When I was little, Cracker Jack came in cardboard boxes, and the prize inside was often pretty cool: a whistle or a ring, or some similar gadget. This was also in the days when Oscar Mayer gave away tiny hot-dog-shaped whistles as promotional items. In those days, whistles were pretty popular. Slide whistles were a very common favor at birthday parties.
I remember an older cousin came back from the army once, and he had a really cool whistle that played several different notes. It had come out of a box of cracker jacks.
My supplier in those days was my grandfather, who conveniently owned a liquor store. My brother and sister played with my cousins in canyons and caves made out of the corrugated cardboard crates in the storeroom of beer and cigarettes. Of all the goods in the store, the interesting ones were the freezer (ice cream), the candy rack, and the magazines (Archie, Richie Rich, The Avengers, Fantastic Four...). The comics must have come from a Marvel distributor rather than DC, because Batman and Superman were rarities; Spiderman was ubiquitous.
Cracker Jack was advertised as America's favorite snack. There were some drawbacks that were well-known to 10-year olds back then. First, the pour spout was a fraud. "Push here to open" was a lie. The box was not perforated there, and it was difficult if not impossible for small fingers to puncture the cardboard. Far more effective was to peel away the outer wrapper and slip open the box at a seam. The other well-known bug was that all the peanuts were always at the bottom. The problem with the peanuts didn't bother me, however, since I didn't care much for them.
I was in the store the other day, and ran into America's favorite snack again. The product hung in four-ounce bags near the bakery section of the supermarket. Bags of Cracker Jack? The package coloring was the same, the logo was still a boy in a sailor outfit accompanied by a dog: Sailor Jack and Bingo. It was 99 cents, and there was a surprise inside. Didn't it used to specify a "toy" surprise inside?
I had known that for some time now, Cracker Jack did not come with real toys; instead, today's youngsters get tiny joke books or stickers. No whistles or rings or anything that might possibly present either a choking hazard or a potential lawsuit. Besides, paper is a lot cheaper to manufacture than plastic, so I'm sure the profit margins went up. Today's prize, once I opened up the the package, was a paper ring. A paper ring? Now _that_ is a cheap toy.
The familiar packaging was gone too. The box with the false "push here to open" has been replaced by a common mylar bag. The taste of caramel coated popcorn, however, surprised me.
Back in the old days there was always a certain staleness associated with Cracker Jack. It was just accepted, a known limitation of the packaging and transportation technology of the time. The old cardboard boxes were by no means airtight, and I'm sure that distribution channels were slower than those common today. Today's Cracker Jack, packaged in airtight mylar are crunchy and airy -- the freshest Cracker Jack I've ever tasted.
Those of us who were born in the Sixties, then, are a privileged generation. As an adult today, I care more about the freshness of the popcorn than I would about the quality of the surprise toy. Back when I was a kid, the toy was a pretty big deal, and I would not have noticed if the popcorn had a stale edge to it. We are among the fortunate to have lived long enough to witness this profound transformation in Cracker Jack.