F. W. Rueckheim was right.

It was a great idea.

A crackerjack idea.

"That's it," he shouted one day in 1896.

His salesman frozen, his mouth agape. One paw still in the bowl, clenching some caramel-covered pop-corn and peanuts. All he had said was, "Say, this is crackerjack stuff."

Cracker Jack today is one of America's five most famous brand names.

Not quite as famous but right up there are its slogan. "The More You Eat The More You Want." and the saluting sailor on teh boy. Even the sailor's dog is famous.

Nobody ever heard of F. W. Rueckheim.

It all started with the Chicago Fire. Here is Rueckheim, a young German, immigrant, working on an Illinois farm. Full of get and go. Has saved $200. Comes into the city after the fire in 1871 to help clean up.Gets talking to a guy with a one-popper popcorn stand at 113 Federal St.

Next thing he knows, he and his $200 are a partner in the stand.

Two years later he buys out the partner and brings his brother Louis over from Germany to found F. W. Rueckheim & Bro. Over the years they add a line of marchmallows, expand, move, expand, move, and hang around the Chiccago World's Fair of 1893.

Where they are selling their specialty, a mixture of popcorn, molasses and peanuts.

It is a sensation. Sticky, but a sensation.

"1894-1914, THE YEARs OF DISCOVERY" (From the company brochure):

International acclaim forces more expansions on F. W. Rueckheim & Bro. The product has to be shipped in wooden tubs. Louis spends all his time fishing stickiness. Experimenting. Trying new formulas. There has to be a way.

1896. He succeeds.

Three years later, E. G. Eckstein develops the wax-sealed package. He becomes a partner. Now Rueckheim Bros. and Eckstein scans the horizon. Angelus Marshmallows, Penny candy, Prize Chums, Premium coupons in the Cracker Jack boxes.

In 1912, instead of having people redeem their coupons for prizes, the company starts putting the prizes right into the boxes. Cracker Jack has arrived.

Today it is the world's largest user of popcorn. Has been since World War I. Twenty-five tons of raw corn a day. Jack the sailor and his dog Bingo date from 1916, possibly by coincidence the year of the great naval battle of Jutland.

Angelus Marchmollows disappear in a merger with their big rival. Camp fire, now produced at the Cracker Jack plant (1930) cost: $1,053,000) in Chicago, the whole business bought out bu Borden in 1963.

Cracker Jack is in the dictionary. It is in the language. It is in a song (" . . . buy me some peanuts and Cracker jack . . . "). It even showed up in an Amos 'n Andy episode on TV when the Kingfish dropped a diamond ring at a bail game an it fell into somebody's Carter Jack and the guy thought it was the Prize.

But do not for a minute imagine that life has been all sunshine and smiles for F. W. and Louis Rueckhiem, E. G. Eckstein, prize-broker Martin D. Levy and their heirs.

There was Lik-Rish Jack.

And fruit popcorn. And tinted marshmallows. Chocolate Cracker Jack, French-fried popcorn. The Great Depression, World War II: no prizes (because of Japan. Production switch over to field rations for the Army. Powdered eggs. Inflation. The nickel pack up to 15 cents. The box has got so small you almost can't see the sailor's smile.)

By 1948, with the new plastics, Cracker Jack was using 20 million prizes a month.

Even as you are reading this, 500 different varieties of prizes are being slipped into Cracker Jack boxes, the number used on any given day, according to Susan Reedquist of the Chicago office.

"Most of the ideas for prizes come from me or the suppliers," she said. "We use different artists. We design 'em and do a lot of testing with children. We have a research company that tests 'em."

Though they are packed by machine, an effort is made to mix them up, so tha a batch of boxes won't all have the same prize.

Some prizes keep popping up for years and years. The magnifiying glass (3-power) goes all the way back to 1912. The was magic slate dates from 1920. Prizes that don't score well in the tests are dropped.

There is a certain controversy over the quality of prizes. Some veteran fans say they just ain't what they used to be. Others shrug and mutter.

"What is?" The thing that happened to Cracker Jack prizes is the same thing happened to the quality of life.

1912-20. You could get a two-note tin flute made in Germany and just the thing for the breakfast table the morning after Father went to his Lodge meeting. You could get baseball cards, metal ball-in-the-hole puzzles, metal novelty tops.

1930-40: metal bangle bracelets, cricket snappers, tiny microscopes, glass prisms, comic roulette wheels, wooden windmills.

1940-50: whistles, magnets, tops, rings, mindtwister puzzler, all in metal.

1950-60: Plastic at last. Whistles, puzzles , comic lorgnettes, movie star cards, jack, little prisms.

Reedquist said she didn't know about individual cases, but economics or poor test score finished off many prizes.

"The kids seem to like the paper ones just as well as the plastic. They go for things like stickers, transfers and tattoos and the jokes books."

A week of field research with 1-oz boxes bought from a vending machine at 20 cents turned up:

Two magnifying glasses.

An orange plastic face that you fit onto your pocket like a paperclip.

A book of riddles.

A book of wise cracks.

A slide-card quiz where you read the answers through a window on the back. Q. What's the fastest moving thing on earth? A. A tidal wave - up to 1,000 mph.

A book of tattoos.

A little plastic saw. (Mysterious)

Complete-a-Spaceship: cutout stickers you assemble like a jigsaw puzzle.

Each prize is seated in an envelope covered with fortunes and more wise cracks. "Don't bite a dog today unless it's a hot dog." "A person whose initials are R. M. will bring you trouble." "You will grow up to be a grownup."

Whether you buy the 1-oz box or foil bag designed for ball-parks, or the 4 1/2 oz pass-round pack, the prizes are the same. The company is tight lipped about what proportion of he cost goes into the prizes.

The 1-oz serving has 120 calories and contains sugar, corn syrup, popcorn, peanuts, molasses, vegetable ol, salt and soya lecithin. There are not many peanuts.Some consumers have believed all their lives that there is by design exactly one peanut per box as a sort of bonus. This is a canard.

There are several.

On this day, and everyday, three shifts of workers at the Chicago plant will produce 1,900,000 boxes, or 20 carloads of Carter Jack.

There you go again, you've forgotten F. W. Rueckheim already.