Animal crackers aren't really crackers, at least not in the way we think of crackers. They're definitely more cookie-like, and they're what the British would call biscuits. In fact, we have the British to thank for these kid-favorite snacks. They made them first.
Origin of animal crackers
The animal crackers that we're familiar with today were first made in England in the mid-1800s. They were slightly sweet biscuits shaped like animals. For a while they were imported to the United States, but in 1871 the D.F. Stauffer Biscuit Company in York, Pennsylvania, started producing them.
Now known as Stauffer's, the company's website says the company was the first in the U.S. to make the treats that now come in a variety of flavors, including chocolate and iced, and different animal shapes. The Stauffer's shapes aren't highly detailed, so the company has an Animal Cracker Identifier on its website so you an identify a lion before you bite its head off.
Nabisco Barnum's Animals Crackers
Although Stauffer's was the first, the most well-known animal crackers are the Barnum's Animals Crackers. The National Biscuit Company, now known as Nabisco, began making a circus-themed version of animal crackers in 1902 and named them after P.T. Barnum, the famous showman and founder of the Barnum & Bailey Circus.
They were the first to package the crackers in small boxes, according to Mental Floss. Until then, the crackers had been sold in bulk. The National Biscuit Company created the iconic boxes that look like a circus train with animals in it, and they put the string across the top of the box for a specific purpose. (And, no, it wasn't so little girls could carry it around like a pocketbook. The string meant the box could be used as a Christmas tree ornament.)
However after major pushback from the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), Nabisco "uncaged" its iconic animals from the circus boxcar and redesigned its boxes to have them roaming free. The new design hit store shelves this month.
Unlike Stauffer's animal shapes that aren't highly detailed, Nabisco's installed rotary dies in 1958 that are still used today that give the crackers enough detail that snackers know which animal they are eating without having to use an online identifier.
Other current producers of animal crackers include Austin, which makes Zoo Animal Crackers, and Keebler's, which makes Frosted Animal Crackers. Many stores have their own brand of the snack including Trader Joe's and Costco's Kirkland brand — both made with organic ingredients.
Random animal cracker facts
- National Animal Cracker Day is April 18.
- Of the 37 different animals that have been included in a box of Barnum's Animals Crackers, only the monkey has ever worn any clothes. He has pants.
- Before animal crackers were sold in small boxes, they were sold in bulk in barrels. This is where the term cracker barrel comes from.
- Bears, elephants, lions and tigers are the only animals that have always been included in the Barnum box. The other animals have changed through the years, according to Mobile Cuisine.
- Studies show that the most common way to eat an animal cracker is to bite off its head off first, according to Aviva Trivia.
- Although the Barnum's box usually features circus animals, in the 1990s there was a push to educate consumers about endangered species. Komodo dragons, peregrine falcons, Hawaiian monks seals and Bactrian camels were featured.
You can make them yourself
Animal crackers started as homemade cookies in England, and you can carry on that homemade tradition today. King Arthur Flour has a recipe that has healthier ingredients than many of the commercially-made animal crackers, including oat flour and honey. They also have cookie cutters in the shape of a giraffe, zebra, elephant and lion.
Editor's note: This article has been updated since it was originally published in May 2018.