Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Bowman Gum Company

Jacob Warren Bowman’s biography reads like a fictional character in a movie. Warren Bowman liked to brag that he had been “married, divorced and bankrupt before he turned twenty one years old.” Bowman was six-foot-three and weighed 200 pounds with an ego to match. Known as a playboy, Bowman was also as loud, as he was large. One observer noted, “When people met Bowman for the first time they were alarmed by his loud booming voice.”

 Bowman was born in Ohio and reared in New Mexico. At 18, Bowman moved to Los Angeles and launched a used car business that went under by the start of World War I. After that Bowman worked in Los Angeles as a police officer, until he was caught by a superior officer, in a squad car filled with young women.

 Bowman was a natural born entrepreneur and risk-taker. According to a 1937 Time Magazine article, “After going broke he settled down to work for the Overland used-car agency in Los Angeles until one day he heard that a steam laundry was badly needed in Tampico, Mexico, to wash oil workers' dirty shirts.”

 “By the time Bowman got to Tampico a local group had already started a steam laundry, so he bought a little motor boat to pull barges. When this enterprise failed, he and another young American chugged off to Veracruz, conceived the idea of revolutionizing the mahogany trade by floating mahogany logs down the rivers to the Gulf. The two adventurers struggled for several days getting a mahogany log out of the forest into a small stream, where, since mahogany is heavier than water, it immediately sank.”

Bowman eventually landed in Philadelphia with only $25 left to his name and started producing bubble gum, an idea that he came up with after a conversation with a gum salesman he met on a cross-country train ride. Bowman founded Gum, Inc., in Philadelphia in 1927. Within two years, Bowman’s “Blony” brand became the #1 selling penny bubble gum and after ten years, Blony had 60% of the U.S. market share of bubble gum sales.

 In his book, “Mint Condition”, Dave Jamison referenced a contemporary report saying that “inside his Philadelphia plant, Bowman presided over a Dr. No-like office, in which the walls were covered with mirrors and he used an electronic switch to buzz in visitors. He would throw another switch to open a hidden door to his conference room, where there was a cocktail lounge and bar.”

The story of Warren Bowman’s life was surreal and colorful. Stories about the man could fill a book. In the 1930’s, Bowman was removed as president of his company by the shareholders, but eventually recaptured control. He went through five wives, the last of which was 28 years his junior. Opinions on the character of Warren Bowman vary greatly, but just about all of his contemporaries agree that it was Bowman’s creativity, leadership and drive than made his company the leading seller of bubble gum.

Bowman’s success was in the cards 

Seeing the sales success that his competitors were having selling gum with cards, Bowman would not be left out. Seeing that the over-crowded baseball card market of the mid-1930’s left no room for profits, the insightful Bowman decided to enter the card market with a non-sporting theme – at least for the time being.

In 1936, Bowman issued his first card set, which was called “the G-Men and Heroes of Law Enforcement.” This set had a modest popularity, but Bowman was now in the card business and his major bubble gum card triumph was about to begin.

One night, while listening to a radio broadcast detailing the atrocities of the Sino-Japanese War, Bowman came up with the concept for the greatest non-sports set ever produced. Issued in 1938, the 240-card Horrors of War set gave a very pro-American view of the recent history of the Chinese-Japanese War, the Ethiopian War, and also the Spanish Civil War. Bowman later issued another 48 cards for the set that featured Nazi-Germany as the main aggressor.

A bubble gum card depicting war was not a new idea, but the 1938 Bowman Horrors of War Set took the concept to a whole new level and remains a hobby classic to this day. The graphics feature bayoneted victims, men in violent hand-to-hand struggles and the slaughter of innocent women and children. The Horror of War cards had tile such as: # 18 Japanese Bomb Orphanage and # 24 Italian Squadrons Flying Low Slaughter Ethiopians.

First offered in a series of 24 new cards every two weeks, Gum, Inc. produced the cards in what at the time was the state-of-the-art, full-color lithography process. This resulted in the proper reproduction of the brilliance and detail of the original art.

 President Franklin D. Roosevelt even used the cards as examples of the atrocities occurring overseas in an effort to awaken America from its isolationist stance. Roosevelt’s "bubblegum diplomacy" only helped to increase the popularity of the 1938 Horrors of War set.

Although the fascist regimes of Italy, Spain and Japan were all targeted , it was the Japanese who took the greatest offense, or at least had the greatest ability to show their outrage, towards Bowman. The Japanese people loved bubble gum. Having opened his first bubble gum factories in Japan in 1932, Bowman and Gum, Inc. were forever banned from doing business in the Japanese Empire and were forced to halt all gum production on the island.

 The set was so successful, that Bowman printed over 100 million Horrors of War cards. This is an incredible number, when you take into account that the country was in the middle of the Great Depression. At one point, Bowman was making $40,000 per week profit from the cards. Although Bowman would continue to issue sets of bubble gum cards containing scenes of war, none would come close to the success achieved by this classic set.

This article is taken from Dean’s upcoming book “The Gum Card War and the Great Bowman & Topps Baseball Card Sets of 1948-1955, which is now available for sale at Amazon.com. 

Dean Hanley is an authority on vintage sports cards and has written numerous articles on the topic. Mr. Hanley is the founder DeansCards.com, and with well-over one million vintage cards in inventory, DeansCards.com is the largest seller of vintage cards on the web. Dean has also published “Before there was Bubble Gum: Our Favorite Pre-World War I Baseball Cards”, which is also available in eBook form at Amazon.com and has just released a T207 reprint set. For more information, please visit www.DeansCards.com

1 comment:

  1. My Dad was born in the early 1930s. When he passed away a few years ago, we found one G-Men card in his dresser! I never knew that set existed.