A Desperate Dictator and an American Inventor
The Story of Black Jack Gum
When D. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna looked out over the funeral pyre of the dead rebel Texans on a March evening in 1836, he probably was not thinking of a back up plan. He had won a string of victories and was in total control of Mexico. He must have thought that it would not be long before this “revolution” would be put down. But as it turned out, Santa Anna would see his luck slip away. First, he would lose Texas. Later he would lose a war with the United States. Finally, he would find himself in exile, wandering from place to place seeking refuge.
By 1856 Santa Anna needed a backup plan. The deposed president owned a large shipment of Chicle, the resin from the sapodilla tree. Santa Anna went to New York to sell the chicle. He thought that it might be used to make a form of rubber for buggy wheel tires. Although the tire idea never worked out, an inventor by the name of Thomas Adams was fascinated by the Chicle and bought some from Santa Anna. After some experimentation, he discovered that it made a soft chewing gum. Next he discovered that the deposed General skipped town, leaving Adams with the bill for storing the large shipment of chicle. Apparently the purchase Adams had made from Santa Anna had given the impoverished General enough money to move yet again.
Lemons into Lemonade
So what does a guy do with a whole shipment of Chicle that he is paying storage fees on? Well Thomas Adams decided to try out his new gum on the the candy market. During the 1860s sales were modest. The fact that there was a war going on may have suppressed sales, or it could have been that the gum, “Adams’ New York Gum No. 1 – Snapping and Stretching…” as he called it, was just too natural and the flavor too simple for the public. The little chews were small round gum balls that local stores would sell for a penny each. But when Adams added sugar to the mix, the balls began to sell quicker than he could make them.
In 1871 Adams invented a machine to make the gum, speeding up production. Then in 1875, Adams had a breakthrough that would delight people for decades to come. He added licorice flavor to his gum and called the new product, “Black Jack”. He also marketed it in stick form, instead of ball form. In 1880, the Adams Gum Company was thriving, and Adams took sales a step further by being first to install vending machines in New York’s Subways to sell Black Jack gum and a new flavor, “Tutti Frutti“.
American Chicle Company
By the 1880’s the United States was well into the “Gilded Age“, and the Adams Gum Company was advancing beyond anything Thomas Adams could have imagined. In 1899 the company joined the ranks of the monopolies by buying and merging six of the countries largest gum manufacturers into the hugely profitable, “American Chicle Company”. In 1914, on the eve of WW1, the American Chicle Company released a product that would finally overtake Black Jack. It was a bit of flavored chicle coated in a hard candy shell. It was called Chiclets.
Thomas Adams did not get to see the advent of Chiclets. He passed away in 1905. During his life he went from rolling little balls of chicle by hand to sell at the corner grocery store to overseeing the countries largest gum company, and in the process thrilled many adults and children alike. Santa Anna, who first brought the chicle to New York, never profited beyond the small sale he made to Adams. Ironically, while trying to convince people to buy his chicle shipment to help fund his reentry into politics, Santa Anna had a habit of chewing the raw chicle. He may have been a shrewd politician, but he was not a salesman. The penniless former Mexican President was finally allowed to return to Mexico in 1874 and passed away in 1876 at the age of 82.
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