Saltine crackers are one of the best-selling types of crackers in the world, but the history of these crackers dates back to the early 1800s when a bakery came up with the original recipe. Nabisco is one of the brands most often associated with the crackers, but today, any type of cracker with salt on the top can be called a saltine cracker.
The precursor to the modern-day saltine cracker was something known as soda crackers or saltina crackers. These crackers were similar in shape and size, but had a slightly different taste than the crackers of today. In Newburyport, Massachusetts, a business by the name of Pearson & Sons Bakery began producing something known as pilot bread, which was similar to what sailors ate on their ships. It was dense and hard, but it was the traditionally accepted cracker.
Credit for the saltine cracker goes to the Josiah Bent Bakery in Newburyport, Massachusetts. The owner of the bread watched the sales of pilot bread from their competitor and in 1801 decided to create a better-tasting cracker that could still be taken on ships and carried around in different ports. After experimenting with different types of crackers, the bakery finally came up with a cracker that had a light flavor but was still crisp. These crackers were called soda crackers.
The first name-brand saltine cracker was released in 1876. The Premium brand used the traditional recipe and mass-produced small square crackers with salt dusted on the top. The company was best known for their slogan, "Polly wants a cracker?" which ran in advertisements and on cracker boxes. Nabisco took over Premium and registered the word Saltine as a trademark. They were one of the first companies to use computers in their production, which they used in the manufacturing of saltine crackers.
In the 1920s, saltine crackers reached the masses because of the success of the Premium brand. Prior to that time, the crackers were well-known in parts of Missouri, where the brand was founded and the factory was located (Thomas L. Green kept the saltine in St. Louis). In the 1920s, Premium began distributing the recipe and crackers to other parts of the country, which helped the crackers to grow in popularity.
The rise in popularity of saltine crackers can be directly traced back to the 1930s and the years following the Great Depression. Americans had little money and needed products that were inexpensive but flavorful. Around that time, saltine crackers were mass-produced and available from different shops and brands. People could use these crackers as a filler in foods such as meatloaf to stretch out the amount, or use them with a soup to make the meal more filling, without spending a lot of money.