(Think of a chewy, aniseed-flavoured, gelatine-based black rectangle which makes your tongue go black and you will find yourself on a confectionery trail that is 100 years’ old.
Black Jacks were manufactured by Trebor (the word is formed by ‘Robert’ backwards, after Robert Robertson, a grocer and one of the firm’s founding four in 1907) and first appeared in the 1920s.
Wrapped in greaseproof black and white paper wrappings, they were – and still are – a Pick n’ Mix sweet shop favourite. Black Jacks are often mixed with a sister/daughter/cousin (depending on where you live) brand - Fruit Salads – raspberry and pineapple flavoured chews in bright yellow and red wrappers, but of a similar shape and size.
Growing up in the 1960s I remember that you could buy eight of these sweets for one old penny, and proudly told my Welsh primary school teacher that the future was oblong. Mr Griffiths hated that word even more than ‘English’ and promptly smacked my bare legs with a wooden ruler; at least I had a big bag of sweets to look forward to on the slow walk home from school.
If history has led to Fruit Salads becoming gelatine-free and thus suitable for vegetarians, decimalisation in 1971 was a major blow to my empire-building plans; but Black Jacks have had an even more unsavoury experience, and much more to do with the packaging than the sweet itself.
The story begins in the late-nineteenth century when a 22-year old English artist – Florence Kate Upton – was looking to raise money for art lessons by producing a story book. Her family had emigrated to the United States but she had returned to London to visit an aunt in Hampstead. There, in her aunt’s dusty attic, she discovered a scruffy black-faced doll which became a template for her leading character who she named ‘Golliwogg.’
Golliwogg starred in his first story “The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls And A Golliwogg” in 1895 and would have many adventures over the next 14 years as he went all over the world with the Dutch Dolls, Peg and Sarah Jane.
Florence’s mother Bertha wrote the words to accompany her daughter’s illustrations but, despite huge popularity, this rather eccentric family did not have the business acumen to trademark the Golliwogg character and so did not take full financial advantage when toy companies started adopting the character for toys and minstrel dolls, only changing the spelling slightly to ‘Golliwog.’
A real breakthrough commercially came in 1910 when ‘Sticky’ John Robertson (seemingly no relation to ‘Sweet’ Robert), from the famous jam manufacturing family from Paisley in Scotland, witnessed children playing with black rag dolls with white eyes, made from their mothers' discarded black skirts and white blouses. The children called each of them ‘Golly’ rather than Dolly – and only Teddy Bears were in greater demand than Golliwogs at the time. The much more astute Robertson thought Golly would be perfect as a mascot for the firm’s products. Not only did a Gollywog appear on jam labels, but Robertson’s also produced badges and enamel brooches and sent out more than 20 million of them over the next 100 years.
Golliwogs also began to appear in children’s books – notably those by Enid Blyton who portrayed them as villains, thieves and potential cereal killers (if consumed before the school watershed).
The Golliwog character also became associated – perhaps mistakenly - with the derogatory use of the word ‘wog’ first used by British troops in North Africa during World War Two when referring to native North Africans. Together, these negative themes proved altogether too racially insensitive and Golly soon faded into the shadows of time.
So, what of Black Jacks which sported smiling Golliwog figures on their labelling from the outset? As Golliwogs became as unacceptable as space hoppers in the 1980s, so Trebor changed the packaging to feature a pirate figure with a black beard and eye patch. Unfortunately, this was also deemed offensive by short men with bushy beards and colourful parrots and so, in the early 1990s, after much time, money and very expensive lunches with a branding agency, the pirate was thrown overboard to leave just a grey and black swirl with Black Jack in red writing. The trailing ‘s’ was dropped so that Black Jacks became Black Jack (not that anyone noticed apart from those poor souls who just bought one sweet at a time).
In 2013 the sweets appeared under Tangerine Confectionery’s Candyland brand before reverting to the iconic Barratts label in 2018, as it celebrated its 170-year history. In the same year that Barratts was founded - 1848 – France abolished slavery in its colonies for a second time (Napoleon had revoked the first attempt). Black Jacks and Robinson’s Jam would show though that casual racism did not get cancelled by mid-nineteenth-century progress.