After watching the movie “Curly Top” for the first time, I was hooked. Not just on too-cute-to-be-true actor Shirley Temple (whose cinematic canon I would proceed to consume in its entirety in short order) but also on animal crackers. What were these anthropomorphized carbohydrates of which Temple crooned? Like her I wanted to have fun swallowing animals one by one. When I learned that they were a real thing and (even better) were packaged in an adorable scarlet box designed to approximate a menagerie and outfitted with a string handle to facilitate toting them around like a handbag, I became a lifelong fan.
My affection for another type of cracker, the Ritz, was less whimsical in origin but just as steadfast. A consummate child of the 1980s, I associated this buttery round with elementary holiday parties, Easy Cheese and generally that wonderful time of the year in which processed snacks and Christmas cookies are a perfectly respectable dinner.
Although there is no certainly no shame in claiming Shirley Temple as a hero, given my twin love for Ritz and animal crackers I should include another figure on my list: Sydney Stern.
Born in New York in 1890, Stern was one of six children in a Hungarian Jewish immigrant family. Despite growing up in a tenement, Stern went on to study at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and Columbia University’s Art Students League, eventually rising to become a talented and successful commercial artist.
At age 38, however, tragedy struck when Stern’s wife died from complications from childbirth, leaving him a single parent to the new baby in addition to two other children. At the intersection of grief and practicality, Stern made would be a life-changing professional alteration. He accepted a job with the National Biscuit Company, aka “Nabisco.” The job’s regular hours and steady paycheck, coupled with the family’s move from the city to Long Island, held the promise of stability and a fresh start for the bereft family.
Nabisco, as its name aptly implies, made a name for itself mass-producing affordable baked goods. One of its first products was a cracker first produced by small-time shop Bent’s bakery (which was later merged with several other businesses to become the New York Biscuit Company, which in 1898 evolved to become Nabisco). Nabisco gussied up and diversified this homely cracker into different varieties, including a knockoff of an animal-shaped British version that they debuted in 1902 and called “Barnum’s Animals,” which paid homage to P.T. Barnum, founder of Barney & Bailey Circus.
The key innovation of these animal crackers was their packaging. Heretofore, crackers were sold in bulk; now encased in small boxes resembling a circus caboose filled with lions, tigers and elephants (oh my!), Nabisco’s edible fauna were a convenient snack for the individual. (By the way, that string? It wasn’t intended to make animal crackers portable but rather to facilitate using them as a Christmas ornament.) Having observed that an early mock-up of the box was rather drab, with the animals just in varying brown hues, Stern added a hoary polar bear for contrast. It proved just the tweak the product needed to win the hearts of children, though apparently some were grumpy to find the box did not contain any polar bear shapes. Me? I was too smitten by the elephant with its playful trunk to care.
Stern’s more famous mark, however, was on the cracker we now know as the “Ritz,” which debuted on supermarket shelves in 1934. While the culinary origins for this lacy-edged treat are derived from multiple historical sources, the moniker and initial promotional artwork were all Stern’s. In an article penned by Stern’s great-great-grandniece food writer Daisy Alioto, she avers that Stern had just one weekend to devise a name and logo. In an understandable panic to come up with something catchy under such restraints, Stern, like an advertising magician of sorts, looked inside his hat and saw not a rabbit but a circular design on the interior band.
According to Alioto, Stern was then inspired to paint Ritz’s now-iconic blue and yellow logo. Corporate brass were apparently concerned at first that such imagery (and its evocation of the luxury Ritz hotel brand founded by hospitality tycoon Cesar Ritz) would be off-putting to customers, especially those emerging from The Great Depression, but consumers happily crunched on the cracker and sales skyrocketed.
While the art accompanying Ritz and animal crackers has changed over the decades, the designs are still unmistakably those of Stern. Both products not only continue to enjoy robust sales, but more importantly retain their position in culinary Americana, thanks to the cheeky warbling of Shirley Temple and, of course, the creative foresight of Sydney Stern.