Who among us can resist the temptation to indulge in a handful of the iconic treats of our childhood as we celebrate National Animal Cracker Day on April 18? Animal crackers are arguably one of the best-recognized food products on the planet today. Who knew that the little menagerie of zoo and circus creatures that delighted us as children would later become one of our fondest childhood memories and a simple guilty pleasure for us as adults?
History of National Animal Cracker Day
Animal crackers have been part of American childhood memories since the late 1800s when they were first imported from England where animal crackers were invented. When recipes for the popular animal-shaped biscuits made their way to America, independent bakers began baking up herds of the animals to meet growing demand.
The stampede of animal crackers out of grocery cracker barrels into American shopping baskets was well underway when Stauffer’s Biscuit Company began commercially producing their original recipe circus crackers in 1871. Stauffer’s unique baking process created a slightly sweet, crispy, cracker-like biscuit that dominated the growing animal cracker category for years. Then, in 1902, the big competition arrived that transformed the animal cracker industry forever.
Although not first to market with animal crackers in America, when the National Biscuit Company, Nabisco, introduced their brand of animal crackers packaged in small boxes that looked like P.T. Barnum circus train cars, they quickly became the most popular brand of animal crackers in America. Their ingenious circus-train-themed packages were initially sold as Christmas tree ornaments. The colorful boxes sporting exotic animals in circus train cars with a string for hanging on the tree were an immediate hit with children who begged for boxes of animals to carry around by a string. When all the animals in a box had been devoured, children filled the circus car boxes with childhood treasures, creating an unexpected shelf life extension and bonus marketing for the Barnum’s Animals brand.
But not all animal crackers are created equal, and despite the popularity and fast ascension of Nabisco’s Barnum’s Animals to the iconic childhood cookie, many people still preferred the original Stauffer’s Animal Crackers recipe. The difference in texture and flavor between the two brands is distinctive, and there remains a continued strong market for both brands of animal crackers to this day.
Stauffer’s Biscuit Company still produces Original Animal Crackers using the original 1871 recipe. Their strategy has been to produce a consistently crisp, layered dough cracker that is more like a traditional English biscuit, and less sweet than a cookie.
Nabisco still produces its colorful, wild animal-themed, small-carton packaging that appeals to young children. Nabisco’s animal crackers are a little sweeter and softer in texture than a cracker or biscuit. Some animal cracker aficionados would argue that Nabisco’s Barnum’s Animal Crackers are actually animal cookies, not crackers. Nabisco changed the name of their product from Barnum’s Animals to Barnum’s Animal Crackers in 1948, a move probably not necessary to remain the category leader as is evidenced by the product’s fast rise to fame and continued appeal to children.
Whether you prefer the crispy biscuit-like crackers or the sweeter, softer cookie-like variety, on National Animal Crackers Day, we’re of the notion that the more animals in the parade, the merrier. We’re not sure exactly when animal crackers were first commemorated with their own special date on the calendar, but on National Animal Crackers Day we are all-in and all about animal crackers on parade.
National Animal Cracker Day timeline
Animal crackers, or ‘animals’, are invented in the U.K. where they are wildly popular and eventually exported to America.
The first commercially produced animal crackers in America are first produced by Stauffer’s Biscuit Company in York, Pennsylvania.
The earliest-known print recipe for ‘animals’ is published in “Secrets of the Bakers and Confectioners’ Trade,” written by J.D. Hounihan and first published in 1877.
The National Biscuit Company (Nabisco), introduces its iconic Barnum’s Animals in a circus-train-themed box and quickly becomes the most popular brand of “animals” in America.
Animal Crackers are freed from their box cages after 116 years when the iconic circus cage box is replaced by an image of animals walking freely across an open savanna.
National Animal Cracker Day FAQs
What animals are in Nabisco’s Barnum’s Animals?
The popular Barnum’s Animal Cracker boxes have featured 53 different animal shapes since being introduced in 1902, including special limited editions. Today, you will find 19 animal shapes in Barnum’s Animal Cracker boxes: two bear shapes, bison, camel, cougar, elephant, giraffe, gorilla, hippopotamus, hyena, kangaroo, koala, lion, monkey, rhinoceros, seal, sheep, tiger, and the zebra.
Are animal crackers healthy?
Let’s be honest. Any recipe with the primary ingredients of refined flour, sugar, and butter or shortening is probably not going to qualify as a healthy snack on any eating plan. Animal crackers probably belong in the dessert category.
What is the difference between a cookie and a cracker?
Crackers have less sugar and shortening- and more flour than cookies, making crackers less sweet and crunchier than cookies. According to Stauffer’s Biscuit company, their animal crackers are made with layered dough, which gives their crackers a distinct crunch and delicate texture. If you break an animal cracker in half, you will see layers. Nabisco’s Barnum’s Animal Crackers are less crunchy and more cookie-like than a cracker.
National Animal Cracker Day Activities
Play Animal Cracker Poker
Instead of penny-ante poker, why not raise the stakes in today’s game and play for animal crackers?
Surprise everyone with a box of animal crackers
If you want to spread some love and see smiles break out on National Animal Crackers Day, greet everyone you meet today with a little box of animal crackers. Don’t forget to treat yourself.
Take the day-long dunk test
Have you ever wondered which beverages pair best with animal crackers? National Animal Crackers Day is a good day to investigate with some good old-fashioned unscientific research. Start your day by dunking a few lions, tigers, and bears in your morning cup of coffee. Then dunk abundantly throughout the day — water, tea, milk, lemonade, cold brew. After a day of delicious dunking, conclude it with the last of your animal friends dunked in your favorite adult beverage. We think red wine pairs particularly well with the original biscuit-type crackers. Post your results on social media.
5 Fun Facts About Animal Crackers
No rabbits in Curly Top’s soup
In the 1935 movie “Curly Top,” adorable round-faced child movie star Shirley Temple sang about animal crackers in her soup, including “monkeys and rabbits, loop the loop” — rabbits have never been featured in animal crackers that we are aware of.
That’s quite the menagerie
Boxes of Nabisco Barnum’s Animal Crackers have featured 37 different animals over the years — Nabisco’s menagerie currently includes 19 different animals, with the last addition being the Koala.
Stauffer’s has an ‘Animal Identifier’
For those of us who have trouble discerning animals by cracker shape alone, there is help — Stauffer's Biscuit Company has a “Biscuit Animal Identifier” page on their website with photos of the different animals they currently produce.
Those holes in the crackers are not puncture wounds
According to Stauffer’s Biscuit Company, the tiny holes in their Animal Crackers are called ‘dockers,’ which allow air to escape the crackers during the rising process, helping the crackers to retain the animal shape.
The circus is not coming back to town
Under pressure from animal activist group PETA, Nabisco retired its nostalgic circus-train-themed box in 2016 and replaced it with a new theme that debuted in 2018.
Why We Love National Animal Cracker Day
Satisfying snack in small bites
Animal Crackers are the quintessential snack. They have a dependable crunch and are not too sweet but just sweet enough to satisfy your sweet tooth.
For their dunkability
While “dunkability” may not be a word in the dictionary, we love the original recipe animal crackers for their dunkability, anyway. Animal crackers dunk equally well in coffee, tea, milk, and even red wine. They absorb just enough liquid without getting soggy and falling apart.
Nostalgic comfort food
Most of us have a parade of animal crackers on a plate or in the iconic circus-themed box floating among our sweetest childhood memories. Animal crackers make us smile as we are reminded of less complicated, simpler days of our childhood.
National Animal Cracker Day dates