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The amazing history of chewing gum

Dear Cecil:

While I was munching on a slab of Juicy Fruit today, two questions filtered from mouth to mind: who invented the stuff, anyway? And what's it made of?

G.A., Baltimore

Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

The chewing gum habit goes back to the Indians, actually. Such a deal: they give us gum, tobacco, and Manhattan island; we give them firewater, syphilis, and Frank Sinatra. Oh, well.

New England tribesmen chewed on a gum-like substance taken from the pulp of the spruce tree to keep their whistles wet on long hikes through the woods. The practice was quickly adopted by the first white settlers, but strangely enough it was a hundred years or so before a wily capitalist came along to size up the commercial possibilities.

In 1848, John Curtis set up shop in Bangor, Maine, manufacturing “State of Maine Pure Spruce Gum” from a stove-top plant. Curtis’s success was not overwhelming. There was one serious problem with “Pure Spruce Gum” — namely, that it tasted entirely too much like pure spruce. Curtis experimented with adding other flavors to the mixture, but nothing seemed capable of disguising the essential sprucidity of his product. By 1850 Curtis had thrown over spruce gum in favor of paraffin, a petroleum by-product that had the advantage of being tasteless, but wasn’t up to the spruce stuff texture-wise. (Spruce gum didn’t entirely disappear, though; I’m told you can still get it in New Hampshire today, tasting as rank as ever.)

The next breakthrough came on December 28, 1869, when Patent No. 98,304 was issued to William Finley Semple of Mount Vernon, Ohio. The visionary Semple laid claim to the idea that a functional chewing gum could be made from rubber, combined with unnamed “other articles.” Semple apparently never discovered what the other articles were, because there is no record of his product ever entering the marketplace. He was, as we shall see, a man ahead of his time.

The scene now shifts to Staten Island, New York, 1870. Thomas Adams, a commercial photographer (no relation to the present writer), has spent the last two years of his life experimenting with a strange substance he has imported from Mexico, the sap of the Chiclezapote tree. Adams hopes to develop the goo into a substitute for rubber. But he has failed again and again. He sits at his workbench a broken man, staring blankly at the wad of chicle. Suddenly, on a blind impulse, no longer caring for the consequences, the despondent Adams reaches out, tears off a slimy corner of the mocking mound, and pops it into his mouth. Eureka! The Chiclet is born!

Little did Adams realize that the Mexicans Indians had been chewing chicle for centuries, having no use for it in the form of automobile tires. No matter. Adams scooped up his chicle and went out to look for backers. Many scoffed, but the undaunted Adams opened his plant anyway. Success was instantaneous. By 1890, Adams’ six-story factory employed 250 workers.

Unwittingly, Adams had spawned a national craze. Gum chewing, like hula hoops and the Beatles, swept the country, and was soon being condemned as evil by politicians, clergymen, and women’s groups. The New York Sun editorialized in 1890: “The habit has reached such a stage now that makes it impossible for a New Yorker to go to the theater or the church, or enter the street cars or the railway train, or walk on a fashionable promenade without meeting men and women whose jaws are working with the activity of the gum chewing victim. And the spectacle is maintained in the face of frequent reminders that gum-chewing, especially in public, is an essentially vulgar indulgence that not only shows bad breeding, but spoils a pretty countenance and detracts from the dignity of those who practice the habit.” However, when it became clear that no definite link between gum chewing and white slavery could be established, the furor died down.

Today, William Finley Semple has been vindicated. Most gum is now made from latex rubber, taken from the sapodilla tree of Central and South America. The dried latex is kneaded into a hot mix of sugar and corn syrup, delicately flavored, and then pressed and cut into neat little strips, ready to rot the teeth of the nation.

Cecil Adams

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