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Tom Smith Crackers

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The History of the Christmas Cracker

What Are Crackers?

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, 150 years on. In it’s simple 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’ produced by a narrow strip of chemically impregnated paper. The cardboard tube tumbles a bright paper hat, a small gift, a balloon and a motto or joke.

At the turn of the century, Tom Smith produced crackers not only for the Christmas season but also to celebrate every major occasion from The Paris Exhibition in 1900 to War Heroes in 1918 and The World Tour in 1926 of Prince Edward, The Prince of Wales. Contents were tailored to each box; grotesque or artistic masks, puzzles, conundrums, tiny treasures, jewels, games and mottoes, and most of the beautifully illustrated boxes, crackers and hats, from fezzes to sheiks” head dresses, were made by hand. The fully illustrated catalogues which date back to 1877 provide an exceptional visual history of British social and political evolvement over an entire century.

Early History of the Cracker

In early 1830, Tom Smith started work as a small boy in a bakers and ornamental confectioners shop in London, selling sweets such as fondants, pralines and gum pastilles. He worked hard and took particular interest in the wedding cake ornaments and decorations, experimenting and creating new, more exciting and less crude designs in his spare time.

Before long he was successful enough to leave and start up his own business in Goswell Road, Clerkenwell, East London. He was adventurous and forward thinking, often travelling abroad to search for new ideas, it was on a trip to Paris in 1840 that he first discovered the ‘bon bon’, a sugared almond wrapped in a twist of tissue paper. It was a simple idea which, over the next 7 years, would eventually evolved into the Cracker. He decided to bring the ‘bon bon’ to London and during Christmas that year they sold extremely well, but in January demand virtually ceased and once again he was reliant on sales of cake and table decorations and ornaments.

Anxious to develop the ‘bon bon’ idea further and stimulate sales, Tom decided to place a small love motto in the tissue paper and he encouraged his regular customers to takes supplies, many did, and within a short while, orders were sufficiently high and sales profitable enough for him to increase his staff. By now, Tom knew that he had an unique and potentially very commercial idea. He decided to take a risk and concentrate on developing it further, while still running the wedding cake ornament and confectionery business which was by now very well established.

At this time, the majority of ‘bon bons’ were still sold at Christmas and he began to think up ways to capitalise on this short but very profitable season and 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.

Invention of the Cracker

A ‘ crackle’ would add the necessary excitement and spark to his novelty ‘bon bon’ and it was now simply a matter of experimentation to find a compound which gave a satisfactory bang without going to far. The size of the ‘bon bon’ would also need to increase significally to accommodate the ‘cracking mechanism’ but the shape remained the same and the motto was still included.

Eventually Tom perfected his chemical explosion to create a ‘pop’ caused by friction when the wrapping was broken This eventually became the snap and the cracker 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 the sweet and the ‘bon bon’ name, calling his new crackers Cosaques, but he kept the motto and added a surprise gift. Delighted at his overnight success Tom 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 to Britain just before Christmas.

Not surprisingly, in true fashion, Tom immediately rose to the challenge; he designed 8 different kinds of cracker, worked his staff day and night and distributed stocks throughout the country also in time for Christmas. After this he never looked back. Tom Smith lived to see the new branch of his firm grow to swamp the original premises in Goswell Road. The company moved to Finsbury Square in the City of London where it remained until 1953.

When he died he left the business to his three sons, Tom Henry and Walter. A few years later, a drinking fountain was erected in Finsbury Square by Walter Smith in memory of his mother, Mary, and to commemorate the life of the man who invented the great British Cracker.

How the Cracker Evolved

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.

Special writers were commissioned to compose snappy and relevant maxims with references to every important event or craze at the time from greyhounds to Jazz, Frothblowers to Tutankhamen, Persian Art to The Riviera. The original early Victorian mottoes were mainly love verses…Eventually these were replaced by more complicated puzzles and cartoons, and finally by the corny jokes and riddles which characterise our crackers today. Walter also introduced the paper hats, many of which were elaborate and made of best tissue and decorative paper on proper hatmakers stands.

He also toured the world to find new, relevant and unusual ideas for the surprise gifts such as bracelets from Bohemia, tiny wooden barrels from America and scarf pins from Saxony. Some contents were also assembled in the factory like the thousands of tiny pill boxes filled with rouge complete with powder puff.

Tom Smith were now able to fulfil special orders for both companies and individuals. Records show an order for a six foot cracker to decorate Euston Station in London, and in 1927 a gentleman wrote to the Company enclosing a diamond engagement ring and 10 shilling note as payment for the ring to be put in a special cracker for his fiancee. Unfortunately he did not enclose an address and never contacted the Company again; the ring, letter and 10 shilling note are still in the safe today.

Variety of Designs

Tom Smith made wonderful crackers. In the early days there was an extremely large variety of specialist boxes including Wedgwood Art Crackers from original designs by permission of Josiah Wedgwood and Sons, and designs such as Japanese Menagerie crackers containing the latest novelties from Japan specially manufactured and imported.

These include animals, birds and and reptiles and even mottoes in Japanese. The company was, importantly, very aware of current affairs and the political and leisure activities of each period. Crackers were created for the War Heroes, Charlie Chaplin, The Wireless, Motoring, The Coronation and even the Channel Tunnel in 1914. Exclusive crackers were also made for members of the Royal Family and still are to this day. 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 gun fire. After the war, vast quantities of these surplus cracker snaps were released back into the cracker trade. As the demand for crackers increased, Tom Smith merged with Caley Crackers in 1953 taking over their headquarters and factory in Norwich, East Anglia.

Further merges took place over the following years with Mead and Field, Neilson Festive Crackers and Manson and Church, each specialists in their own particular field. Today Tom Smith Group is a subsidiary of Napier Industries, the largest manufacturer of crackers in the world.

Royal Warrants

1906: Tom Smith were granted their first Royal Warrant by the then Prince of Wales which entitled them in 1909 to become members of the Royal Warrant Holders Association. 1910: In December, the reigning monarch, King George V granted Tom Smith his warrant as suppliers of Christmas Crackers.

1911: On March 23rd, Tom Smith was granted Queen Mary’s Royal Warrant as manufacturers of Christmas Crackers. This warrant was renewed in 1938 and held by Tom Smith until her death in 1953.

1964: On January 1st, the Queen Elizabeth II was granted and was held until the Queen passed away in 2022.

1975: On March 10th, the Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother warrant was granted and was held until the Queen Mother passed away in 2002.

1987: On January 1st . The Prince of Wales Warrant was granted. Tom Smith still proudly hold the honour of producing special crackers each year for the Royal Household although designs and contents are a closely guarded secret.

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