An animal cracker is a particular type of small cookie baked in the shape of an animal, usually an animal either at a zoo or circus, such as an African lion, tiger, bear or 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 are made with a layered dough like crackers, they are sweet like cookies.
Other animal-shaped crackers and cookies are popular, such as Teddy Grahams, Goldfish, Hello Panda and Koala's March. These differ from traditional animal crackers in flavor and assortment, and though not usually called animal crackers, are still considered animal crackers.
In the late 19th century, animal-shaped cookies (or "biscuits" in British terminology) called "Animals" were imported from England to the United States. The demand for these cookies 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 cookies 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, 54 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 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 total, 37 different animals have been featured in Barnum's Animals Crackers since 1903. The current cookies are bear, bison, camel, cougar, elephant, giraffe, gorilla, hippopotamus, hyena, kangaroo, lion, monkey, rhinoceros, seal, sheep, tiger and zebra. To celebrate its 100th anniversary, Barnum's added the koala to the menagerie in September 2002.
Austin Zoo Animal Crackers currently feature bear, camel, elephant, lion, monkey, owl, penguin, rabbit, ram, rhinoceros, turtle and zebra.
Cadburys Animals are chocolate coated and feature crocodile, elephant, hippo, monkey, lion, tiger and toucan.
Stauffer's animal crackers include an American bison, bear, camel, cow, cat, donkey, elephant, hippopotamus, horse, lion, mountain goat, rhinoceros, and tiger. They are made in plain (vanilla), chocolate graham, cinnamon graham, cotton candy and iced flavors, as well as "breakfast cookies" made with oats, almonds, cranberries and pomegranate.
Nabisco makes Barnum's Animal Crackers, with their distinctive package art of a circus wagon fitted out as a cage and animals within it. "Barnum" refers to the famous showman and circus entrepreneur P. T. Barnum, but Nabisco does not pay a licensing fee to Barnum and Bailey Circus. The product actually says "Barnum's Animals", subtitled "Crackers". Half of the wheels are printed on the large sides of the box but at one time the printed wheels continued to the bottom of the box, were outline partially perforated and allowed the wagon to stand on its wheels.
Austin, a division of the Keebler Company, also makes a variety of animal crackers. Although not nearly as popular, the Austin variety has similar nutritional content and animal shapes. The Austin product is labeled under the name of the Kellogg Company, which acquired Keebler in 2001.
Stauffer Biscuit Company of York, Pennsylvania, also has a line of animal crackers, which are now distributed by several major discount retailers. Their use of the spices nutmeg and mace give the basic animal cracker a slightly different character from the Nabisco crackers.
The Borden corporation also produced a brand of animal crackers, until the late 1970s. They came in a red box, which featured the famous Elsie the Cow logo.
Market Square Food Company Inc. in Illinois has also produced its own brand of animal crackers since 1982. Its animal crackers are distributed by several major retailers throughout the United States and internationally.
In the UK, Cadburys produce a range simply called "Animals". As noted above, these biscuits (British usage) have a chocolate coating on one side.
In Germany, Bahlsen produces animal crackers under the Leibniz Zoo brand.Animal Crackers was the name of a 1930 Marx Brothers film.
"I'm Just Wild About Animal Crackers" was recorded by Irving Aaronson & His Commanders with Phil Saxe doing the vocal for Victor on June 23, 1926.
A song sung by Shirley Temple in 1935, "Animal Crackers in My Soup", was used by many companies for advertising animal crackers.
Animal crackers are the subject of Melanie Safka's 1968 novelty hit "Animal Crackers".
They are the namesake of Eric Whitacre's popular choral piece, "Animal Crackers".
In the 2007 film Zodiac, Inspector Dave Toschi (portrayed by Mark Ruffalo) is frequently seen snacking on animal crackers. The real life Toschi was known for this habit as well.
Animal crackers figure prominently in a romantic scene between Ben Affleck and Liv Tyler in the movie Armageddon (1998)
Animal Crackers are mentioned in passing in Buffy the Vampire Slayer season 2, episode 13, "Surprise", when Oz, wooing Willow, notes that the monkey is the only cookie animal which wears pants; "I mock you with my monkey pants" is a memorable line.