NIEMANN: Four men built snack empires in Chicago in the early 1900s

Posted: Sep. 26, 2011 7:01 am Updated: Nov. 29, 2014 4:15 am


This is the story of four men who have two things in common:

º They all became very successful businessmen whose products are enjoyed by millions of people all over the world.

º They all made their fortunes in Chicago.

First there was William. He was born in Philadelphia in 1861, and moved to Chicago in 1891 at age 29 with only $32 in his pocket. The following year he began selling soap for his father's soap company. As an incentive for his retail customers to sell his soap in their stores, William offered them free baking powder every time they placed an order. Much to his surprise, his customers liked the baking powder more than the soap, so he stopped selling soap and started selling baking powder.

He later did the same thing later when he offered a different incentive for his baking powder retailers, and this product was so popular that he decided to start manufacturing it and quit selling baking powder altogether. William's last name is the same as that of the company and its products. This was in 1893. Fifteen years later, the Chicago Cubs repeated as World Series champs but have not won the Series since.

The Rueckheim brothers, Frederick (1846-1934) and Louis (1849-1927), were German immigrants who came to Chicago in the 1870's. Fred had worked on a farm until he saved $200, then he started selling popcorn that he made by hand. Many of his customers included people who had survived the Great Chicago Fire. He started with a partner, then bought him out and brought in his brother. The company was called F.W. Rueckheim & Brother.

Their product consisted of popcorn, peanuts and molasses, and it has been getting plenty of free advertising ever since vaudeville entertainer and songwriter Jack Norworth wrote "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" in 1908 -- despite the fact that he had never been to a ballgame when he wrote the song. If that clue doesn't give it away, then this one will: The product's slogan was-- and still is -- "A prize in every package."

Otto Schnering founded his company in 1916 near Chicago. He wanted a name that sounded more American than his German surname since Germany was not very popular during World War I (which was then referred to as "The Great War"), so he used his mother's maiden name of Curtiss as the company name.

His first product was a candy bar named after President Grover Cleveland's daughter. Like all successful manufacturers, his company introduced additional products, and they are as popular today as they were nearly 100 years ago. Otto did something very unique to promote his candy bars – he chartered an airplane and dropped candy bars in a parachute over cities in 40 states where his candy bar was sold. By 1926, it was a top seller, and Otto introduced his second product the following year.

So who were William, the Rueckheim brothers and Otto Schnering? And what products did they make and sell to millions of people all over the world?

William's product was chewing gum. His full name was William Wrigley, Jr., of Wrigley Chewing gum fame, and former owner of the Chicago Cubs.

You've probably never heard of the Rueckheim brothers until now, yet you probably grew up eating their first major product: Cracker Jack. In fact, it was Frederick Rueckheim's grandson Robert whose image appears on the Cracker Jack boxes as Jack the Sailor. Robert died of pneumonia at the age of 8. Frito-Lay now owns the Cracker Jack brand.

Otto Schnering's Curtiss Candy Company produces the Baby Ruth and Butterfinger candy bars. They are now owned by Nestle.

And what ever happened with Norworth? Major League Baseball would later present him with a lifetime pass to attend any baseball game in any Major League ballpark.



Things to Do

Sign up for Email Alerts