By Craig Lind
Christmas without a cracker? It’s almost unimaginable for many in the U.K.! Like so many of the traditions that we hold over the festive season, Christmas Crackers were first invented during the Victorian period. And, by all accounts, Queen Victoria derived much amusement from them.
We usually look to Germany, and the influence of Prince Albert, Victoria’s husband, to find the origin of many of the things that we associate with modern Christmas celebrations—the tree, the presents, the carols—all stem from Albert’s influence and the Victorian trend of following the Royals lead in very many things. But we need to look to London, a baker/confectioner called Tom Smith (born in 1823), and what he discovered during a trip to Paris, France, circa 1840.
Always on the lookout for new products, Tom was taken by French Bonbons—sugared almonds wrapped in a twist of colorful tissue paper. In 1847, Tom Smith imported the idea of these French bonbons, and he began to sell them as treats. They sold well all through the year, but Tom could not help noticing that sales really soared at Christmastime. Whatever the reason, these sugared almonds seemed like a special Christmas treat for the Victorians. Seeing this trend at Christmas time, Tom developed the idea the following year by adding a short message or poem about love, and he printed this on the inside of the wrapper. The year after that, he added a small trinket as a gift inside these bonbons.
Only two years after he introduced them, Tom’s Bonbons were looking less like the French treats that had inspired him, and more like the crackers we know today. But something crucial was still missing—they made no pop or bang when they were opened.
As legend tells, it was a roaring fire, crackling and popping in the hearth, that gave Tom his next great idea—his bonbons should explode when they were opened. By Christmas 1850, crackers were literally making a BANG! Well... more of a pop to begin with, but they were really looking and sounding like crackers now. Interestingly, Tom named his product “Cossacks.” The name, “Cracker” was created by popular invention. It was Tom’s customers, delighted by the snapping sound they made, who coined the name crackers, and it stuck.
Tom passed away in 1869. His business, built around a sugar-coated almond, had grown enormously and the popularity of his crackers kept increasing year over year. Tom’s sons took over the business, and his son, Walter, seems to have had the greatest influence in making the family’s crackers contemporary.
Walter added the paper hat found inside modern crackers, and he replaced the little message of love with snappy comments reflecting contemporary figures, events, and themes—women’s suffrage, jazz, Charlie Chaplin, and Tutankhamen—all had their own cracker messages and designs. Eventually, these messages were replaced with the lame jokes that, for some reason, remain inside crackers to this day.
Walter also took off, traveling across the world in search of new, delightful treats to pack inside crackers. Paper fans from Japan, tiny American-made wooden barrels, German scarf pins, and many other tiny wonders from around the world, now delighted customers of Tom Smith’s Crackers.
We also have Walter to thank for the incredible little glass animal charms that were found inside Tom Smith’s Crackers between 1890–1930. Among the designs that can still be found were a “lucky” black cat, pig, rabbit, French bulldog, dachshund, frog, monkey, duck, elephant, parrot, and bear.
Walter traveled to Czechoslovakia for these glass animal charms, where glasswork was not uncommon as a household business. Entire families worked in their homes to make the Christmas decorations and cracker fillers that delighted Victorians and Edwardians across the U.K. In fact, glass work was such an ubiquitous export for Czechoslovakia, that many prisons also enlisted inmates to produce glass items for export to the U.S., France, and the U.K.
It is uncertain exactly where each of the imported charms were made, though the striking degree of variation in color, size, quality, and form of the charms suggests that Walter imported from several sources—perhaps even taking advantage of household and prison production. Despite this, we know that very many came from the town of Jablonec/Gablonz, which hosted several very large glass making factories.
Despite being out of production and circulation for almost 100 years, these beautiful animal charms can still be found today. If you ever find an oddly shaped little chunk of colored glass while out beachcombing for treasures, pause for a moment, take a really close look at it…if you are very lucky, you may have found one of these truly delightful glass charms from a bygone era. We have only ever found one of these, and it is one of Nicole’s most treasured finds—it is a real wee wonder that can still fill someone with joy even after all these years.
The contents of crackers have changed over the years. Sadly, we don’t find treats like these amazing glass ornaments, but their place in Christmas tradition has become firmly established. It’s hard to imagine Christmas without a cracker, the small gift it contains, the bad joke that makes everyone groan, and the paper hat that everyone should wear during their Christmas dinner…whether it fits your head or not! And it all began when a London confectioner saw beauty in a wrapped sugar-coated almond.
Learn how to make your own custom party crackers ›
This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine November/December 2022 issue.