The World of Food: Chewing Gum

By Julia Maish |

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“The gum looked fresh. I sniffed it and it smelled all right. I licked it and waited for a while. When I did not die, I crammed it into my mouth: Wrigley's Doublemint.”
— Harper Lee,To Kill a Mockingbird

“Double your pleasure…double your fun…with Doublemint, Doublemint, Doublemint Gum.”
— Advertising jingle, Wrigley’s Doublemint Gum

At the end of this month, America celebrates National Chewing Gum Day. How long has gum been around? And why do people love to chew it?

Turns out, a substance that is meant to be chewed but not swallowed (but not yet called “gum”) has been around for a very long time. In about 75 AD, the Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder referenced something called “mastich” that was popular with the ancient Greeks. (The word shares a common root with “masticate.") And early northern Europeans were fond of chewing birch-bark tar for medicinal purposes – to ease the pain of a toothache and freshen breath. Early Native Americans, for their part, chewed spruce tree resin, probably to the same ends.

It was the Mayans and Aztecs who took the chewing-but-not-swallowing craze to the next level with a rubber-like resin called chicle, a byproduct of the Mexican sapodilla tree. This resin was boiled, dried, and then converted into what was commonly called “cha”. The socially conscious Aztecs established some strict guidelines to regulate who could be seen chewing “cha” in public: children and single women were permitted to chew it anytime and anywhere; women who were (or had been) married could chew it only among friends as a breath-freshener; and men had to keep their “cha” chewing entirely secret (men chewing in public were considered “effeminate,” and married women doing likewise little better than whores).

“Cha” and chicle might have stayed in Central America were it not for Mexico’s ex-President, General Antonio López de Santa Anna. For reasons that are lost to history, sometime in the 1850s, Santa Anna supplied a quantity of chicle to one of his staff secretaries, Thomas Adams, who originally thought it could be used to make knock-off tires (as real rubber was prohibitively expensive). He couldn’t get the formula right, though, and recalling that Santa Anna and his constituents had been in the habit of chewing the chicle, Adams decided to go into the chewing gum business instead. (At that time, the only thing comparable was paraffin wax sold in pharmacies.) His first commercial gum, in the form of individually wrapped gumballs, was marketed under the catchy name of “Adams New York No. 1.” It was missing that certain something, though, and in 1871 Adams introduced the first gum with a distinct flavor – licorice – and called it Black Jack. A Tutti-Frutti flavored gum soon followed. Today, you can still find Black Jack gum under the Adams name, along with Chiclets, Beemans, and Clove.

Adams did pretty well for himself, but a young Philadelphia soap entrepreneur named William Wrigley took chewing gum to the next level, marketing-wise. In order to sell more soap, he began including free gum in shipments to his most loyal vendors. The gum quickly eclipsed the soap in popularity, so Wrigley wisely decided to focus on that, moving to Chicago and launching the Juicy Fruit and Spearmint brands, which he promoted via a number of clever gimmicks. These included complimentary gum samples to randomly selected people in U.S. phone books and as free birthday gifts to two-year-old children. These campaigns were quite successful and Wrigley reaped the benefits, becoming one of the richest men in America.

It was one of Wrigley’s competitors, Frank Fleer, who came up with the novel idea of bubble gum. Many prototypes were tried (including a too-sticky one called Blibber-Blubber), but after more than two decades, Fleer’s employee Walter Diemer hit the jackpot with his formula, which Fleer called Dubble Bubble, and kids have been getting it stuck on their face and in their hair ever since. Why is it pink? Just a fluke – it happened to be a color Fleer had in ample supply.

What’s your favorite flavor, and why do you chew it?