My granddaughter loves to celebrate every significant day possible. As I was peeking ahead in the April celebration calendar, I saw that National Animal Cracker Day is April 18. While I was immediately hit with nostalgia remembering the times my grandmother allowed me to pick out a box of Barnum’s Animal Crackers in that well-known circus train box with the string handle, I knew it was a great opportunity to share a fun activity with my grandchildren–DIY animal crackers.
Animal crackers were originally made at home in England and known as animal biscuits (biscuit being the British word for cookie). Keeping with tradition, we, too, made our animal crackers at home. We used a recipe from the King Arthur Flour (KAF) website . (While the KAF recipe worked perfectly, it is essentially a shortbread recipe.) The KAF site suggested using small, spring-loaded, plunger cookie cutters to make the animal cutouts more realistic. (The cutters are available on the KSF site as well as from other online vendors.) Any small cookie cutter could be used but we liked the imprints on the animals so we purchased a set of the cutters and found them to be amazing! With two plunges of the spring, the cutters cut the shape, imprinted the animal details, and popped out the cut shape. It really was that easy—even for young children! The crackers came out perfect nearly every time! After we cut the shapes, we froze them for 15 minutes before baking. They came out of the oven picture perfect!
It was also fun to share a little of my animal cracker nostalgia with the kids and a little history of the famed crackers. As already noted, the English made animal biscuits at home. Animal crackers, as we know them today, are thought to have originated in England in 1889 when PT Barnum toured England with his famous circus. Inspired by the ‘circus in town’, several companies began manufacturing circus packaging for the animal biscuits and called them Barnum’s.
Across the pond, Stauffer’s in York, Pennsylvania, was also making animals cookies. Stauffer’s began making their version of animal cookies in 1871 and is still using their original recipe today but making them much smaller. However, the English Barnum’s migrated across the Atlantic and were an instant hit with Americans. The demand for these crackers grew to the point that other bakers began to produce them domestically making their own version along with changing ‘biscuit’ to cracker. Most of these early animal crackers were sold in bulk from cracker barrels or in tins.
It was the ingenious marketing of the National Biscuit Company (Nabsico) in 1902 that put the animal treats on store shelves as “Barnum’s Animals,” named after the famed showmen, P.T. Barnum, in small, snack-size boxes. A circus-theme box was designed for the 1902 Christmas season with the innovative idea of attaching a string to turn gift into ornament using the string to hang the box on the Christmas tree. These small cartons, which retailed for 5 cents at the time of their release, were a big hit and have remained so to this day. In 1948, the product became Barnum’s Animal Crackers. The circus train theme with caged animals in box cars was continued in various versions until 2018 when a new box design was created freeing the animals from the cages .
While we weren’t able to make our crackers on April 18 or have circus boxes for our crackers, we enjoyed making and eating them. And, yes, we ate the heads first!