Nabisco Crackers: Made in Mansfield

It has long been a rumor of local lore, echoing out of the dim past, that the Nabisco Company started in Mansfield.  This is sort of true.  It can also be said that Nabisco started in dozens of other cities as well because the National Biscuit Company was born as an amalgamation of 114 independent bakers all over the country.

Our city has a special claim, however, because the first president of the company was the baker from Mansfield, so in its newborn months and inaugural year the main office of the company was headquartered here.

This is how it happened.

Making Dough

In the middle of he 1800s every town in America had a bakery or two turning out bread and crackers for their local area.  In our town it was Crawford & Zeller—a couple of men from Indiana who landed at the corner of Fifth and Walnut to turn the Flats into a bakery district that always smelled like warm bread.  A few years later it became Crawford & Taylor.

By the late decades of the century when the Industrial Revolution was going full steam, all those many independent bakeries had figured out that if they banded together they would have greater power to buy cheaper and sell farther.  So there developed a short list of larger teams of bakers in the US.

This unifying strategy created the New York Biscuit Co, the American Biscuit Co, the US Baking Co—all of whom were suddenly in competition with one another.  It was great for everyone who bought crackers because the Big Three cracker companies were continually undercutting each other with price wars.  It was not so great for the bakeries who were cracking each other to pieces and running the whole industry into the ground.

So in 1898 they worked out a deal whereby all the big teams—and therefore all the dozens of little local factories—would join together and work as one within a common name.  This was the National Biscuit Company.  Their first president was Benjamin F. Crawford, owner of Mansfield’s Crawford & Taylor cracker factory.

The original cracker factory in Mansfield (above) was built in 1860 and owned by Capt. John Zeller, a Civil War veteran from Indiana.

The factory was expanded in 1872 (below) and later came into the hands of Col. BF Crawford and Capt. William Taylor.

The Leavening

Once all these various baking factories were working toward a common goal it was quite natural that the work got divided up: so instead of everybody trying to make everything, they were each assigned a couple products they could specialize in and focus on.

Before the NBC was born the Mansfield cracker works was widely known for quite a number of goodies:

After Crawford & Taylor became membered in the Na Bis Co clan they turned out a smaller variety of products but made more of them, that shipped farther away.  NBC executives unanimously agreed that the Mansfield cracker works made the best ginger biscuits, so early on in the 20th century Mansfield became the principal producer of ginger snaps.  In Nabisco wrapper lingo they were called Zuzus.

These cookies were “a spicy combination of ginger and sugar-cane molasses” that came in a box colored a distinctive shade of yellow with a peculiar reddish type.

Of course since Zuzus were so popular there were many imitators and pretenders trying to steal the business.  In 1915 you could buy all kinds of Zuzu wanna-bes like Lulus, Hoo Hoos, Zulus, Su Sus and Boo Boos.  But in the end Zuzus were pretty unique because they were the only cookies that came with their own clown.

Zuzu the clown showed up in magazines and billboards, and he also made appearances in person all over the US in his baggy smock that was colored a distinctive shade of yellow with stars of a peculiar reddish type.  For a number of years Zuzu was always seen on the streets of Mansfield marching in every parade.

ZuZu the Clown was as commonly known and fondly regarded, in the American popular culture of a hundred years ago, as the Trix rabbit or Ronald McDonald might be today.

He was a pioneer in advertising recognition: though other companies had well known characters who represented their products (like the Quaker Oats Man) none of these personae had names or made live public appearances.

The National Biscuit Co trademark of an oval with crosses, still in use today, was derived from a medieval guild stamp.
These ladies were photographed on the steps of Mansfield’s cracker factory around 1900 after it had become part of the National Biscuit Company. Their baked goods went to groceries around the state by wagon, then train, then wagon.

Crumbs

The old cracker factory on Fifth Street cranked out Zuzus until 1935 when the Mansfield operation of Nabisco was changed from manufacturing to distribution.  In 1951 they built a new warehouse on North Main at Orchard Street from which they gathered and shipped via Route 30, and when they outgrew that building they built another one in 1966 on National Parkway in the Trimble Road industrial park.

There is no longer a big Nabisco presence in Mansfield, but it is still here, there and everywhere on the shelves of stores in town and around the world.

These guys photographed in 1913 are each enjoying a box of ZuZus, produced in Mansfield, Ohio, as did generations of Americans in the early decades of the 20th century.

The other main Nabisco product baked on Fifth Street was Oyster Crackers, but there aren’t many photos of folks sitting in the lawn eating those.
So how pervasively was the National Biscuit Company embedded into Mansfield life and culture?
Judge for yourself from this photo taken in somebody’s backyard on Hedges Street in the 1930s.

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