The Modern Cracker

…came into being not long after the American Civil War ended. Given their reputation among soldiers and veterans, it might seem impossible that a thing as loathed as the cracker could ever become a successful commercial product. However one can never underestimate the power of good marketing. Sure, the war may have ended, but there was still an awful lot of large-scale cracker-making machinery lying around. With a little imagination, some fat, leavening and a catchy name, who knew what the potential might be? And so, starting in about the 1870’s, American consumers began to see boxes of small and delicate “snack” crackers pop up in stores. “Soda crackers”, “water crackers” and “premium flake crackers” were a few of the early names, though none of them caught on quite like “saltines” which first appeared in 1876.

From then on it was nothing but up, up, up for the American cracker. Triscuits, for instance, were introduced by Nabisco in 1903. Cheez-Its (my personal favorites) came along in 1921. Ritz crackers, probably Nabisco’s most famous cracker, debuted in 1934. Goldfish, originally from Switzerland, were introduced to America in 1962 by Pepperidge Farm. Of course there have been countless others over the past 140 years, and the category keeps on growing. Why? Because they’re darn convenient is why. Plus they’re extremely versatile, useful as a medium for everything from peanut butter to paté. They’re also salty, crunchy and rich, attributes which any potato chip salesman will tell you are sure-fire winners among consumers.

And while the big packaged brands will probably always dominate the market, there’s really nothing like a small-batch boutique cracker. As a guy who spent a big chunk of his professional baking life mixing, cutting and baking crackers for a little Chicago-area bakery, I can tell you that of all the breads we made and sold, our crackers were far and away our most popular savory items. I think it’s time I made some again…

UPDATE: Reader Laura points out that crackers were not strictly the province of the military in the decades prior to the Civil War. Indeed, especially in some parts of New England, crackers were made commercially as well as by home bakers. My main point is that crackers didn’t become mass-marketed industrial products until after the war.

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