Thanks to the industrious Thomas Adams and the then-exiled Mexican President Santa Anna, Black Jack was introduced as America’s first flavored chewing gum in 1884. At the time, the United States was in the middle of a continuous explosion of growth and change, as nearly all of the”Wild West” had been settled and increasingly more railroad lines were stretching toward California and the Pacific Ocean.
Of course, the whole Western World was moving and changing right alongside the young American nation. While Mark Twain was finishing up The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn somewhere in Connecticut, Robert Louis Stevenson was dreaming up Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde both in Scotland and the Western United States. Meanwhile in France, the Eiffel Tower was nearing completion, and a similarly large French gift, the Statue of Liberty, was steaming its way toward Manhattan Island.
So, how did a stick of chewing gum find its place in pop culture amid so much progress and chaos? That’s a good question...
It might be hard to imagine these days, but the world of kid-centric candies and sweets used to be very small and generally unexciting. Most all candies geared toward children were simple and subtly sweet iterations of more “adult” flavors, such as molasses, clove, lemon drops, and “rock candy.” In fact, two of the most popular flavors in the realm of childhood sweets, chocolate and caramel, wouldn’t be widely available until the 1890s and early 1900s. What’s more, packaging for these candies was mostly simple and uninspired, likely because there simply wasn’t much competition.
In this context, Black Jack chewing gum was an exciting breath of sugary sweet air. Licorice was already popular with youngsters in the 1880s, and the Black Jack flavor offered a sweeter, more exciting version of the licorice candies already being sold. On top of that, Black Jack also came delivered in convenient and portable gum sticks, which was totally unique at the time—all wrapped in a striking package with an iconic color scheme and a clear branded logo. Not surprisingly, Black Jack started selling at a break-neck pace, thus giving birth to the flavored gum industry we know today!
By the mid-1800s, manufacturing and production were replacing agriculture as the largest industries in the United States. Life was becoming more urban, and the average American was now earning a good bit more money than just a decade or two previously. This uptick of disposable income eventually gave rise to the country’s first department stores, which would begin to greatly influence everyone’s ideas of luxury and convenience starting in the 1860s and 1870s. By the 1880s, the first cash register was invented, and the world of American retail continued to skyrocket.
Of course, these were all exciting and positive developments for someone introducing a new chewy treat to the American public. Stores and shelf space were popping up all over the country, and the audience of people who could afford small luxuries and treats was getting bigger almost every month. It’s no surprise that by the end of the century, the chewing gum industry was already expanding. The time was ripe for lifestyle products and status symbols to enchant a growing class of American consumers. Some of these items and ideas, like the sprawling department store, have become outdated and outmoded. However, a select few, such as the daringly original Black Jack, have become a permanent part of pop culture.
Curious to know more about the history behind our vintage gums? Be sure to visit our historical timeline!