The History of... Christmas crackers

Cossacks, Charlie Chaplin and current affairs star in Julian Humphrys’ history of the cracker...

This article was first published in the Christmas 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine

An advert from 1878 for Tom Smith’s ‘Surprise Cosaques’. © Mary Evans Picture Library

Who do we have to thank for the Christmas cracker?

Traditionally the credit goes to london confectioner Tom Smith. In 1847 he is said to have introduced England to the delights of the French bonbon, a sugar-almond wrapped in paper with a twist at both ends. To boost sales and keep ahead of his competitors, Smith added a ‘love motto’ before enlarging the packaging, replacing the bonbon with a gift and, in 1860, adding the exploding ‘crack’ that was to give the cracker its name. His son, Walter, later introduced the now-obligatory paper hat.

Yet it’s possible that the first person to sell crackers in Britain was in fact the Italian-born gaudente Sparagnapane, another London confectioner (and the father of noted suffragette maud Sennett). His company, which was established in 1846, a year before Smith’s, described itself as “the oldest makers of Christmas crackers in the United Kingdom”.

 

Were crackers always called crackers?

No. Both companies initially called their creations ‘Cosaques’, supposedly because the crack they made when pulled were reminiscent of the cracking whips of Russian Cossack horsemen.

 

What’s the story behind the introduction of the ‘crack’?

Tradition has it that Smith was inspired by the cracking of a log on his fire. Some accounts even claim he spent two years trying to perfect a way of making the sound. However silver fulminate ‘snaps’ had been around for decades and it’s more likely that Smith merely found a new use for an existing novelty.

 

And they’re not just for Christmas?

Not at all. Late 19th and early 20th-century manufacturers in particular kept a close eye on current affairs and produced crackers with a variety of themes. Votes for women, Charlie Chaplin, coronations, the wireless, even the battle of Tel el Kebir (in the Anglo-Egyptian War of 1882) were just some of the subjects to get the cracker treatment.

 

Were the mottoes and jokes always so awful?

Smith’s certainly didn’t think so. They were proud of the quality of the verse in their early mottoes. But by 1906 the efforts of some manufacturers were certainly bad enough for the Westminster Gazette to describe a particularly poorly written play as being “not up to the standard of cracker poetry”.

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