Animal crackers in my soup,
Monkeys and rabbits loop the
Sung by Shirley Temple, 1935
Little Shirley was wrong. There were never any rabbits. Monkeys, yes. Lions and tigers and bears, indeed. A jaguar, now and again. Even a hyena or two.
Over the last 100 years, 53 different animals have lived in the Barnum’s Animals Crackers box. We’ve bitten off their heads, chomped off their toes and staged circuses on the coffee table -- animal crackers are, after all, the No. 1 exception to the annoying “Don’t play with your food!” rule.
Christopher Morley wrote a poem about them:
Animal crackers, and cocoa to drink,
That is the finest of suppers, I think ...
The Marx Brothers did a movie about them. Sort of. (OK, OK, it was just the name of the movie. But still.)
So to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the crackers, introduced in 1902, Nabisco will add another animal to the box. The company has asked the public to decide among the koala, the walrus, the penguin and the cobra.
The koala is out front, of course. It’s cute. It’s cuddly. It even comes with its own tree.
And, really, who wants to eat a poisonous snake?
“Well, everyone has their favorite animal, and we just wanted to make sure they were all represented,” says Nabisco spokesman Larry Baumann, trying to explain the cobra inclusion. The penguin, by the way, is running second, Baumann says, with the walrus firmly entrenched in third.
The winner will join 17 other animals in the box, including the lion, the elephant, the bison and two bears--one standing up and one sitting down.
Don’t worry. There doesn’t seem to be any bear bias. The Supreme Court probably won’t have to weigh in on this vote. Besides, the koala isn’t really a bear anyway. Remember when life didn’t seem so complicated?
It’s easy to get nostalgic. Animal crackers belong to a different age, an era of comfort and security. Childhood. Memories of a long-lost time.
“It’s definitely a connector,” says Lawrence Fisher, executive director of the Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, Conn. Grandparents come in and start telling kids what they remember, talking about the boxes they had. There’s really something special about them.”
But we know now that things have never been as simple as we’d like to believe.
Is it possible they represent the very beginnings, the first evil seed, of that now-inescapable world of product tie-ins aimed at our children? You know: “Monsters, Inc.” Happy Meals. Elmo dinnerware. Poseable Spice Girl dolls. Cheerios storybooks.
Barnum’s Animals Crackers.
Take heart. James McNeal, a retired Texas A&M; marketing professor who has researched children’s responses to advertising, marketing and promotions for more than 35 years, says we cannot blame animal crackers for this.
“If nothing else, the name itself that little kids use is ‘animal,’ not ‘Barnum & Bailey’ or ‘Ringling Brothers’ or any kind of brand name,” he says. “They’re just animal crackers. So in that sense, they pretty well do stand alone.”
That’s not to say McNeal is ready to give them a total pass.
“I have to say that I paused when I heard about the four animals because, except for the snake, they tend to be a little bit round, heavy, fat,” McNeal explains. “This is something that I’m looking at rather seriously.”
“Well,” McNeal continues, “when we talk about children and healthy lifestyles, there’s a tendency to talk about unhealthy food--french fries, whatever--but my concern is with cartoon characters, and animal characters, who send out the message that fat is fun.”
Think about it. Barney is fat. Teletubbies are tubby. Porky the Pig is--well, isn’t it obvious?
Nabisco’s Baumann says the main reason most of the animals are round, or chubby, is packaging, so they don’t break in transit. Alligators, for example, failed to make the cut for the contest because the product development team decided their tails would be too fragile.
Barnum’s Animals, by the way, have 260 calories per small box and these days are considered a “low fat” snack food, with 8 grams of fat.
P.T. Barnum, the greatest self-promoter in history, had nothing to do with the box that bears his name. And never got a cent for it. That’s according to our man Fisher of the Barnum Museum. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus still doesn’t get a cut, or a licensing fee.
This is what happened: In 1889, Barnum decided to do something truly nutty, a tour of England with his circus. So after his buddy Bailey figured out how, exactly, you get a circus onto a boat and across an ocean, Barnum’s animals made their European debut.
The English, meanwhile, had already invented animal biscuits. Sensing a marketing moment, several companies started manufacturing animal biscuits with circus packaging and called them Barnum’s.
Soon the product migrated across the ocean, where Nabisco’s forerunner, the National Biscuit Co., put them on U.S. store shelves in 1902. Originally called Barnum’s Animals, they became Barnum’s Animals Crackers in 1948.
There are many varieties of animal crackers/cookies available today. But they don’t have the box.
The box, we love the box. The circus cages, the brightly painted animals, the old door you could pop out to make it a real “cage.”
Looking for a special Christmas promotion, National Biscuit executives came up with the idea of specially designed red and green boxes with a circus theme. Thinking the boxes would make fine Christmas tree ornaments, they added the little string, to make it easier to hang boxes on branches. So, alas, you were wrong. That little string was not there so we could carry the box around like a purse.
Of course, that’s what people (OK, girls ) did with it anyway. Marbles, pennies, costume jewelry, rocks--all have been stuffed in a Barnum box at some point.
To find someone who hangs the boxes on the tree, we had to go to Dallas, where graphic artist Linda Sue Lammers uses them on the circus-themed Christmas tree she puts up every year in her circus-themed den.
“They just look so cute with all my other circus things,” says Lammers. “I’ve got a popcorn garland and circus animals and a cotton candy thing my friend made for me.”
For the record, though, she always thought the string was a purse thing, too.
An informal survey of animal-cracker eaters seems to indicate that a preponderance of us bite the heads off first.
What this means, we do not know. It does, however, seem to suggest a certain sense of--shall we say aggression?--toward animal species. So what does People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals have to say about all this?
PETA is clearly anti-circus, given that it has created an entire Web site (www.circuses.com) to detail circus-related sins. Its press office was happy to provide an official statement of its position on this subject, which reads:
“We are glad that the cookies are vegan but sad that they promote circus animal misery--if only they’d make whip, chain and bull-hook cookies to show kids the full story.”
So much for nostalgia.