Crackers are a traditional festive custom dating back to the Victorian period. Used by most households over Christmas, these festive table decorations make a snapping sound when pulled open, and often contain a small gift, paper hat and a joke.
Christmas crackers were invented in 1847 by London based confectioner and baker Tom Smith. When visiting Paris, he came across the French bon bon sweets, a sugar almond wrapped in a tissue paper. He tried to sell similar sweets on his return to London, but found that they were only popular around Christmas. To encourage year-round sales, he added a small love motto or riddle in the wrapper.
Tom was inspired to add the explosive pop sound after hearing the crackling sound of a log fire and perfected this mechanism in the 1860s. It used two narrow strips of paper layered together, with silver fulminate painted on one side and an abrasive surface on the other – when pulled, friction created a small explosion. The size of the paper wrapper had to be increased to accommodate the banger mechanism, and eventually the sweet was replaced with trinkets, jewellery and other items. Originally known as cosaques after the Cossack soldiers who had a reputation of firing guns in the air, the onomatopoeic cracker then became the common name.
Other elements of the cracker – the gifts, paper hats and design were added by Tom’s son Walter Smith. He travelled the world looking for new ideas for gifts to put in the crackers. The crown paper hats might have been inspired from Epiphany cakes from Europe, often decorated with a paper crown on top. By the 1930s the love poems had been replaced with jokes. Novelty crackers used at various celebrations also became popular and these often followed topical trends.
These miniature Christmas tree crackers from the 1950s are in their original box and contain charms, snaps and mottoes.