Game of Groans: The history of the Christmas Cracker

Tom Smith Christmas mottos from the V&A Museum London

A trip to Paris and the crackle of a log on the fire were the inspiration behind a much loved (and groaned at) Christmas tradition.

An entrepreneurial wedding cake ornament maker, Tom Smith, was in Paris in 1840 on a trip seeking new ideas from abroad. There he discovered the ‘Bon Bon’ (‘Good Good’) and he soon introduced the wrapping of sweets in a twist of tissue paper to the UK.

An initial Christmas rush encouraged Smith to develop the idea further. His next innovation, the placing of small ‘love mottos’ in the tissue paper, provided enough profit to increase his staff and spirit to take his new commercial venture further alongside his now well established wedding cake ornament and confectionery business.

Throwing a log on the fire provided the “crackle” to his next idea to increase demand in the short Christmas season. Smith began to experiment with various compounds to create a bang (but not a “boom!”). Soon, he developed a ‘pop’ caused by a chemical reaction from friction when opening the “Bon Bon”. This latest novelty grew both sales and size of his novelty (to accommodate the crackle’ mechanism).

By 1847, the sweet had been replaced by a surprise gift and the name “Bon Bon” was replaced with “Cosaques”.

Soon imitation ‘cracker’ (as they soon became known as) makers entered the market which drove Smith to extend his range from one to eight and boosted supply and distribution. He soon outgrew his original premise in Goswell Road, East London and moved to Finsbury Square in the City of London where they remained until 1953.

Tom Smith left the business to his three sons Tom, Henry and Walter.

The youngest, Walter, toured the world in search for interesting surprise gifts for inside their crackers and introduced paper hats made of the finest hatmaker tissue material. But Walter is probably best known for the evolution of the messages found inside the crackers. First, topical notes composed by commissioned writers replaced the love verses with references to important happenings and trends of the time. Soon these became entertaining puzzles and cartoons and then into the corny jokes and riddles we now know and groan to at christmas celebrations today.

If you are in the mood for some extra Christmas groaners, here are 35 for you to enjoy!

In 1953, the Tom Smith company merged with Caley Crackers and in the years to follow also merged with Mead and Field, Neilson Festive Crackers and Mason and Church. Today Tom Smith Group is a subsidiary of Napier Industries, the largest manufacturer of crackers in the world.

Facts found at Wikipedia and tomsmithcrackers.co.uk

Image from the V&A Museum

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