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Who Invented the Christmas Cracker?

Updated on January 20, 2017
Tom Smith
Tom Smith | Source

Inventor of the Christmas Cracker

Christmas crackers are now a huge part of our Christmas dinner traditions. Today you will find a wide variety of crackers from traditional to novelty. You can buy double snap crackers and now even extra large crackers, which are particularly popular with kids.

The cracker wasn't always a Christmas tradition though. In fact it started of as a novelty Bon-Bon sweet, designed by Tom Smith in 1847 and sold from his confectionary shop in Goswell Road, East London.

Tom Smith's confectionary business was already well known for his wedding cake toppers, decorations and cakes. Tom was very creative with his new designs and would often travel to different countries in his quest for new ideas and inspiration.

During the 1840s while on a trip to a trade exhibition in Paris, Tom was first introduced to the Bon-Bon. He liked the novel idea of the sugared almond wrapped in pretty tissue paper and twisted at both ends.

Later, Tom brought the idea back to London with him and began selling them from his confectionary shop. The Bon-Bon's proved very popular during the Christmas season that year, however once Christmas was over and the initial novelty wore off, his sales soon started to drop.

Tom knew he was on to something with his Bon-Bon sweets and realising that it was mostly men buying the sweets for their partners, Tom decided to place a small love motto, also known as 'kiss mottoes' in the tissue paper of the sweets. This proved very popular and Tom was soon investing more time and money in to new and novel ways of marketing them.

* While most sources state that Tom Smith's 'love motto' idea was inspired by the Chinese fortune cookie, records indicate that the fortune cookie was not invented until 1918. Meaning Tom's idea was around 71 years before that time.

By 1850, the sweet was removed and replaced with a surprise gift such as a small trinket or toy. Due to the high demand of Tom Smith's latest idea, he soon expanded and moved his business to bigger premises in the City of London during 1853.

Tom's biggest inspiration came one evening when he was throwing logs on his fireplace. Upon hearing the crackling sound the logs were making on the fire, he came up with the exciting idea of incorporating some kind of mechanism into his Bon-Bon sweets so that they would make a sound when opened.

Tom soon began experimenting with different compounds in his quest to find something that would make a small banging sound when the bon-Bon's were opened. Tom finally found that fulminating silver made a popping noise caused by friction when the bon-bon was pulled apart. The two narrow strips of fulminating silver paper later became known as 'the Snap.'

By 1860, what we now know as the cracker was born. Tom called them his 'bangs of expectation.'

Tom Smith Cracker Advert
Tom Smith Cracker Advert | Source
Original box of crackers
Original box of crackers | Source

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The Christmas Cracker Was Born

Due to the size of the snap, the bright coloured paper wrapper needed to be made bigger to contain it, although the iconic shape remained the same. The name was later changed to 'Cosaques.'

* The name Cosaques is said to come from the sound the cracking whips made by the Russian Cossak horseman.

The snap made the cosaques an instant hit and Tom soon found himself swamped with new orders. Seeing how popular they had become in England, Tom decided to take his new invention abroad and expand his growing market. However a eastern manufacturer who clearly saw the potential in the cosaques, copied Toms idea and delivered a big shipment to the UK just before the Christmas season.

This only seemed to motivate Tom Smith and he quickly designed a number of different style cosaques and also distributed them throughout the country in time for that Christmas. From there, Tom's business went from strength to strength and after rival cosaques hit the market, they soon became commonly known as 'Crackers.' The Victorians soon nicknamed Tom Smith the 'Cracker King.'

Tom Smith sadly died in 1869, aged 46. He left behind a Christmas tradition that will be treasured by millions across the world.

The Story of the Christmas Cracker (@Tom Smith)

Advert | Source

How the Christmas Cracker Evolved

Following Tom Smith's passing, the business was taken over by his three Sons, Tom, Walter and Henry. Just like his Father before him, Walter took a keen interest in the cracker business and was soon travelling the world for new ideas.

Walter came up with many new and novel ways to make their crackers stand out from the many copycats that had since surfaced. He often brought back new trinkets from his travels such as bracelets for the ladies and tie pins for the men. He also changed the love motto's to cartoons or quizzes and eventually the bad jokes which are commonly found in crackers today.

Probably one of the most significant changes that Walter made, was the crown shaped hats made from colourful tissue paper. Some believe the hats signified the three wise men.

By 1900, Tom Smiths were selling 13 million crackers per year. By now, they had a wide variety of designs such as floral decorations, matching crackers and boxes and beautifully decorated crackers made out of crepe paper.

Crackers were no longer just for Christmas, they were designing them for other occasions such as the 1900 Paris Exhibition and The Coronation. They knew that they had truly made it when they began making crackers for the Royal family.

In 1906, Tom Smiths were granted their first Royal Warrant by the then Prince of Wales. This continued and Tom Smiths still make exclusive crackers each Christmas for the Royal family although the design of these crackers are always top secret.

As the demand for crackers continued, Tom Smiths merged with 'Caley Crackers ' and took over their headquarters and factory in 1953. Today the Tom Smith brand is owned by International Greetings in South Wales. They now also produce wrapping paper, gift bags and cards. But their biggest seller will always be the iconic and much loved Christmas Cracker, with over 300 million being purchased every year in the UK.

"Tom Smith - The Home of Christmas"

Below you will find a beautiful love motto found in a Tom Smith Cracker during an interview with the Strand Magazine back in 1891.

"The sweet crimson rose with its beautiful hue

Is not half as deep as my passion for you.

Twill, wither and fade and no more will be seen

But whilst my heart lives, you will still be its queen.

— A Tom Smith Cracker Love Motto
The Confectioners Benevolent Fund, 1891
The Confectioners Benevolent Fund, 1891 | Source

10 Interesting Christmas Cracker Facts

1. In 1890, 3ft long crackers were made containing a full sized coat, hat, collar, frill, whiskers, umbrella and eye glass.

2. In 1891, Tom Smith and Co made a Cracker to help raise funds for the Confectioners Benevolent Fund. The cracker was over 12ft long and contained 250 toys, party hats and mottos.

3. The longest Christmas cracker pulling chain in the UK was made up of 749 people at Brindleyplace in Birmingham on the 11th December 2013.

4. in 1927, a man wrote a letter to Tom Smiths company requesting for an engagement ring be placed into a special cracker for his Fiancée. The man enclosed a diamond engagement ring and a 10 shilling note, however he forgot to enclose his address and never contacted the company again. The letter along with the ring and note remain in the safe to this day.

5. During the second world war, The Ministry of Defence used Tom Smiths snaps for Soldiers in training as when a bundle of them was pulled together the sound mimicked the sound of gun fire.

6. Special Millionaire Crackers were made for the rich which contained a solid silver box with a piece of silver and gold jewellery inside.

7. The worlds biggest Christmas cracker pull was done by 1,478 people at a Honda event in Japan during 2009.

8. The worlds longest cracker was made by the parents of students at Ley Hill School in Buckinghamshire on the 20th December 2001. The cracker was 207ft long. Wow!

9. Crackers could make you smile in more ways than one back in the 1800s. Tom Smiths produced Crackers for single men and women containing weird gifts such as a set of false teeth.

10. In Victorian times, twelfth night was officially banned because of the Victorians excessive use of crackers.


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