The front cover of an early 20th century Tom Smith’s catalogue. Tom Smith’s was a highly successful Victorian company which sold a wide variety of festive items but by far its most popular product was the Christmas cracker. The company’s founder Tom Smith is credited with the invention of the Christmas cracker in the early 1840s.
Smith was a confectioner who was inspired by French bonbons wrapped in tissue paper to create Christmas novelties consisting of a paper tube covered in vibrant decorations which when ripped open would reveal a small gift and written verse inside. Later Smith incorporated a ‘snap’ made of two attached strips of tough paper, one coated with a mildly explosive chemical, which when pulled apart created a small bang which gave ‘crackers’ their name.
The novelty of Smith’s invention caught the public’s imagination and crackers quickly became an extremely popular Christmas product. Tom Smith’s began to sell hundreds of different themed varieties at prices ranging from 4 shillings and 6 pence to 48 shillings. Those listed in the 1891-2 catalogue alone include Lilliputian crackers, Gems and Jewels, Cupid’s Playthings, Somebody’s Luggage, Fairytale crackers, Gypsy Queen, Mother Hubbard’s, Lovers’ Secrets, Darwinian Crackers, Mysterious crackers, Butterfly Ball and Bal Masque.
The novelty items contained in the crackers depended on their theme. For example ‘Spinster’s Crackers’ included wedding rings, faded flowers, night caps, thimbles, mirrors, powder puffs and hair dye and ‘Bachelor’s Crackers’ included pipes, bottles of champagne, pawn tickets, cigars, packs of cards and tradesmen’s bills. Modern crackers contain small novelty items or games, a paper crown and a joke or fact and remain an essential part of Christmas celebrations in Britain.