Animal Crackers and the History of Cookies

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Chocolate chip, oatmeal, or sugar, most people have a favorite cookie. They can be crisp or chewy, round or cut into a bar, but they usually are always a crowd favorite. This was not always the case with cookies. In the ancient past cookies were a thin unleavened wafer. They were most likely hard, square, bland, and full of bugs.

Biscuits and Crackers

The cookie was first brought to us by the Romans around the third century B.C. and this wafer-like biscuit, or bis coctum (Latin), was literally twice baked. By baking the biscuit two different times, the Romans removed the excess moisture and made the cookie not as moist as cake. The Romans would then dip the cookie in wine to soften it up.

But it was the lack of moisture and the crispness of the biscuit that earned it the name craken by the Middle English. Of course the craken went on to the word cracker that is still used today. While both terms, biscuit and cracker, are represented by foods, it is believed that the term cookie was derived from the small, sweet Dutch wedding cake that was known as a koekje. Koekje is a diminutive of the Dutch word for a full-sized cake, koek. These small cakes were made in numerous variations and flavors and were favorites at parties and family dinners. The Dutch wedding cake cookie is still available on shelves in grocery stores today.

In America, during the 1700s, the words cooky and cookie showed up as part of the vernacular. Written history regarding cookies and America is scant, mainly because cookies did not become brand named temptations until about a hundred years ago. One of the most widely recognized of the American cookies is a child’s favorite.

Animal Crackers and the Christmas of 1902

In 1902, for Christmas, thousands of children in America received an edible toy: animal – shaped cookies in a small rectangular box that resembled a circus cage. The box had a string handle that made it easy to carry around. The string was added by the National Biscuit Company to encourage parents to use the boxes as Christmas ornaments.

The box that was new to American kids started in England as early as 1890 and while Nabisco used the idea, they had the creative idea to label the box as Barnum’s Animals during a time when P.T. Barnum was riding a crest of popularity with The Greatest Show on Earth. Another difference between the two is that the British box only had a few shapes while the American box had eighteen different shapes: bison, camel, cougar, elephant, giraffe, gorilla, hippopotamus, hyena, kangaroo, lion, monkey, rhinoceros, seal, sheep, tiger, zebra, and walking and sitting bear.

Nabisco’s Marketing Genius

Each box of American Animal Crackers had a total of twenty-two cookies but no child was guaranteed a full zoo. The boxes were machine filled so the animals could end up in any combination. Nabisco realized that the randomness added a bit of excitement when the kids opened the box to see what they had. And soon parents were writing in to share with Nabisco the order that the cookies were to be eaten: back legs, forelegs, head and then the tasty body.

Since that simple time when animal cookies were a new idea, thousands of cookies have made it to shelves and into homes around the country. They are such a part of our culture that a world without cookies is not even comprehensible.