In 1847, almost by accident, Tom Smith invented the cracker. It was a simple idea which became an integral part of British celebration and tradition which still continues today, 160 years on.
This is the remarkable story of the cracker – an unique insight into one of Britain’s most enduring traditions which continues to bring pleasure to all ages and generations, from children to grandparents.
What is a Christmas Cracker?
In its simplest form, a cracker is a small cardboard tube covered in a brightly coloured twist of paper. When the cracker is pulled by two people, each holding one end of the twisted paper, the friction creates a small explosive „pop“. This „pop“ is produced by a narrow strip of chemically impregnated paper. The cracker tears apart and out of the cardboard tube tumbles a bright paper hat, a small gift, a ballon and a motto or joke. It is a running joke that all the jokes and mottos in crackers are unfunny and unmemorable. Similary, in most standard commercial products, the „gift“ is equally awful…
In early 1830, Tom Smith started work as a young boy in a bakers in London. Before long he was successfull enough to start his own business in Goswell Road, Clerkenwell, East London.
Tom Smith was adventurous and forward thinking, often travelling abroad to search for new ideas. It was on a trip in 1840 that he first discovered the „bon bon“ – a sugared almond wrapped in a twist of tissue paper. He decided to bring the „bon bon“ to London and during Christmas that year, they sold extremely well. In January however, the demand virtually ceased and once again he was reliant on sales of cakes, table decorations and ornaments. Anxious to develop the „bon bon“ idea further and to stimulate sales, Tom Smith decided to place a small love motto in the tissue paper. Within a short while, orders were sufficiently high and sales profitable enough for him to increase his staff.
From „bon bon“ to „cracker“
By now, Tom knew he had a unique and potentially very commercial idea. He decided to take a risk and concentrate on developing it further. All this time, the majority of „bon bons“ were still sold at Christmas and Tom began to think up ways to capitalise on this short but very profitable season. He needed to make his „bon bons“ even more appealing. It was the crackle of a log as he threw it on his fire that gave him the flash of inspiration which eventually led to the crackers we know today.
A „crackle“ would add the necessary excitement and spark to his novelty „bon bon“. Now, it was simply a matter of experimentation to find a compound which gave a satisfactory bang without going too far. The size of the „bon bon“ would also need to increase significantly to accomodate the „crackling“ mechanism but the shape remained the same – and the motto was still included. Eventually, Tom perfected his chemical explosion to creat a „pop“ caused by friction when the wrapping was broken. This became the snap and the Cracker as we know it was born.
The trade jumped at Tom Smith’s latest novelty and he was snowed under with orders. Very quickly he began to refine his product – he dropped both the sweet and the „bon bon“ name, calling his new crackers „Cosaques“. He kept the motto and added a small surprise gift. Delighted at his overnight success, Tom Smith decided to explore the export market and took his cracker abroad. At this time, only one design of cracker was being made and to his horror, an Eastern manufacturer seized his idea, copied it, and delivered a consignment of crackers in Britain before Christmas.
At the turn of the Century the demand for crackers and especially those which celebrated current trends and events, was high. After Tom Smith’s death, his three sons set about developing the cracker designs, contents and mottoes. Walter Smith, the youngest son, introduced a topical note to the mottoes which had previously been love verses. These were replaced by more complicated puzzles and cartoons and finally by the corny jokes and riddles which characterise our crackers today. Special writers were commissioned to compose snappy and relevant maxims with references to every important event or craze of the time. Walter also introduced the paper hats, many of which were elaborated and made of the best quality tissue paper on proper hat makers stands. He also toured the world to find new, relevant and unusual ideas for the surprise gifts. Some example of these unusual gifts included bracelets from Bohemia and scarf pins from Saxony.
The Tom Smith factory was now able to fulfil special orders. Records show an order for a six-foot (180cm) cracker to decorate Euston Station in London. In 1927, a gentleman wrote the Company enclosing a diamond engagement ring and a 10 shilling (50p) note as payment for the ring to be put in a special cracker for his financée. Unfortunately, he did not enclose an address and never contacted the Company again.
During the Second World War, restrictions were placed on the production of cracker snaps. The Ministry of Defence commissioned Tom Smith to fold and tie bundles of three to six snaps together with special string and regulation knots. These bundles were then used by soldiers in training as, when the string was pulled, they mimicked the noise of machine gune fire. After the war, vast quantities of these surplus cracker snaps were released back into cracker trade.
Tom Smith Group Limited now manufactures up to 50 million crackers every year, which are sold throughout the world.
Explore the wide range of Christmas Crackers from Tom Smith at www.tomsmithchristmascrackers.com