red Cross in the United States, reminded people that the German government had placed ads in newspapers warning Americans not to sail under British flags and that “anybody can commit suicide if he wants to.” Americans themselves were divided about entering a European war even after the sinking of the Lusitania and subsequent passenger liners. When Germany agreed to limit submarine warfare, anti-German sentiments calmed for a time. German-born college professors who taught in American universities did lecture about Germany’s reasons for war, and German-language newspapers and churches promoted German scientific and culture achievements, attempting to diffuse anti-German sentiments.[47]

At the same time, the United States Secret Service was investigating anti-American activities by the German government and German agents stationed in the United States. A July 1915 investigation of George Sylvester Viereck, editor of the German-American newspaper Fatherland, found that the German government had spent almost $28 million ($627 million in 2010) on propaganda campaigns, fire bombs, and munitions plant explosions in the United States.[48] The federal government believed that Germans had infiltrated the American chemical industry to track American progress in producing mustard gas and other deadly chemicals.[49] These and other reported plots induced wartime hysteria against Germans, German culture, and the German language.

This animosity must have been difficult for Frederick and other German-Americans to comprehend. Immediately prior to the 1914 outbreak of war, Germans were considered “America’s most reputable immigrant group”, contributing to industry and the arts. Within the course of a few years, Americans believed the exact opposite of Germans. By 1918, an Americanization hysteria had seized Chicago. The Germania Club became the Lincoln Club; the Bismarck Hotel was renamed the Hotel Randolph; German street names were eliminated.[50] Chicago became an epicenter of anti-German sentiments. The Four Minute Men, an organization that provided pro-war speakers, began in Chicago in March 1917 and was subsequently subsumed into the federal Committee on Public Information. The group took its name from its practice of using the four-minute-long intermission between movies to give speeches to arouse audiences. The leaders of Chicago’s Four Minute Men included its most notable citizens like Samuel Insull, J. Ogden Armour, and Charles Wacker, who was also of German descent—men of greater power and stature than Frederick Rueckheim.[51] Chicago was also the founding city for the American Protective League, a secret organization that existed between February 1917 and February 1919 and consisted of citizen detectives who searched for German spies. The American Protective League used the Red Cross to uncover self-defined German enemies. American Protective League members also investigated people who made derogatory remarks about the Red Cross.[52] We don’t know if the American Protective League was involved with the subsequent Frederick Rueckheim investigation, but the possibility exists.

In late April 1917, Frederick became the target of anti-German sentiments when he was reported to the Secret Service for insulting the Illinois Militia. The United States entered World War I on April 6, 1917. Over the following few weeks, members of state militias visited businesses to ask for aid. According to the sergeant and private who visited Rueckheim Brothers & Eckstein, Frederick called the men “a gang of beggars” and told them to “go to hell.” The militia members also noted the photograph of Paul von Hindenburg, the German Field Marshal, on Frederick’s desk. The militia members then reported Frederick to federal investigators. The Chicago Daily Tribune also learned of the incident and sent an undercover reporter and two soldiers to Rueckheim Brothers & Eckstein to ask permission to recruit employees for the military. Frederick refused permission, stating that “this is no recruiting office.” When the reporter asked if displaying von Hindenburg’s picture was unpatriotic, Frederick replied negatively. He also refused to donate money to the American Red Cross and closed the meeting by telling the men: “the hell with you.” When called by the Chicago Daily Tribune after the altercation, Frederick protested his innocence, stating that solicitations of any kind were not allowed at his factory and denied that he had been disrespectful to anyone from the military.[53]

Frederick had become a naturalized US citizen in 1881, yet still visited his homeland in 1899, 1905, and 1911. By 1918, his company was generating $3 million ($43.4 million in 2010) in annual sales, so Frederick felt impelled to reinforce his American patriotism.[54] On May 8, 1917, Frederick issued a statement, explaining his actions and emphasizing his loyalty. He said that recruiters could speak to his employees during lunchtime and after the end of the workday. He also offered to make arrangements for special recruiting times. He explained that the Von Hindenburg photograph was one of many pictures he had “of all the rulers of those countries interested in this great controversy.” Frederick also announced that Rueckheim Brothers & Eckstein had donated $500 ($8,500 in 2010) to the American Red Cross. He declared, in closing, that:

“I came to this city as a young man forty-eight years ago, soon becoming a naturalized citizen of the United States, and never before has any one questioned my loyalty or devotion to city, state, or country, and any call made upon me by my country in any capacity will be promptly answered.”[55]

The Secret Service apparently closed the investigation without bringing charges. Frederick and his family then executed a series of projects to further demonstrate their loyalty to the United States. Emily Rueckheim, Frederick Rueckheim, Jr.’s wife, bought $500 ($8,500 in 2010) worth of Liberty Bonds, garnering praise for the family’s “true American spirit.”[56] The now familiar red, white, and blue Cracker Jack box was introduced in 1918, as was the Sailor Jack logo.[57] Cracker Jack was promoted as the “ideal war-time food” that could be eaten as a breakfast cereal or as an afternoon “tissue-building, muscle-making” energizer.[58] The company’s ads reminded consumers to “Eat More Cracker Jack—Save Sugar and Wheat!” and encouraged men to enlist in the Navy, just like Sailor Jack. Rueckheim Brothers & Eckstein also offered to send people a free “vest pocket edition of Uncle Sam’s Famous National Songs.”[59] Those songbooks were also sent to libraries and used during National Song Week in 1918.[60] Neither Frederick nor his company appear to have had any additional “patriotism” problems for the rest of World War I.

During and after the war, the company continued to grow. In February 1922, the company decided to change its name to The Cracker Jack Company, focusing on the product rather than the company founders.[61] By 1923, the company had ceased production of most of its other products and was primarily manufacturing Cracker Jack, Angelus Marshmallows, and unbranded popcorn bricks. The company had previously manufactured Cracker Jack brittle, French fried popcorn, popcorn crisp, Hunky Dory bars, and chocolate-covered Cracker Jack.[62]

Popcorn was the primary ingredient in multiple company products. Initially, the company purchased popcorn from farmers throughout the Midwest. Farmers could send a two-pound sample to Rueckheim Brothers & Eckstein for evaluation.[63] The increasing volume of popcorn needed by the Cracker Jack Company affected the commodity price of corn. The company decided to grow its own corn and purchased land in Odebolt, Iowa, which was christened the Popcorn Center of the World in 1910 for the 15 million pounds of popcorn produced annually. Odebolt’s popcorn prowess began when a farmer named A.H.W. Reuber took a chance by growing and processing popcorn on twenty-five acres. As early as 1891, Odebolt’s reputation for corn growing was reported in Chicago newspapers. Growing and processing corn is different from growing and processing popcorn. Popcorn requires special cribs to ensure all surfaces of the kernel remain dry for perfect popping. Husks and silks must be completely removed from the ears. The profitability of popcorn more than paid for the investment in the cribs. The average popcorn farmer made a profit of $50 per acre in 1927 ($628 in 2010 dollars). By 1927, thirty thousand of the over forty thousand acres of popcorn planted in the United States were planted in Iowa.[64]

The Cracker Jack Company owned acreage, built corn elevators, and eventually developed its own strains of corn and peanuts.[65] Additional land in Illinois and Kansas was purchased to store corn (the corn was cured for two years before being popped).[66] By 1927, the company sold 138 million boxes of Cracker Jack per year.[67] The company achieved its largest profits during the Rueckheim era in 1928: $716,659 ($9.12 million in 2010).[68] By 1930, the Cracker Jack Company used 25 percent of the world’s supply of popcorn for its products and spent $1.5 million ($19.6 million in 2010) to build another plant in Chicago.[69]

Social Status

Married twice, Frederick’s first marriage to Mathilda Mell (1846–1902) produced his four children: Frederick, Junior (1874–1937), Edwin Louis (1876–1921), Emma Lydia (1877–1921), and Laura Wilhelmina (1879–1936). Like Frederick, Mathilda was born in Germany. She immigrated to the United States in 1856. They married in Chicago on November 28, 1872. The Rueckheim family lived in a red brick mansion at the corner of East Forty-Second Street and South Vincennes St, a fashionable neighborhood at that time. Frederick commissioned the architectJoseph Lyman Silsbee to design the home in 1886 and lived there for most of his life. Frederick was a member of the South Shore Country Club, the Diana Hunting and Fishing Club, the Royal Arcanum, the Chicago Association of Commerce, and the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association.[70]

Mathilda was a well-known poet in the German-American community and was listed in Deutsch in Amerika: Beiträge zur Geschichte der Deutsch-Amerkanischen Literatur, an 1892 survey of prominent German-American authors. Mathilda composed in German, not English. She primarily wrote religious poems, publishing a collection in 1900 titled Von Seiner Fülle, translated as Of His Plenty. The first stanza of her poem “Gott wird abwischen alle Tränen” (“God will dry all tears”) is typical of her work:

Am Sarge streut man frische Blumen,
Warum denn nur im Leben nicht?
Warum so sparsam mit der Liebe
Und warten, bis das Herze bricht?
Den Todten freuen keine Blumen,
Im Sarge fühlt man keinen Schmerz;
Würd man im Leben Liebe üben,
Es lebte länger manches Herz …
At the bier they lavish fresh flowers,
But why not in life?
Why so stingy with love,
And wait till the heart breaks?
The dead ones cannot enjoy flowers,
In the coffin one feels no pain;
If more love were given in life,
Many a heart would live longer…[71]

Mathilda’s literary career inspired her children’s interest in the arts. Edwin was a music professor, though he later worked at The Cracker Jack Company. Laura pursued a career as an opera singer before her marriage to the artist, Frank Werner, who also later joined The Cracker Jack Company.

Frederick, Junior, focused on the family business, eventually serving as president of the Cracker Jack Company after his father’s death in 1934. Edwin also worked at the company until his own early death in 1921. Edwin’s son Robert was the inspiration for the Sailor Jack logo pictured on the Cracker Jack packaging. When Emma married Paul Fernald in 1895, Fernald became a partner in F.W. Rueckheim & Brother from 1895 to 1897.[72] The marriage was unsuccessful. The couple divorced by 1910, but Fernald had sold his interest in the firm to Henry Eckstein in 1899. In 1911, Emma married her second husband, Lee Spratlen, who worked for the Burlington Railroad.[73] She contracted the flu in 1921, which exacerbated a chronic lung abscess, and subsequently died at age 43. Within two years, Frederick endured the deaths of two of his children and one grandchild.

His youngest daughter, Laura, intended to become an opera singer and was known for her contralto voice. She began performing in public as early as 1898 and traveled to Berlin in 1904 to continue her studies.[74] While in Berlin, she posed for an American artist who had also traveled to Berlin to continue his own studies in painting. Frank Werner (1877–1953) came from Ohio and arrived in Berlin in 1905. His father, Paul Werner, was also German and a prominent publisher. Frank went to college at MIT and then studied art in Europe for a decade. Frank and Laura met at an artist’s colony. He was immediately smitten; she was focused on her career. After Frank’s consistent pursuit and Frederick’s approval, Laura agreed to marry Frank in 1909.[75] Laura’s marriage to Frank proved critical to the Rueckheim family when the Cracker Jack Company needed new leaders in the late 1920s.

After his marriage, Frank gained prominence as a portrait painter of the wealthy and elite. His two most famous paintings were a portrait of German Emperor William II, which was gifted to Chicago’s Germania Club in 1915, and a 1918 portrait of the architect Louis Sullivan, which won the Art Institute of Chicago’s Logan Medal.[76] Frank’s Logan Medal win was controversial. Some artists claimed that the Art Institute rigged the jury and was promoting German propaganda.[77] Thus, like his father-in-law, Frank Werner was affected by the anti-German sentiments aroused during World War I. By 1930, Frank Werner had ended his career as an artist and joined the family business. The 1921 death of Edwin Rueckheim and the 1927 death of Louis Rueckheim created a void in the Cracker Jack Company leadership. Frank soon became a vice president and then treasurer, posts he held until his death in 1953.[78]

As his children with Mathilda Mell were marrying and starting families, Frederick became a widower upon Mathilda’s death in 1902. In 1908, Frederick married his second wife, Mrs. Ola J. Roberts (1865–1941). The circumstances of their meeting have not been uncovered. Ola was a widow when she and Frederick married. She had two children, Harry and Alta, from that previous marriage. Ola and her children enlivened the Rueckheim family. Alta became engaged to a Dr. Robert Campbell in 1916. During the engagement, Campbell was accused of supplying a woman with narcotics that killed her. Frederick initially supported his future stepson-in-law. Then, detectives discovered that Campbell was a liar; he had not graduated from medical school and intended to flee Chicago. The detectives persuaded Alta to telephone Campbell and suggest a meeting. Instead of Alta, Campbell was met by police officers.[79] Ola, her children, and the family chauffeur were involved in a scandalous incident in 1917. Fred Nelson, the family chauffeur, reprimanded Robert Kimball, a friend of the Rueckheims, for running down the car battery. Alta became upset that Nelson had spoken severely to her friend. Harry then punched Nelson, who returned the punch; Alta hit Nelson with a wrench and a milk bottle, and Ola twisted his nose. Harry, Alta, and Nelson were charged with assault; Ola and Robert were charged with disorderly conduct. The judge decided to dismiss all the charges and told the involved parties to “go home and be peaceful.”[80] Frederick did not comment publicly on the incident, which occurred four months after he had been accused of treason. Frederick had not sought personal publicity or public recognition in the past and would not have encouraged the spotlight’s return while he was trying to rebuild his company’s image.

As with Frederick and his family, his brother Louis Rueckheim and his family also served as Cracker Jack Company executives. Louis and his wife Margaret had three daughters, Estelle, Florence, and Lillian, and one son, Arnold, who worked as a buyer for the Cracker Jack Company; a second son, Herbert, died in infancy. Estelle’s husband, Fred Warren, was a vice president in the Cracker Jack Company.[81] Cracker Jack and Company was truly a family business, incorporating the Rueckheim brothers, their children, and their in-laws. The second generation continued Frederick’s and Louis’ legacy into the 1960s before selling the company to the Borden Food Corporation.

When Frederick Rueckheim died on January 12, 1934, he knew that the second generation of Rueckheims was leading his company. He lived a tumultuous life: rebuilding Chicago after the Great Fire, transforming popcorn from a commodity snack to a multi-ingredient confection, overcoming anti-German hysteria during World War I, and enduring the untimely deaths of his first wife, two children, and one grandchild. His belief in manufacturing a quality product generated wealth and success that lasted for more than 5 decades of his life. As he wrote in the company’s 50-year anniversary book, “We are proud of every one of our products and their fifty-year records of purity and reliability.” For Frederick, purity meant that his products were manufactured “untouched by human hands. Even the delivery of the shelled popcorn to the popper is automatic.”[82] Louis’ manufacturing prowess and Frederick’s creative marketing transformed popcorn from an unbranded, commodity snack into a savory confection of popcorn, peanuts, and molasses.


Cracker Jack, the product, has undergone few changes since 1896; Cracker Jack, the company, like other candy companies, has been absorbed into larger snack food entities. The Rueckheim family sold The Cracker Jack Company to Borden in 1964; Borden sold Cracker Jack to the Frito-Lay division of Pepsico in 1997.[83] At its peak, the Cracker Jack Company sold 137,754,000 boxes of Cracker Jack in 1927.[84] In 1997, Cracker Jack sales were estimated at $20 million ($27.2 million in 2010); sales in 2000 were over $40 million ($50.7 million in 2010).[85] In 2012, Cracker Jack generated $68 million in sales in the United States.[86] Though Frederick Rueckheim’s product no longer dominates popcorn snack or confectionary sales, Cracker Jack remains linked to baseball and nostalgia through the “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” song and collector interest in the Rueckheim-era metal and paper prizes.

Frederick’s life also mirrors the opportunities and perils of his time. Mid- to late nineteenth-century Germans (and other Europeans) grappled with questions about their ethnic and political identities. Mathilda’s reputation as a poet and Laura’s brief career as an opera singer, including studying opera in Berlin, indicate a family that valued culture and art. Frederick’s Germanic belief in an identity based on cultural norms proved dangerous in World War I–era Chicago in which governmental allegiance was used to define an individual as an American. Frederick’s bewilderment when reported to the Secret Service is logical for someone who had lived the Gilded Age American dream. Frederick immigrated to the United States with little money, worked on a farm but dreamed of living in the city, moved to the city, and founded a successful international business that enriched his entire family. His life also included the base metal found underneath a gilded surface: child labor in his factories, labor strikes, untimely family deaths, and altercations with the police. Confronted with criticisms about his patriotism, Frederick was surprised, but remained a savvy businessman. Cracker Jack became a red, white, and blue product with an all-American sailor boy and his dog, evolving from a fun snack promoted by adventurous bears. His company thrived under his leadership for another seventeen years and was able to avoid being swallowed by larger companies for thirty years after his death.

Frederick Rueckheim’s greatest business achievement was his ability to turn popcorn, a commodity snack sold on every street corner, into a unique confection that was immortalized in song and forever linked candy and toys.


[1] Unless otherwise noted, birth, death, marriage, occupation, and census data were obtained via

[2] John Breuilly, The Formation of the First German Nation-State, 1800–1871 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996), 22–26; Hajo Holbron, “Champion of Monarchy and Aristocracy,” in The Unification of Germany, 1848–1871, ed. Otto Pflanze (Malabar, Fla.: Robert E. Krieger Publishing, 1979), 57–67; Arnold Meyer, “Great National Hero,” in The Unification of Germany, ed. Pflanze, 43–45.

[3] Breuilly, The Formation of the First German Nation-State, 81.

[4] Edgar Feuchtwanger, Imperial Germany, 1850–1918 (New York: Routledge, 2001), 42–43.

[5]The Book of Chicagoans: A Biographical Dictionary of Leading Living Men of the City of Chicago (Chicago: A.N. Marquis & Company, 1911), 585.

[6] This and other similar calculations were generated by Measuring Worth using the Purchasing Power Calculator for a given year and comparing it with the 2010 value.

[7] Douglas Gomery, “Film and Business History: The Development of an American Mass Entertainment Industry,” Journal of Contemporary History 19.1 (1984). 99.

[8] Andrew F. Smith,Popped Culture: A Social History of Popcorn in America (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1999), 81–82.

[9] Ibid., 83; Cracker Jack Company, A History of the Cracker Jack Co. (Chicago: Magill-Weinsheimer, 1922), 9–11.

[10] “A Candy Factory Fire,” Chicago Daily Tribune, June 20, 1887, 1.

[11] Cracker Jack Company, History, 13–15.

[12] Smith, Popped Culture. 85.

[13] Cracker Jack Company, History, 17.

[14] Alex Jaramillo, Cracker Jack Prizes (New York: Abbeville Press, 1989), 9.

[15] Smith, Popped Culture, 85.

[16] The first record of the term was in 1895. “Crackerjack,” in Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989).

[17] “Do Not Taste It,” Chicago Daily Tribune, March 8, 1896, 5.

[18] Jaramillo, Cracker Jack Prizes, 18.

[19] Larry White, “The Prizes of Cracker Jack,” Southeastern Antiquing and Collecting, 2011, 1–2.

[20] Jaramillo, Cracker Jack Prizes, 13–14.

[21] Joseph Egelhof, “Candy Makers Know Value of a Brand Name,” Chicago Daily Tribune, Dec. 9, 1951, 9; “The Story Behind,” Changing Times, 1967, 40; Nikhil Deogun, “Sailor Jack and Bingo Join Frito-Lay Team in Cracker Jack Deal,” Wall Street Journal, Oct. 9, 1997, 1; Marlyn Irvin Margulis, “Cracker Jack Collectibles,” Antiques & Collecting, 2005, 30.

[22] Cracker Jack Company, History, 13.

[23] Anne Moore, “Toy Manufacturing,” Encyclopedia of Chicago, 824; Jaramillo, Cracker Jack Prizes, 24–42; “Display Ad 1 – Cracker Jack Coupon Ad,” Chicago Daily Tribune, Dec. 31, 1912, 1.

[24] Rachel Petkewich, “Marshmallow,” Chemical and Engineering News 84.16 (2006), 41.

[25] “Weight Is Not an Index of Marshmallow Quality or Value,” Confectioners Journal, Nov. 1920, 111; Smith,Popped Culture. 86.

[26] Anne Moore, “Toy Manufacturing,” Encyclopedia of Chicago, 824; Jaramillo, Cracker Jack Prizes, 24–42; “Display Ad 1 – Cracker Jack Coupon Ad,” Chicago Daily Tribune, Dec. 31, 1912, 1.

[27] “Display Ad 117 – Cracker Jack Factory Ad,” Chicago Daily Tribune, Feb. 7, 1909, Q7.

[28] Jaramillo, Cracker Jack Prizes, 13.

[29] Smith, Popped Culture, 87.

[30] F.E. Ruhling, “How Cracker Jack Came to Follow the Circus into Town,” Printers’ Ink, April 7, 1921, 81.

[31] “A Candy Girl and an Idea,” The International Confectioner, Oct. 1916, 65; Ruhling, “How Cracker Jack Came,” 76, 81; Cracker Jack Company, History, 19.

[32] Jaramillo, Cracker Jack Prizes, 35–42.

[33] Jaramillo, Cracker Jack Prizes, 8.

[34]The Book of Chicagoans, 207.

[35] Cracker Jack Company, History, 17–19.

[36] “Record of Mortgages Filed,” Chicago Daily Tribune, Oct. 18, 1903, 11.

[37] “Display Ad 50 – Cracker Jack Building Ad,” Chicago Daily Tribune, Dec. 31, 1911, K5; Cracker Jack Company, History, 21; “Cracker Jack Co.,” Encyclopedia of Chicago, ed. James R. Grossman, Ann Durkin Keating, and Janice L. Reiff (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 920.

[38] “Plan Factory for West Side,” Chicago Daily Tribune, March 11, 1915, 10.

[39] Cracker Jack Company, History, 21; Al Chase, “Cracker Jack Co. Plans $1,500,000 Factory at Clearing,” Chicago Daily Tribune, May 18, 1930, A14; “East River Park Plans,”New York Times, Jan. 11, 1914, XX3.

[40] “Display Ad 6 – Fruit Dealer Fraudulent Sales Ad,” Chicago Daily Tribune, May 24, 1900, 12.

[41] John B. Jentz, “Artisan Culture and the Organization of Chicago’s German Workers in the Gilded Age, 1860 to 1890,” Amerikastudien / American Studies 29.2 (1984); Melvin G. Holli, “German-American Ethnic Identity from 1890 Onward: The Chicago Case,” Great Lakes Review 11.1 (1985).

[42] James R. Barrett, “Unionization,” in Encyclopedia of Chicago, 841–42.

[43] “Red Auto Routs Strikers,” Chicago Daily Tribune, Sep. 12, 1903, 2.

[44] Edgar T. Davies, “The Present Situation in Illinois,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 33 (March 1909): 153–161, here 153, 155; Florence Kelley, “The Illinois Child-Labor Law,”American Journal of Sociology 3.4 (1898); Florence Kelley, “Child Labor Legislation,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 20 (July 1902); Clare de Graffenried, “Child Labor,” Publications of the American Economic Association 5.2 (1890), 115, 136.

[45] “Factory Shut to Women,” Chicago Daily Tribune, Dec. 23, 1902, 7; Davies, “The Present Situation in Illinois,” 154.

[46] “Classified Ad 31 – Boy Job Ads,” Chicago Daily Tribune, Feb. 22, 1920, F5; “Classified Ad 15 – Female Job Ads,” Chicago Daily Tribune, Sep. 28, 1920, 28.

[47] Mark Sullivan, Our Times, 1900–1925, 6 vols. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1946), 5:109, 132–138.

[48] Ibid., 5:184–190.

[49] French Strother, Fighting Germany’s Spies (New York: Doubleday Page & Company, 1918), 264–265.

[50] Melvin G. Holli, “German American Ethnic and Cultural Identity from 1890 Onward,” in Ethnic Chicago: A Multicultural Portrait, ed. Melvin G. Holli and Peter d’A. Jones (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995), 102–105.

[51] J. Seymour Currey, Illinois Activities in the World War Covering the Period from 1914 to 1920, 2 vols. (Chicago: Thomas B. Poole Company, 1921), 1:79–80.

[52] Ibid., 1:224–227, 237.

[53] “Fred Rueckheim is ‘Reported’ to Secret Service,”Chicago Daily Tribune, April 28, 1917, 5.

[54] Smith, Popped Culture, 87.

[55] “F.W. Rueckheim Avows Devotion to U.S. Interests,” Chicago Daily Tribune, May 8, 1917, 13.

[56] “Mr. Warrington Alters Stand as Officers Call,” Chicago Daily Tribune, Oct. 28, 1917, 5.

[57] Jaramillo, Cracker Jack Prizes, 11.

[58] “Display Ad 11 – Cracker Jack Eat Wisely Ad,” Chicago Daily Tribune, Oct. 13, 1918, 14.

[59] “Display Ad 82 – Cracker Jack US Navy Ad,” Los Angeles Times, June 5, 1918. II-8.

[60] Wayne A. Wiegand, “In Service to the State: Wisconsin Public Libraries during World War I,” Wisconsin Magazine of History 72.3 (1989), 209.

[61] “Rueckheim Brothers & Eckstein Changes Name,”Confectioners Journal 48, no. 565 (1922), 126a. Cracker Jack Company, History, 21.

[62] Jaramillo, Cracker Jack Prizes, 8, 35.

[63] “Advertisement 37 – We Buy Popcorn,” Indiana Farmer’s Guide, Feb. 23, 1918, 26.

[64] “Hiram Wheeler’s Place,” Chicago Daily Tribune, July 11, 1891, 12; “Popcorn for the World,” Los Angeles Times, May 22, 1910, IM647; “Popcorn Harvest Spreads Over More Land Every Year,” Chicago Daily Tribune, Dec. 4, 1927, C4.

[65] Cracker Jack Company, History, 33; Jaramillo, Cracker Jack Prizes, 9.

[66] Chase, “Cracker Jack Co. Plans $1,500,000 Factory,” A14.

[67] Jaramillo, Cracker Jack Prizes, 8–9.

[68] Smith, Popped Culture, 87.

[69] Chase, “Cracker Jack Co. Plans $1,500,000 Factory,” A14.

[70]The Book of Chicagoans, 585.

[71] Rudolf A. Hofmeister, The Germans of Chicago (Champaign, Ill.: Stipes Publishing Company, 1976), 234–35.

[72]The Book of Chicagoans, 585.

[73] “News of the Society World,” Chicago Daily Tribune, June 26,1911, 7.

[74] “Lord Moncaster in Chicago,” Chicago Daily Tribune, Oct. 15, 1898, 8; “Music: Concerts and Recitals This Week,” Chicago Daily Tribune, Dec. 10, 1899, 41.

[75] “Kaiser’s Birthday: Professor Kuehnemann Speaks at Solemn Celebration in the Germania Club,” Abendpost (Chicago), Jan. 28, 1915; “A Notable Gift to the Germania Club,” Fine Arts Journal 32.3 (March 1915); “Cupid Hides in a Painting,” Chicago Daily Tribune, Jan. 24, 1909, 3.

[76] “A Notable Gift to the Germania Club.”

[77] Katharine Kuh, “A Golden Anniversary for Chicago Art,” Bulletin of the Art Institute of Chicago 40.4 (April–May 1946), 44.

[78] “Obituary 3 – Frank Werner Obituary,” Chicago Daily Tribune, July 7,1953, 22.

[79] “Peaceable But Sees Row,” Chicago Daily Tribune, May 7, 1916, A3; “Helps Officers to Trap Fiance,”Chicago Daily Tribune, May 6, 1916, 1.

[80] “‘Who Hit Our Chauffeur?’ Is Court Comedy,” Chicago Daily Tribune, August 8, 1917, 13; “44 Chicagoans Given Rank in Reserve Corps,” Chicago Daily Tribune, August 12, 1917, 2.

[81] Illinois Memorial Society, In Memoriam: Founders and Makers of Illinois (Chicago: S.J. Clarke Publishing, 1927), 39–40; Cracker Jack Company, History, 23.

[82] Cracker Jack Company, History, 29, 37.

[83] “Cracker Jack Co.,” Encyclopedia of Chicago, 920.

[84] Jaramillo, Cracker Jack Prizes, 8.

[85] Michael Hartnett, “Cracker Jack,” Advertising Age, June 26, 2000, S22.

[86] “Packaged Foods – Sweet and Savoury Snacks,” Passport GMID Database (London: Euromonitor International, 2012).

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Frederick Rueckheim
  • Coverage 1846-1937
  • Author
  • Website Name Immigrant Entrepreneurship
  • URL
  • Access Date June 15, 2024
  • Publisher German Historical Institute
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update August 22, 2018