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Last Updated: Tuesday, 18 December 2007, 00:23 GMT
Having a cracking time at Christmas
By Gavin Stamp
Business reporter, BBC News

A 1922 advertisement promoting Tom Smith's Christmas Crackers (Credit: Topfoto]
Tom Smith's crackers has had a royal warrant for 100 years

It is as indispensable a part of the Christmas festivities as a tree and mince pies.

The Christmas cracker, in its original gift form, is celebrating its 160th birthday this year and is going strong despite changing traditions and tastes.

British firms still manufacture millions of these curious but elegantly shaped party pieces every year which are enjoyed all over the world.

"It is very much a British industry," says Neil Schwartz, operations manager at Brite Sparks, the UK's leading manufacturer.

From Paris to Springfield

It was in 1847 that confectioner Thomas Smith imported the idea for an almond sweet wrapped in waxed paper from France as a Christmas gift.

But it would be another 13 years before the now familiar product - in which two thin strips of card treated with fulminate, rub together to create the famous spark and bang - came into being.

Crackers - originally known as cosaques because of their resemblance to the sound of a Cossack's whip - now come in all imaginable sizes and designs, with prices to match.

At the top of the range, London store Fortnum and Mason is retailing its set of Paragon crackers - made from hand-quilted, pearl-encrusted fabric - for 1,000.

Inside, you will find a range of his and hers accessories including cufflinks, vanity mirrors and credit card holders.

At less rarefied prices, best sellers this year could include Simpson family crackers, with Homer and Bart riding high on the success of their first movie outing earlier this year.

Women assemble crackers in a British factory in the late 1940s
Crackers are still made in the UK but in declining numbers

Other famous faces you will find adorning crackers include Winnie the Pooh, Harry Potter and most of the Disney stable of animated characters.

Themed crackers are nothing new, first appearing at the end of the 19th Century.

Indeed, historians believe the 'golden age' of themed crackers fell between 1890 and 1920.

Versions during these years contained Shakespearean-themed hats and quotations inspired by Oscar Wilde. Others celebrated royal tours, exhibitions, imperial triumphs, Egyptian digs and the Suffragette movement.

More recently, those interested in the postal service, the scouting movement and even the Channel Tunnel have all had designs catering to their tastes.

Made abroad

At its height after World War II, the cracker firm established by Thomas Smith was making 50 million products a year at two large UK factories, employing more than 500 people.

The business fell on hard times in the intervening years and was bought out in 1998.

The brand name is now owned by AIM-listed gift wrapping and stationery firm International Greetings, whose Brite Sparks subsidiary produces 30 million crackers a year in Glamorgan.

Although the cracker remains quintessentially British, it has not been immune from the forces of globalisation.

Robin Reed Crackers, which makes crackers for a range of customers including hotels and garden centres, shifted production to China in the mid 1990s.

"That is why we are still around," insists its chairman Julian Reed.

"Anyone who didn't is not around any more. It is that simple."

While acknowledging the cost pressures which led to the move to the Far East, Brite Sparks' Neil Schwartz does not believe it is necessarily an irreversible trend.

Set of crackers
We produce all year round for one bang on Christmas day
Neil Schwartz, Brite Sparks operations manager

"I don't know whether in the next five years you won't see some of the manufacturing coming back to the UK," he says.

"Shipping costs are going up."

Unsurprisingly, the festive season accounts for 95% of annual expenditure on crackers.

Manufacturers are vulnerable to downward pressure on prices as supermarkets vie for business at this time of year, making it increasingly hard for firms to remain competitive.

"The price hasn't changed in the last ten years but all the costs have gone up," says Mr Reed.

With increasingly dark economic clouds hanging over the High Street, will consumer appetite for crackers continue this time around?

With 50% of sales coming in the week before Christmas, Neil Schwartz says the jury is still out on how things will pan out despite suggestions shoppers are cutting back on spending.

"In the past people have always had a box of crackers on their table. We are hoping that this won't change."

No joke

Sitting around the dinner table, there will doubtless be the usual complaints about the poverty of the jokes inside this year's vintage and the disposability of the trinkets inside.

Firms insist the jokes - however recycled they may seem - are part of the cracker's timeless appeal to all members of the family.

But it might be tempting to think that, like some other seasonal traditions, crackers have been dumbed down a little over the years.

In the 1920s, they regularly contained such high-minded fare as crossword puzzles, musical toys and stereoscopes.

Recent research from consumer body Which? suggests some crackers from top High Street names do not match up to their elevated price tags.

Eastenders Christmas special from 2001
Christmas dinner is incomplete without crackers and family intrigue

Malcolm Coles, editor of Which? online, urges consumers to check the list of contents, saying its testers found "luxury crackers aren't always worth the extra cost".

However successful this Christmas proves, manufacturers will not have long to digest the festive spoils before their operations crank up all over again.

Brite Sparks, meanwhile, has already started production for 2008.

This may sound premature but Neil Schwartz says customers find it "reassuring" to know millions of crackers are safely sitting in storage ready to be dispatched on their way.

"We produce all year round for one bang on Christmas day."

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