An animal cracker is a particular type of cookie, baked in the shape of an animal, usually an animal either at a zoo or circus, such as a lion, a tiger, a bear, or an elephant. The most common variety is light-colored and slightly sweet, but darker chocolate-flavored and colorful frosted varieties are also sold. Although animal crackers tend to be sweet in flavor like cookies, they are made with a layered dough like crackers and are marketed as crackers and not as cookies.
In the late 19th century, animal-shaped crackers (or “biscuits” in British terminology) called “Animals” were imported from England to the United States. The demand for these crackers grew to the point that bakers began to produce them domestically. Stauffer’s Biscuit Company produced their first batch of animal crackers in York, Pennsylvania, in 1871. Other domestic bakeries, including the Dozier-Weyl Cracker Company of St. Louis, and the Holmes and Coutts Company of New York City, were the predecessors of the National Biscuit Company, today’s “Nabisco Brands”.
Animal biscuit crackers were made and distributed under the National Biscuit Company banner. In 1902, animal crackers officially became known as “Barnum’s Animals” and evoked the familiar circus theme of the Barnum and Bailey Circus. Later in 1902, the now-familiar box was designed for the Christmas season with the innovative idea of attaching a string to hang from the Christmas tree. Until that time, crackers were generally sold only in bulk (the proverbial “cracker barrel”) or in large tins. These small cartons, which retailed for 5 cents at the time of their release, were a big hit and are still sold today.
The number and variety contained in each box has varied over the years. In total, 53 different animals have been represented by animal crackers since 1902. In its current incarnation, each package contains 22 cookies consisting of a variety of animals. The most recent addition, the koala, was added in September 2002 after being chosen by consumer votes, beating out the penguin, walrus and cobra.
In 1948, the company changed the product name to its current designation of “Barnum’s Animals Crackers”. In 1958, production methods changed to improve the cookies’ visual details. Until then, animal shapes were stamped out of a dough sheet by a cutter. This produced outlines with little sophistication. By installing rotary dies, bakers can actually engrave details onto each cookie, creating a more intricate design. The rotary dies are still used today.
Barnum’s Animals Crackers are all produced in the Fair Lawn, New Jersey, bakery by Nabisco Brands. More than 40 million packages of Barnum’s Animals Crackers are sold each year, both in the United States and exported to 17 countries worldwide. The cookies are baked in a 300-foot (91 m)-long traveling band oven. They are in the oven for about four minutes and are baked at the rate of 12,000 per minute. About 15,000 cartons and 330,000 cookies are produced in a single shift, using some 30 miles (48 km) of string on the packages. This runs to nearly 8,000 miles (13,000 km) of string a year. Those bright circus boxes are produced in three colors—red, blue, and yellow—with different variety of animals on each.
In August 2018, Mondelez International (the parent company of Nabisco) released a new design for its Barnum’s Animal Crackers boxes in the United States, showing the animals freed from their traditional circus boxcar cages. This design change was made in consultation with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), one year after the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus ceased operations. The new design shows a zebra, lion, elephant, giraffe and gorilla together in an African landscape. (Information from Wikipedia)