Rebecca Romanchuk, Archivist
One of the more unexpected objects in the State Archives’ Artifacts collection echoes a Kentucky Derby tradition–a pristine piece of mint julep (flavored) chewing gum, still in its unopened wrapper labeled, “Mint Julep Gum by Tom Huston.” This intriguing item was recently discovered in a box of bill files of the 43rd Texas Legislature dating from 1933, held at the State Archives. How and when did it get there? Who is Tom Huston? The story, oddly enough, begins with peanuts.
Online research, including census records, helped uncover the facts. According to a biography of Tom Huston, he was born in Alabama in 1889, and the 1900 Federal Census shows his family living on a farm in Wilsonville, Alabama. By at least 1903 they had moved to Texas, as the 1910 Federal Census shows the family living on a farm north of Henderson, with a seven-year-old son as the first of the children to be born in Texas. From the age of 10, Tom is shown in the census to be employed as a farm laborer (while also attending school) on his family’s peanut farm.
Huston’s weariness with shelling peanuts by hand inspired the ingenuity that would soon take his business career to great heights. A book about Henderson includes a photograph of a Tom Huston Peanut Sheller manufactured in that city, forged with the words “Made by Thomas Huston” on the device. Other images of this sheller found online show “Pat. Apr 4, 1918” below the crank. This appears to be Huston’s first peanut-related invention, and more would soon follow.
Relocating to Columbus, Georgia by 1919, Huston filed applications with the U.S. Patent Office for three devices in May of that year: a peanut digger, a hand-operated peanut sheller, and a power-driven peanut-shelling machine. The 1920 Federal Census lists him living with a family in Columbus as a boarder, and his occupation is given as a manufacturer of peanut machinery.
Huston sold his peanut-farming implements to local farmers who often paid him with portions of their crop. The need to convert those peanuts to cash spurred his next inventions to market peanuts he roasted to sell: a narrow packet made of ribbed glassine paper with a seal to keep contents fresh, and display stands to show off the transparent packets to best advantage.
The packet was designed to dispense peanuts directly into the mouth, as seen in the illustration above. This avoided soiling fingers with oil and salt and was more sanitary than handling the peanuts before eating them. Huston’s knack for marketing helped him excel in the field of single-serving, prepackaged snack food. In 1928, he established the Tom Huston Peanut Company, which would also sell canned Red Robin peanut butter, peanut-butter sandwich crackers, and various peanut candies.
Huston consulted with famed agricultural scientist George Washington Carver about improving peanut crops grown by his suppliers, and the two developed a close business relationship and friendship. Huston’s company expanded to distribute products nationally, and sales were so good that by 1930 he was being hailed in Time magazine as “The Farmer Boy Who Became Peanut King.”
Huston’s success seemed to defy the Great Depression, but he soon ran into trouble. He began a frozen peaches business that failed, and debts caused him to lose controlling stock of the peanut company in 1933. After being sold many times, what was once Huston’s company continues today as a component of a major snack food corporation still selling products under the “Tom’s” name.
After his financial setback, Huston continued in the confectionery business. Among other products, he created Julep Gums and invented a chewing gum packaging design, though according to one source, the monopoly on the chewing gum market held at the time by the Beech-Nut Company caused Julep Gums to fail. The 1940 Federal Census shows Huston living in Miami, Florida, still as a manufacturer of confections, while his parents continued to live on their Henderson farm where their eldest son began his life of inventing.
Perhaps a stick of Huston’s Mint Julep Gum fell out of someone’s pocket while compiling the bill files of the 43rd Texas Legislature in 1933 or soon thereafter, where it remained for almost 85 years before being noticed. It has been added to our Artifacts collection as evidence of a remarkable businessman who made his start in Texas.
Huston kept inventing until he died in Miami in 1972. He was, as his widow said, “a seeker but not a finder. He was forever reaching for a nebulous goal that constantly eluded him.”