How Did Sweets & Fire Lead to the Invention of the Christmas Cracker?

Drinking Fountain, dedicated to a member of the Smith family
Finsbury Square
Islington, London

Listed: 1994
Grade: II
NHLE entry: Listing details for the drinking fountain at Finsbury Square

On the edge of Finsbury Square in Islington sits an elaborate Victorian drinking fountain. Donated to the parish by father and son Thomas and Walter Smith in 1899, it is also a memorial, with a plaque set into the stone that commemorates the life of the Smiths' late mother/grandmother, Martha Smith.

Since its construction, many thousands would have appreciated the clean water it provided. Yet the story behind the Smiths' rise to fame reveals how the family left a much greater legacy to British culture than the fountain: in 1847, almost by accident, Thomas Smith invented the Christmas cracker.

Bon bon beginnings

In the 1830s, Tom Smith worked in a bakery/confectionary shop in London. He experimented with increasingly elaborate, exciting treats to tempt shoppers and eventually he was successful enough to start his own confectionary business in Clerkenwell: T. Smith & Co.

Smith travelled widely, and in Paris in 1840 he discovered bon bons, sugared almonds wrapped in twists of tissue paper. They sold well in his shop at Christmas, and the following year Smith placed a small love motto in the tissue paper, increasing sales of the festive treat even more.

Snap, cracker and pop

Legend has it that inspiration for the 'crack' of the cracker came when Smith threw a log on his fire at home. To include this element of surprise in his novelty gift, he tried to find a way of imitating the sound through much experiment with small amounts of chemical compounds.

Eventually he perfected it. Tissue paper was wrapped around a small cardboard tube and filled with two chemically-impregnated cardboard strips, glued together with their other ends within the twists of paper. The 'crack' occurred when two people pulled at the cardboard strips in the twisted ends and caused a mini-explosion, as well as releasing a motto, small gift and other items. Christmas crackers - which Smith initially named 'Cosaques' after Cossack soldiers who had a reputation for firing their guns into the air! - were born.

By the turn of the century, T. Smith & Co. was producing novelty crackers not only for Christmas but for every major celebration, from the 1900 Paris Exhibition to the 1926 world tour of Edward, Prince of Wales. Smith tailored the contents of his crackers to his different audiences, and surprise gifts included theatrical masks, puzzles, jewels and mottoes, mostly handmade and beautifully packaged.

Smith's invention of the chemical 'snap' strip was even used by the Ministry of Defence during the Second World War. T. Smith & Co. was commissioned to supply large bundles of snaps, each tied with string, to training camps where they were used by soldiers. When its string was pulled, a bundle would produce a noise similar to that of machine-gun fire.

Commemorating crackers today

When Smith died, the business was left in his son Walter's capable hands. Outgrowing its original premises in Clerkenwell it moved to Finsbury Square in Islington, and in 1910 the T. Smith & Co. group became the official suppliers to the Royal Household of Christmas crackers and wrapping paper - an honour they still hold today as the Tom Smith Group.

The fountain in Finsbury Square is an impressive, if indirect, monument to Smith's legacy. Carved in marble and granite by J. Whitehead & Sons, leading masons of the period, it sits on a stone plinth in a square plan, with piers supporting an elaborately decorated pyramidal roof.

Walking past it now, you'd never guess the Smiths' Christmas legacy. Yet it is remarkable to think that a combination of tempting sweets and the comforting crackle of a log fire created a treat that became an integral part of Britain's festive traditions.