FRANK H. FLEER CO., MANUFACTURER
Because Frank H. Fleer’s company was the other remaining major independent chewing gum manufacturing firm drawn into the American Chicle Co. during the industry’s second consolidation in 1909, as set forth in the recent article about the T. B. Dunn Co., its story follows naturally after T.B. Dunn’s. From time to time, subsequent articles will relate the stories of the several other subsidiary firms melded into the industry trust that was the American Chicle Co. Moreover, although the Fleer cancels do not appear as frequently as those of the T. B. Dunn Co., its two forms of hand stamped cancels account for many of those observed on RB30s.
FLEER CIRCULAR HANDSTAMPED CANCELS
Frank H. Fleer is another of those unique American individuals remembered from his era – which seemed to regarded wealth as a mark of God’s favor – for developing a product which immediately became emblematic of American life. Fleer is credited with inventing Chiclets, and their success was immediate and long-lasting. Much more so than Dunn’s Sen-Sen, they still can be purchased at virtually all newspaper stands, drug stores, and retail food outlets. In fact, Fleer was a pioneer in the gum industry in two different ways in two different decades, being the first to market Chiclets in the late 1890s and later experimenting with bubble gum in the early 1900s, albeit his company did not perfect the product until 1928. Yet, ironically, his company is probably best remembered today for its later involvement with what began as an incidental give-away accompanying the gum, baseball cards.
FLEER STRAIGHT LINE HANDSTAMPED CANCEL
As with most hundred year old tales, various versions of Fleer’s story recount the details of his life slightly differently. In addition, none of the websites presently discussing Fleer and his gum actually displays a picture of him, although some sites misidentify portraits of others as his. Various sources place Fleer’s birth between 1853 and 1860. U.S. census records show his birth date as 1858, presumably derived from information he provided. One internet source, however, displays a picture of a gravestone of a Frank H. Fleer showing his birth date as July 9, 1857. Since all sources agree that he was born in Westphalia, then a part of Prussia in Germany, the mystery is resolved by a German record of births and baptisms indicating that Franz Heinrich Fleer, indeed born on July 9, 1857 to Jobst and Wilhelmine Fleer, was baptized at St. Peter’s Evangelical Church in Herford, Westphalia on August 2, 1857. Fleer immigrated to the U.S. in 1875, settling in Philadelphia, and his younger brother Henry joined him there in 1881. Eventually, the stories say that Frank entered his father-in-law’s flavoring extract business that had been founded in 1849, but, here also, the record is somewhat blurred. A Pennsylvania marriage record indicates that he married Pauline Alice Shoestein in 1885, but virtually all versions of Fleer’s story indicate that his father-in-law’s name was Otto Holstein. Since, beginning in the mid-1860s, Otto Holstein is listed in various Philadelphia city directories as a merchant, it appears the 1885 record is simply garbled. Whatever the case, Fleer soon renamed the business the Frank H. Fleer Co. and began manufacturing chewing gum by adding Holstein’s flavoring extracts to chicle, the dried sap of the South and Central American sapodilla tree, already established as the principal ingredient of chewing gum.
Actually, although seemingly not presently preserved as part of the record of chewing gum history, Fleer’s face was known in his era. His portrait was featured on his gum wrappers, a phenomenon that sparked discussion at the time. Ad industry professionals commented that his face was “self-satisfied,” “opulent” and too “handsome” to support a public campaign to promote sales of his new product, Pepsin Guru-Kola Gum,” launched on July 1, 1896. In response, Fleer’s advertising manager, Mayer M. Swaab, Jr., replied, in a letter to that same professional advertising journal, that he had fought a difficult battle with Fleer to convince Fleer to allow him to use Fleer’s face on the gum wrapper, and the bottom line as to whether that was a correct decision was best judged by the $225,000 sales generated by the product in its first year.
FRANK H. FLEER PORTRAIT
PUBLISHED WITH SWAAB’S REBUTTAL IN 1897
Fleer tried to stay at the forefront of the chewing gum business, not only by being among the first to add cola flavoring to his gum, but also by being among the earliest to utilize vending machines as a new way to sell his gum. A story is told that an intrepid vending machine salesman approached Fleer. The salesman claimed that people would find the gimmickry of the new machines so fascinating that they would feed money into them even if the machines returned nothing for the penny deposited. Fleer agreed to sponsor a test and set one up in the Flatiron Building in New York City labeled with the instruction for people to “drop a penny in the slot and listen to the wind blow.” So many people complied that the police seized the machine. Fleer placed his vending machine order immediately.
Fleer’s brother Henry provided the blockbuster development which took the Fleer Co. to the next level. Trying to design a gum to match candy-coated almonds then much in vogue, Henry hit upon the idea of wrapping a hard candy coating around a chicle center. He described the resulting hard gum-candy squares as “little chiclets.” Frank seized upon that name for this new product and touched off a new chewing gum craze. Fleer brought his prosperous and thriving Chiclet business into the American Chicle Co. consolidation in 1909, and, apparently, emerged from the arrangement with the title of Chairman of the Board of the re-organized company.
1907 FLEER COVER
It is interesting to note that the Dunn and Fleer companies approached the payment of the Spanish-American War tax differently. The special tax rate imposed on chewing gum was 4¢ per dollar of retail value, as opposed to 2½¢ per dollar of retail value for proprietary medicines. The Treasury Department intended to place the burden of the tax payment on the gum manufacturers and apparently accepted the presence of the 4¢ stamp on the retailer’s gum display box as proof of the manufacturers’ payment. Fleer complied with this regulatory scheme, hence, its use of 4¢ stamps. Dunn and some other gum manufacturers apparently voluntarily chose to stamp most of their individual gum packages with the 1/8¢ battleship revenue stamp, RB20, which was actually designed to indicate payment of tax on medicinal items retailing for 5¢ or less at the 2 ½% per dollar rate of the proprietary medicine tax. The government apparently accepted either kind of accounting, and the total remitted to the government by such companies must have accorded with the 4% gum tax rate, since there is no record of litigation brought by the government alleging short tax payment by any of the gum manufacturers.
1906, 1907 & 1909 FLEER ADS
The history of the Frank H. Fleer Co. that utilized battleship revenues ends at this point, and theoretically, so should this article. However, there are still too many good stories to tell about Fleer’s subsequent adventures and history.
The Second Frank H. Fleer Co.
Fleer apparently was too restless a soul to remain in a purely executive capacity in the American Chicle Co., and by 1913 had organized a second Frank H. Fleer Co. Since the contract under which he had merged the original Flank H. Fleer Co. company into the American Chicle Co. forbade him from competing against it in the chicle gum manufacturing business, this second Frank H. Fleer Co. began as a confectionary company manufacturing candy called Fleer’s Bobs and Fruit Hearts. Fleer himself died suddenly of apoplexy at his country estate in Thomasville, North Carolina in 1921, but not before he had passed effective control of the company to his son-in-law Gilbert Mustin.
Two aspects of the second Frank H. Fleer Co.’s business impressed themselves into American culture as firmly as had Chiclets. First, the company began experimenting with trade cards to accompany their candies, issuing a set of 120 cards, featuring notable entertainers and athletes, including Mary Pickford, Gloria Swanson and Babe Ruth. Eventually, the trade cards, particularly the sports cards, would come to play a more important part in its business than gum. A recently discovered uncut page of these Fleer cards created a mild stir because it contained the Babe Ruth card. However, the movie stars and presidents appearing on the other cards occasioned no similar flurry.
SAMPLE FLEER NOTABLES TRADE CARD SERIES 1923
THE BABE RUTH CARD
RECENTLY DISCOVERED ENTIRE SHEET
OF FLEER NOTABLE CARDS
The other innovation made by the second Frank H. Fleer Co. was that it successfully produced the first bubble gum. Chicle based products would not form bubbles, so Frank H. Fleer had experimented with other substances and, as early as 1906, developed a gum called “Blibber-Blubber.” One could blow bubbles with it, but its texture resembled brittle Sticky Putty, making it hard to chew. Moreover, once the blown bubble burst, it was almost impossible to re-collect to blow into another bubble. Faced with these drawbacks, Fleer shelved the product, and there it remained until Gilbert Mustin pressed the research forward.
EXPERIMENTAL BLIBBER-BLUBBER BOX LOGO CIRCA 1906
The correct formula for bubble gum emerged in a most unlikely way from a most unlikely source, according to the tale repeated often enough after the discovery to be accepted now as gospel. Experimental batches of gum were mixed on the third floor of the Fleer factory, but the company’s telephone was on the ground floor. When Mustin, who was overseeing the trials, went off to take phone calls, he left the simmering mixtures in the care of Walter Diemer, a twenty-three year old employed by the Fleer company as an accountant who possessed no background in chemistry. Because Mustin hurried away so often, it fell to Diemer, literally, to keep the pot boiling. After months of trial and error, Diemer hit upon the proper blend of natural ingredients, including a pinch of latex, that both could be blown into a bubble and then easily and quickly re-collected to blow into another bubble. Once he had found the correct formula, he quickly made another batch. While preparing the second mixture, he realized that he had forgotten to add coloring. Scrambling to find some dye, he found he had only pink at hand, so into the cauldron it went. Named “Dubble Bubble,” this pink trial bubble gum debuted as a thousand pieces wrapped like taffy and sold for a penny in a candy shop in Philadelphia on December 26, 1928. They disappeared within a day. Since that first batch of bubble gum was pink, pink became its traditional color forevermore. Dubble Bubble was an instant success, but Diemer never patented the formula, since he did not want to disclose the exact formulation of its ingredients. Others quickly entered the bubble gum market, although Dubble Bubble dominated bubble gum sales at least through the end of World War II. On the strength of his discovery, Diemer ultimately rose to become Senior Vice President of the Fleer company, although he always retained among his responsibilities the job of teaching all Fleer salesmen how to blow bubbles so they could demonstrate the product.
WALTER DIEMER CIRCA 1980
FLEER DUBBLE BUBBLE GUM
When Gilbert Mustin’s oldest son, Gilbert Jr., became president of the company, Fleer’s emphasis began to shift from gum to trading cards. That trading cards became more important than gum is demonstrated by the fact that the remaining illustrations for this article are all sports trading cards. No one collects the gum; only the cards remain significant and have websites carefully attributing value to minor variations in quality, just like stamps. Through its executive Harry Ellsworth (who because of his lifetime of work in candy advertising now is remembered as the “Candy Man”), Fleer was able to negotiate a contract in 1959 with Ted Williams that allowed it to issue a special set of 80 baseball cards devoted entirely to commemorating the life and career of Williams. Although this set demonstrated to Fleer the extent of the untapped potential of the baseball trading card market, another bubble gum company, Topps held individual contracts with virtually all major and minor league baseball players to use their likenesses on baseball cards sold with gum. Fleer made it a practice to approach players when they began their careers on their minor league teams and signed them to a standard form which covered a period of five consecutive years. The contract offered a token payment for signing with additional payments to follow when they reached the majors. The existence of these contracts made competition in the area of baseball trading cards extremely difficult for Fleer.
SAMPLE WILLIAMS COMMEMORATIVE SERIES CARD
Football, however, was another matter. The American Football Conference (AFC) was just organizing to compete with the National Football League (NFL). Although Topps had an exclusive arrangement with the NFL, just as it had with Major League Baseball, Fleer was able to negotiate a group arrangement with the fledgling AFC that permitted it to issue AFC player cards, giving it a toe-hold in the football card market.
SAMPLE 1960 FLEER AFC CARD
Fleer still wanted to enter the baseball card market. It began to sign minor league baseball players to its own trading card contracts in order to put pressure on Topps, but never could land contracts with more than 27 of the more than 400 major league players. For two more years, it issued baseball cards memorializing past baseball legends, but after issuing a first series of 66 cards of current major leaguers in 1963 (packaged with a cookie instead of gum to try to circumvent the terms of the Topps contract), it stopped, whether simply from the exhaustion of competing with Topps or under threat of lawsuit is not quite clear. Some websites allege that Fleer was enjoined, but there is no court report of that injunction proceedings.
SAMPLE FLEER BASEBALL LEGENDS SERIES CARDS
SAMPLE 1963 FLEER BASEBALL CARD
Fleer had already filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in 1962 alleging that Topps was committing an unfair trade practice in violation of the FTC’s statutory authority by unfairly monopolizing the baseball trading card market. After amassing a factual record, the FTC’s hearing examiner found that sales of baseball trading cards marketed with gum was sufficiently enough defined as a separate sales market to make a determination as to whether it was being monopolized in violation of the FTC’s governing statutes, and that Topps was indeed monopolizing it. However, upon review, the FTC itself reversed that decision and ruled in favor of Topps in 1965, holding that since trading cards could be marketed in combination with anything other than gum, the restrictions that Topps imposed through its individual contracts with players were limited enough in scope as to not constitute a monopoly on baseball card sales within the boundaries of the FTC’s statutory authority. Fleer then sold its player contracts to Topps and ceased trying to enter the baseball card market for several years.
At the end of the 1960s, the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA), the newly formed union representing baseball players in their contract negotiations with the team owners, acquired group player marketing rights. It also tried to pressure Topps to improve payments under the individual contracts. Topps demurred and, in retaliation, MLBPA asked players not to renew their individual contracts with Topps. In an attempt to pressure Topps further, MLBPA offered Fleer an opportunity to buy the rights through it to produce baseball cards with gum beginning in 1973 after all the current individual contracts with Topps ended, provided that MLBPA delivered 80% of the players for Fleer to sign. Fleer, finding MLBPA’s terms too speculative and thinking that it would continue to be sustained by bubble gum sales, declined the proffer.
However, as other products arose to compete with bubble gum, Fleer found it needed baseball cards sales to keep pace in the growing market. In 1973, it sued Topps and MLBPA in its home federal courts of Philadelphia again arguing that Topps’s individual player contracts were creating a monopoly. This time it asserted that Topps and MLBPA were violating the federal Sherman Act which prohibits improper monopolies. While not referring to the FTC proceedings, which had been conducted within the ambit of the FTC’s statutory framework which paralleled the Sherman Act, the federal courts reached exactly the same results. The trial court, which heard the witnesses and collected the exhibits, found a discrete sales market for baseball trading cards sold with gum, and held that Topps and MLBPA violated both Sections 1 and Section 2 of the Sherman Act prohibiting monopolies. Upon review, the Third Circuit Court, just like the FTC, found that the relevant sales market was not simply limited just baseball cards marketed with gum and, therefore, that contracts held by Topps were reasonable in scope and duration. It reversed the trial court and dismissed Fleer’s claims.
Using the protection of the original Philadelphia federal district court decision, in 1981, Fleer re-entered the baseball card business, marketing the cards in packages containing a sticker of a major league baseball team’s logo instead of gum. After the Third Circuit’s reversal of the district court, Topps sued Fleer in 1983 in its own home federal court in Brooklyn, alleging that the stickers were a mere sham and violated the restriction in its contracts. This time, before the matter came to trial, Topps and Fleer decided to negotiate their differences. The settlement permitted Fleer to continue marketing baseball card as long as it did not sell them with gum. With the settlement of litigation, there were no longer legal threats or restrictions upon Fleer’s freedom to package and sell baseball cards themselves, which it did successfully in abundance thereafter, with each year’s productions growing more elaborate as the market seemed to grow endlessly.
SAMPLE 1981 FLEER BASEBALL CARD
By 1988, the Mustins were growing old. They accepted a buyout offer from a group led by executives from other gum firms, who, in turn took the Fleer Co. public in 1990. In 1992 Fleer was acquired by Marvel Entertainment Group of comic book fame. By 1995, when Fleer finally abandoned its old factory in Philadelphia, it had acquired interests overseas and also the Skybox International trade card manufacturing company.
ABANDONED FLEER FACTORY IN PHILADELPHIA
In 1998, Fleer sold the Dubble Bubble brand to a Canadian company, Concord Confections, which, in turn, was purchased by Tootsie Roll Industries in 2004. In 1999, the Fleer-Marvel operations were purchased by a partnership which included the founders of Rite Aid Drug Co. In 2005, that partnership entered into an Assignment for the Benefit of Creditors, a state law liquidation process similar to bankruptcy. As a part of the Assignment the Fleer name and brands were auctioned and purchased by the Upper Deck Co., yet another sports memorabilia manufacturer. It is a mark of the Fleer’s falling fortunes that the price Upper Deck paid in the Assignment process was just over $6 million, when the year before Fleer had rejected its offer to buy the company for $25 million. Upper Deck remains in business, but is not presently utilizing the Fleer name and brands. The mad scramble to create baseball collectibles continues, although in that musical-chair-like market Fleer’s seat appears to be gone.
© Malcolm A. Goldstein 2014