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In my last post I covered the origins and easy history of tamales, moving on, this post will look at the canned tamale industry that sprang up in the early 20th century.

The dusky hued Tamale Vendor of olden times is fast disappearing like ‘Lo the poor Indian.’  His wares so tantalizingly delicious, which were offered for sale at every street corner are now the basis of a huge industry.  The tamale is now a known quantity; its manufacture employs thousands of Union men and women.  Clean, sanitary kitchens displace the dingy, unsanitary places of manufacture of the old time husk tamale with its doubtful ingredients.  White men and women are employed the year around to prepare this delicious condiment for the tables of the world.  Ingredients of the highest quality enter into its manufacture.  Since 1900, when the first canned tamale was placed upon the market by C. H. Workman, of the Workman Packing Company, the consumption of husk tamales has decreased from 4,000,000 annually to a mere 40,000.  The canned variety has enjoyed a correspondingly phenomenal INCREASE.  This year the Workman Packing Company will produce over 4,000,000 tins of their I X L Brands.  San Francisco, through the Workman Packing Company, now practically controls the tinned tamale market of the world.  The wonderful growth of this company in the ten years of its existence is an evidence of the quality of its products and the business acumen of its officers. 

Although tamales were always the company’s best selling product, from, “the largest white tile kitchen in the West”, the Workman Company also made Chicken Tamales, Enchiladas, Chili Con Carne, Deviled Chili Meat, and Liver Paste.  – Yearbook.  California State Federation of Labor.  1916.  San Francisco.

C. H. Workman began selling tamales in 1900 and, the North Carolina native was widely known as, “the originator of a popular brand of canned tamales”.  His obituary, published in The Western Canner and Packer on May 1922, outlined his success as the unrivaled canned tamale king.   – Sheilds, George.  Recreation.  Vol. 15.  Oct. 1901.

After failing at producing canned clams, Workman found himself a partner with experience at making tamales, and to get the company off the ground they made and packed the tamales at night and sold them by day.  He called on 32 grocers his first day as a tamale salesman and sold to 31 of them.  Business boomed, and in 1904 he purchased the IXL Packing Company which was a model successful business until the San Francisco earthquake.  It took just 14 minutes for his factory to lie in ruins. 

In 1911, he organized the Workman Packing Company and set out to design machinery to speed up production in order to stay ahead of his competitors.  By January 1920, 17 of his employees had attempted to open canneries and duplicate his success, however, none were successful. 

To promote his tamales, Workman provided a demonstrator to introduce the tamales to the customer right in the grocer’s store.  Next, he sent employees door to door, and then took ads in magazines and cookbooks offering customers genuine Rogers brand knives, forks, and spoons in exchange for labels from his canned tamales, enchiladas, chili con carne, and pork and beans.  – Printer’s Ink.  Vol. 81.  Oct. 1, 1912.  Philadelphia.

I applaud his business savvy, however, my experience with canned tamales has been rather dismal.  Upon opening the can, a copious amount of thick red grease sits atop paper-wrapped tamales which have been extruded one after another by a machine, independent of human hands. 

Workman’s life is a genuine rags to riches story and he was considered a model businessman during and after his passing.  He began his career working a cable car in San Francisco and by the time of his death, his company was estimated to be worth a million dollars.  That, folks, in the 1920’s, was a lot of tamales.  – The Magazine of Business.  Jan. 1920.

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