Monday, April 4, 2011

It Runs In The Family

A little over three months ago I started an in depth research project into the origins of Topps Chewing Gum, which turned into an article for Les Davis' The Wrapper after it became apparent to me that the official story of the company's beginnings was, in large part, made up. The further back in time I went, the more I found. Now that Les is on to selling his next issue (with another story by yours truly, this time concerning Warren Bowman) I can delve into the back story even more. Some of this repeats parts of the Wrapper article, some of it updates same and some of it is newly discovered since then.

The oft told story of family patriarch Morris Shorin founding the American Leaf Tobacco Company in 1890 and then, in a fit of desperation brought on by the Depression, betting the family fortune on chewing gum and installing his four sons to run Topps may have first been promulgated to the masses around 1972, when the company went public with a stock offering. The origins of this tale seem to go back a few more years though, when Topps was doing some PR work in the wake of a lawsuit brought by Fleer in the mid 60's but I am still digging into that particular aspect of the story and will report my findings here at a later date.

As detailed in a prior post, the American Leaf Tobacco Company was founded in Boston in 1890 by members of the Salomon family, two years before Morris emigrated to the U.S. from Russia. Furthermore, I am finding increasing evidence that Morris did not fully control ALTC until 1908, when he secured a bank loan for its purchase. Now, it is not unusual for corporations or individuals to embellish their history, indeed it occurs to this day. What surprised me though was that the true origins of the company paled in comparison to the true origins of Morris Shorin.

Morris arrived in the U.S. in July of 1892  1891 with the last name of Chigorinsky and he was legally known by this name until 1919, as were his wife and children, of which there were five sons, not four, at least until 1918 when his eldest, Moe, died in October of an unspecifed chronic ailment. There will be more written on Moe at some point but it is worth noting he was born in Russia and did not arrive in the U.S. until 1904. It is also worth noting the name change to Shorin happened after Moe's death and probably not until the surviving Chigorinsky boys had completed their active military service during the Great War.

I have recently spoken and corresponded with some family members on the Jablow side and there is a notion that Morris took the Chigorinsky name as a joke almost, albeit an inside one, as it reflected both the cigar industry and his ethnicity. It is possible though, that he was indeed a Shorin before immigrating as there was a well-known merchant family of that name in Russia for many years prior.

When I wrote the Wrapper article I was laboring under the impression that Morris had come to America with his wife, Rebecca (nee Jablow) and young Moe; I have to confess I am not 100% convinced of this anymore although there is some lingering uncertainty among the Jablow descendants on this point. Census records for the family give differing accounts of events over thirty years' time which does not help matters but it is clear to me now that Moe was not a child of Rebecca's and that Morris and she were married (in the U.S.) in 1896.

Morris Chigorinsky was most probably well off (in a relative sense for immigrants) when he arrived in the U.S. in 1891. He initially had a cigar business that employed some members of the Jablow family but I cannot determine if this was how he met Rebecca. Over the years though, various Jablow's and their offspring would figure in the operation of Topps. Thanks to Carol Jablow, I was also able to obtain a picture of Morris and Rebecca as I had not been able to find one anywhere until she came to my rescue. Here is Morris first:

That was taken from a larger still showing them both, probably in Miami in the late 30's or early 40's:

From 1897-1903 the four "Shorin" boys (Abraham, Philip, Isador and Joseph) were born and around this time, or maybe a little later, Morris was in business with a man named Louis Metz (also referred to as Melz), in a location at the bustling intersection of Throop and Flushing Avenues in Williamsburg, Brooklyn that would have been ideal for a retail shop. City directories that I have been able to access on a limited basis do not give a business name unfortunately, so I cannot determine if they operated under the American Leaf Tobacco Company monicker or not. The ALTC did have operations as far away as St. Louis by this time, I just can't tell if Morris was involved with any of them. Confusing matters further is the dissolution of ALTC as a New York Corporation in 1903, which doesn't necessarily mean much as Topps would later go into and out of a corporate ownership structure in the early days of World War 2 without affecting operations.

Morris may have struck off on his own around 1906 (not sure yet) but in 1908 ALTC capitalized in New York and Florida with operations in the Sunshine State centering around a prime tobacco growing area. The firm would grow rapidly, establishing Brooklyn headquartes on Debevoise St. in Williamsburg although there is some debate among the Jablow descendants as to the extent of trouble it experienced during the Great War. My own observation is that the firm did well despite the war as Morris Shorin purchased a fine home in a well off section of Crown Heights around 1918, after renting in various locations up and down Tompkins Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant for many years. Ira and Joseph went on to college and I suspect the other two boys did as well; even the ill-fated Moe had attended New York University for a while.

The late 20's saw the family purchase American Gas Stations, as recounted here recently, an entity that was run by Joseph Shorin whereby he gained valuable insight into how to run a successful company. Topps just released an insert set entitled the History of Topps and the first card is, fittingly enough, of  Joe Joel Shoirn, his son nephew:

This is a good place to stop for today methinks. Much, much more to come on the Shorin and Jablow families and their involvement with Topps Chewing Gum, including the founding of the firm, shortly. In the meantime, if anyone out there has more details on these early days, please contact me. And thanks for the corrections folks!


Anonymous said...

This is a picture of Joel Shorin, former President & CEO of Topps Chewing Gum Inc.

Anonymous said...

Joel Shorin was Phillip Shorin's son. Grandson of Morris Shorin.

Unknown said...

My father, Jack Lavin, worked for the Shorin family at Topps for about forty years, and I have fond memories of the many chapters of the Topps Story. Jack's associations and friendships were many as were the inspirations that held the company together. Please feel from to contact me regarding those memories. Jack passed in March 2016. I can be reached a:

toppcat said...


Thank you, I will definitely reach out, probably in a couple of weeks-Dave