Polly want a cracker?

April 25, 2014

They’re great with cheese, even better with peanut butter, and (along with ginger ale) are perfect for settling an upset stomach.  In fact, you probably have a box of them in your cupboard or pantry right now.  But did you know that crackers have their roots in Newburyport?

In 1792, Newburyport resident John Pearson sought to create a biscuit with a long shelf life.  You may be wondering how dreadfully boring 18th century Newburyport must have been if townspeople were occupying their time with baking experiments – but boredom was not the case.  Newburyport was a rich maritime hub; the home to an important, bustling port.  Pearson was concerned as the traditional biscuits sailors took along on their voyages went stale fairly quickly.  Baking a mixture of water and flour, Pearson created a long-lasting biscuit known as “hardtack” or “sea biscuits” which became very popular among the grateful sailors (who probably weren’t aware that they were eating baked paper mache).

But how did the cracker get its name?  Well, in 1801, another Massachusetts baker, Josiah Bent, burned a batch of his biscuits and found that, as they burnt, the biscuits made a cracking sound.  Thus, the name “cracker” was born.

Bent wanted to expand the “sea biscuit” market beyond sailors and make a snack food everyone could enjoy.   Savvy to the fact that water and flour didn’t make for a pleasant taste, he experimented with flavors and eventually came up with the soda cracker (great-cracker-grandfather to the saltine).  Bent’s cracker business grew and popularity and was purchased by Nabisco  (aka, the National Biscuit Company) in 1810.  The rest, they say, is history.