Those of us who are fortunate enough to work in the field of history strive to make connections with the past, particularly personal connections.  Sometimes the connections are so obvious that they are hard to see.  Take chewing gum, for example.  Did you know that each time you chew a piece of gum you are taking part in an activity that has been performed since the Stone Age?  Deliciously startling, isn’t it!  Often considered a symbol of modern culture, the chewing of gum-like materials has been practiced for thousands of years and is probably one of the oldest pasttimes in the history of humankind.

The chewing of sticky substances released by certain trees and plants has ancient origins.  In 1993, for example, archaeologists working on the Swedish island of Orust discovered three wads of nine thousand year-old honey-sweetened chewed birch resin on the bark floor of a hut used by hunter-gatherers.  Historical evidence shows that the ancient Greeks chewed mastiche (pronounced “mas-tee-ka”), a yellowish resin that comes from the mastic tree.  Aztec and Mayan Indians chewed chicle, a natural latex product obtained from the milky juice of the sapodilla, a tall evergreen tropical American tree.  Closer to home, American Indians chewed spruce tree sap and early European-American settlers apparently chewed a mixture of spruce sap and beeswax, a sort of “chewing gum”.

It wasn’t until fairly recently that chewing gum was manufactured for the mass market.  The first commercially manufactured chewing gum, State of Maine Pure Spruce Gum, was available for purchase in 1848.  Just over two decades later, in 1869, the first patent for a chewing gum was obtained by William F. Semple.  A dentist from Ohio, Semple wanted to encourage people to clean their teeth and work their jaws in order to keep them healthy and “well-exercised”.  Recommended ingredients in Semple’s gum, which he called Improved Chewing Gum, were charcoal and chalk.

Early manufactured chewing gums didn’t taste very good and were hard to chew.  The oldest flavored gum that is still available today is Black Jack, a licorice gum that was created by Thomas Adams (b.1818).  Adams’ foray into the chewing gum manufacturing world began when he was looking for a way to make a cheap synthetic rubber for bicycle and carriage tires.  In 1869 he met Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, the exiled Mexican general who led the infamous charge against the Alamo.  Hoping to partner with a rubber maker in developing an artificial rubber, Santa Anna had brought a quarter ton of chicle with him when he moved to New York.  After their combined tire venture failed, Adams turned his leftover chicle into a chewing gum that he marketed as Adams’ New York Chewing Gum – Snapping and Stretching.  Adams sold his first flavorless chicle gumball at a New Jersey drugstore in 1871.  Not long after this he added sassafrass flavoring to his gum recipe.  He later added anise, which gives Black Jack gum its distinctive licorice taste.

Like other late nineteenth century developments in the manufacturing world, things moved fairly quickly with chewing gum and by the turn of the century there were over one hundred brands of gum on the market.  Gums that were available included Juicy Fruit and Wrigley’s Spearmint, both of which were introduced in 1893 by the William Wrigley Jr. Company of Chicago, Illinois.  Established by William Wrigley Jr. (1861-1932), an American industrialist and flour factory owner, the company is currently the largest manufacturer of chewing gum in the world.  Other chewing gums that were available included Dentyne gum, which was introduced in 1899, and Tutti-Frutti.  The first successful bubble gum, Dubble Bubble, was created in 1928 by Walter Diemer, an accountant for the Fleer Gum Company.  Dubble Bubble had the important qualities of stretching easily and being not as sticky as earlier bubble gums, making it much easier to peel off human skin.

The manufacture of chewing gum has become a huge worldwide business.  Americans alone consume over 2 1/2 billion dollars worth of gum per year.  Sugarless gums, which were introduced to the market in the 1950s, continue to be popular and the recent explosion of teeth whitening gums is just the latest in ongoing developments.  A biodegradable gum from the corn protein “zein”, for example, is currently in the works and the United States military has recently introduced a performance-enhancing caffeinated gum called “Stay Alert”.  “Stay Alert” gum is intended to serve as a countermeasure against fatigue, helping to maintain or improve alertness, performance, and physical and mental health.  Chewing gum has been part of battlefied rations for United States soldiers since World War I, helping to relieve stress, aid concentration and promote oral hygiene.

The next time you pop a piece of chewing gum in your mouth, remember that you are not only freshening your breath, cleaning your teeth, and hopefully improving your mood, you are also actively participating in what is probably the oldest habit in the history of the world.  With that thought in mind, you will probably never chew gum again the same way you did before.  Enjoy the rich and tasty historical experience!

By Ann Marie Johnson
Copyright 2006, Morrison County Historical Society

Adams ® Black Jack Chewing Gum, produced by Warner-Lambert Co. of Morrison Plains, New Jersey.  Gum wrappers found in a beaded bag donated by Gen Waller to MCHS.  Photo by Ann Marie Johnson, 2006.
Adams ® Black Jack Chewing Gum, produced by Warner-Lambert Co. of Morrison Plains, New Jersey. Gum wrappers found in a beaded bag donated by Gen Waller to MCHS. Photo by Ann Marie Johnson, 2006.

Who Knew Marble Dust Could Taste So Good?

The recipe for the manufacture of chewing gum has remained essentially the same for over a ­century. The basic ingredients consist of a gum base with flavorings and sometimes coloring. Most of today’s chewing gums use petroleum-based polymers, such as polyvinyl acetate, butadiene-styrene, petroleum wax and other wax or rubber byproducts. Whatever base is used, it needs to be melted until it reaches the heavy gluey consistency of thick maple syrup. The hot melted base is then filtered through a fine mesh screen, refined in a centrifuge and subjected to further filtering. The resulting clear base is poured into mixing vats where other ingredients may be added, such as sweeteners, flavorings, preservatives and various softeners. After this mixture is poured onto conveyor belts, it is cooled, extruded, rolled and cut. The finished gum is then set aside for twenty-four to forty-eight hours. Coated gums are wrapped with optional undercoatings, colored and coated with a glazing agent. Uncoated gums are covered in a sweetened marble dust to prevent the wrapper from sticking to the gum.

By Ann Marie Johnson
Copyright 2006, Morrison County Historical Society

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