The cracker barrel is a standard feature of many a museum’s general store exhibition. Before the rise of commercial and sanitary packaging of crackers in the early twentieth century, the barrel’s technical function was to hold and ship crackers. Yet it is the cracker barrel’s social function as a gathering place within the store-scape that is highlighted in historical interpretation: the collected “cracker-barrel wisdom” of men engaged in political debate or local gossip, the sort of democratic engagement central to American public culture.
On the other hand, the open barrel invited free snacking by unscrupulous clerks and mischievous children, even as the proprietor was carving from a massive cheese wheel the cracker’s accompaniment. As the cracker barrel was being replaced by smaller tins and cardboard containers with sanitary liners in the early twentieth century, nostalgic stories of the cracker barrel (and the general store) only increased in number in the nation’s newspapers and magazines.
We know a lot about the crackers that filled these barrels. Food historians have written aplenty about the history of crackers in the United States. Flour-and-water hardtack, round Vermont crackers intended to be split open, and machine-produced soda crackers: all found their way into barrels.
So, what about the barrels?
The history of modern industrialization and commerce cannot be written without a consideration of barrels. Yet as one of the first historians of barrel-making (cooperage) observed in 1940, “Probably no single phase of industrial development has been less publicized than the development of the cooperage industry in the United States.”*
Barrels were (and are) efficient vessels for transporting goods from water and rum, soap and shoes, to nails and wire. (And let’s not forget crackers!) Constructed of wood staves bound by wood or metal hoops, a barrel is essentially double-arched, which means that when rolled on its side, only its widest part (the bilge) meets the ground; when upright, it can be rolled on its edge.
Wood was plenty, and with the creation of a national transportation system of waterways and railroads, the nation’s coopers were kept busy. They made two types of barrels: tight, for holding liquids, and slack, for solids.
Slack barrels held crackers, which storekeepers would scoop out and sell by weight. Barrels held about 1,200 crackers, not including the crumbs that would inevitably be made through transport.
The problem with open barrels, however, was that they invited flies and vermin, unsanitary hands, and the like. The crackers at the bottom of the barrel were likely broken, wet or moldy or somehow spoiled, and dirty. The beginning of the end of the cracker barrel began in 1898, when the National Biscuit Company was created thro
ugh mergers of companies which together comprised around 70 percent of the nation’s cracker industry. For a new brand, Uneeda Biscuits, the company in 1899 used new technology to wrap crackers in a moisture-proof “In-Er-Seal” surrounded by an attractive cardboard package or tin. Not a few consumers distrusted a package which did not reveal its contents, but by the 1910s the company’s advertising campaigns had won over doubters.
Thomas Herbert Russell observed in 1910 that
Advertising has sent the old cracker-barrel of boyhood memory into the limbo of the Past along with the old vinegar barrel and the old molasses barrel. When the store cat didn’t sleep in it at night the mice found it a cozy place in which to build their nests. Along came the National Biscuit Company in 1897 with its “Inerseal” dust-proof package, keeping the crackers clean and fresh and crisp, working a world-wide revolution in the cracker business.***
What that meant, of course, is that the cracker barrel was quickly becoming a memory.
*Franklin E. Coyne, The Development of the Cooperage Industry in the United States, 1620-1940 (Chicago: Kumber Buyers Publishing Company, 1940), p. 13.
**Thomas Herbert Russell, “What Advertising Has Done: Passing of the Cracker Barrel,” Advertising Methods and Mediums (Chicago: Washington Institute, 1910), pp. 282-83.