By Sara Millbank

This year we are having a big family Christmas, after finally managing to get all the family together in one place, from various parts of the world.

In honour of this big event, we all set about trying to think of ways of making everything special and my daughter-in-law Lindsay and I decided to make the Christmas Crackers so we could personalise them. This set me thinking about how the first cracker was made and why?

Inventor Thomas Smith, is credited with creating the first cracker in 1846 during a visit to Paris. He had his own confectionary business in East London and was very passionate about his sweets and always looking for new ideas. Thomas came across a French bon-bon sweet (a sugar almond) wrapped in tissue paper with a twist at each end and the sweet placed in the centre. On returning to England, he decided to sell similar sweets in the lead up to Christmas and these sold well.

Thomas continued to sell wedding cakes and confectionary while developing the idea further. Four years later, in 1850, Thomas came up with the idea of including a motto with the sweet, which was doubled-wrapped to keep the sweet clean. This idea was based on the Chinese fortune cookie and as the wrapped sweets were usually bought by men for woman, he included simple love poems. These sold out in days, but only at Christmas, so he knew he had a limited time frame.

Thomas knew he had a good idea but wanted to develop if further and it was the crackle of his fire one night that gave him his next idea. In 1860, two strips of chemical-impregnated paper that made a loud bang on being pulled apart, were added and quickly became known as a banger. At first the novelties were called cosaques after the French word, because the noise sounded like the Cossack’s whip as they rode through Paris during the Franco-Prussian War, but they soon became known as crackers.

To incorporate the banger idea, the cracker was enlarged and Thomas came up with eight different designs of crackers. After this he never looked back, but unfortunately, other manufacturers were copying Thomas’s idea and he decided to replace the sweet with a surprise gift. On Thomas’s death, his three sons took over the business and set about developing the cracker design. The paper hat was added and writers were employed to come up with versus, jokes and limericks.

By 1933, printed paper and foil were being used to create beautiful crackers with individual designs. Unfortunately, during the Second World War, paper was scarce, so ‘cheap and cheerful’ was the order of the day and most crackers had no bangers. Sadly, the great Tom Smiths machinery rumbled to a final halt in July 1998, brought out by a multi-national company, but they did keep the name of Tom Smith Crackers.

So, as I continue with my hunt for little gifts to make our own Christmas crackers, a little special this year, I thank Thomas Smith for his inspiration.

What a good idea to add a verse or poetry, instead of a joke and I will try to make my bang as big as possible.