animal crackers refer to sweet-tasting crackers molded into the shapes of various circus animals. In the late 1800s animal-shaped cookies (or “biscuits,” in British terminology), called simply “animals,” were introduced from England to the United States. The earliest recipe for “animals” was published on 1 April 1883 by J. D. Hounihan in Secrets of the Bakers and Confectioners’ Trade. It called for “1 bbl [barrel] flour, 40 lbs sugar, 16 lbs lard, 12 oz soda, 8 ozs ammonia, 6¾ gals milk.”
The demand for these cookies grew to the point that commercial American bakers began to produce them. In 1902 the National Biscuit Company officially introduced the most popular brand still known today, Barnum’s Animal Crackers, named after P. T. Barnum (1810–1891), the famous circus owner and showman. The packaging was part of the treat—the box looked like a colorful circus train with animals. Initially designed as a Christmas tree ornament, the string holding the box was soon put to use as a handle by which small children could carry the box around. Although a number of other manufacturers presently make animal crackers, Barnum’s remain the most famous.