Chewing Gum in a Postwar Age

By the 1940s chewing gum became unexpectedly linked to patriotism and civic duty.

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Chewing Gum ad, circa World War II

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A boy holding a box of chewing gum on February 4, 1944. Photography by Loftus B. Cuddy, Jr., the AFS World War II Photographic Collection

During World War II, gum featured in every soldier’s meal rations. Chiclets, spearmint and orbit provided a small relief to men and women overseas, with an estimated 630 sticks of gum consumed by every serviceman or woman. American soldiers used gum as a means of socializing with allied forces and civilians, and gum advertisements now displayed patriotic imagery and messages to boost morale. As international sales of gum increased, the sapodilla trees that produced chicle began to suffer from over-extraction. Gum companies hurried to find an alternative to chicle-based gum recipes. This led to the development of a synthetic gum base and new modes of manufacture that had lasting effects after World War II.

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Type K ration developed in 1942 included a pack of Dentyne gum

 

Gum in a post-chicle world was a different beast altogether. The most important component was the gum base, consisting of a plasticized rubber or synthetic polymer with added texturizers or antioxidants, used to give gum a longer shelf life. Bubblegum bases contained polymers with different properties, giving the gum the ability to stretch during processing. Texturizers, or mineral additions like calcium carbonate, determined the quality level and price of the gum. Sugar was still a major component of gum, and the finer the sugar powder, the firmer the chewing gum. With the invention of “sugar-free” gum, bulk chemical sweeteners could be added instead. Lastly, essential oils and fruit acids added flavor. When mixed with other chemical compounds, these new gums could live up to the claim that their taste lasted as long as it took to chew.[1]

Chewing gum was shaped and reshaped with each subsequent generation of consumers; thus, gum companies constantly had to reinvent themselves to appeal to the broadest demographic. In the 1950s market researchers employed by consumer psychologist Ernst Dichter attempted to quantify why consumers chewed gum and what they associated with both the product and the action. While the normal rationalizations included digestive aid, oral health and as stress relief, other responses illustrate the cultural trajectory gum chewing took into the second half the twentieth century.[2]

Dichter’s researchers attempted to get to the core emotional and psychological reasons people chewed or didn’t chew gum. Many adult men and women considered the habit indecent and unprofessional. “No nice person chews” stated one survey, while another exclaimed that the act “arouses inhibitions and is in character too obviously exhibitionistic and masturbatory.”[3] Regulating behavior concerning chewing gum was a method of maintaining notions of superiority. One 28-year old wife of an accountant noted, “I think probably low income groups chew gum with greater abandon and you might even say respect for the gum itself, than the white collar workers.” Researchers suggested to gum companies that gum be marketed as somewhat illicit, in order to lure in “respectable” people—gum chewing again could be a permissible rebellion, as it had been for college women decades earlier.

Dichter also surveyed methods of gum disposal in 1962. Teachers, businessmen, housewives, secretaries and “employees” were more likely to wrap their gum in a piece of paper and throw it in the garbage, or just throw it away without the wrapper. The majority of factory workers and artists spat out their gum on the ground, “no matter where,” while teenagers, school children and small children more often than not stuck theirs under a piece of furniture.[4] These groups were judged on a range of “responsible” to “unacceptable” means of disposal. Unsurprisingly, the most active gum chewers–children–were the least responsible. Dichter conducted this test to determine how people of different social and economic groups consumed and disposed of gum, but his graph also demonstrates how pervasive gum chewing continued to be among adult men and women of all walks of life despite whatever attitudes they held about public reception. Even so, advertising in the mid-twentieth century no longer reflected that fact.

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“Methods of Gum Disposal” Chart for A Motivational Research Study for Hollywood Chewing Gum, submitted by the Institute of Motivational Research, 1962, p.73. Box 66, 1439C, Ernest Dichter papers (Accession 2407), Hagley Museum and Library, Wilmington, DE 19807

While gum companies originally focused their attention on the Vassar girl of tomorrow, by the mid-twentieth century the target demographic was children. In the postwar period, gum belonged to a world of cross-media branding, cultural archetypes and multi-generational nostalgia. Could nostalgia be packaged? Why yes, of course. Gum was one of many products ushered into the golden age of advertising, where harkening back to childhood was a strategy employed by many advertising firms.

Back – Ladies Who Chewed                                            Next – Gum Poppin’ and Popular Culture

[1] Comprehensive standards for evaluating chewing gum also developed in the 1950s. In the “Initial Chew” stage, quality control workers tested gum’s flexibility, how easily it could be pierced with teeth, and how quickly it went from the dry, chalky stick to the moist cud once in the mouth. More intermediate factors consisted of flavor impact and “tack to teeth”, with the Final Chew stage incorporating properties such as string, which was the ability of chewing gum to be stretched from the mouth to arms length without breaking, longevity of flavor and “cud size”—the shrinkage that occurred to gum during chewing. E.B. Jackson, ed., Sugar Confectionery Manufacture, 264.

[2] Ernst Dichter was one of the pioneers in consumer motivational research, whose papers are archived at the Hagley Library. Companies who contracted with him received a detailed report containing analysis gained from extensive interaction with test subjects. It should be noted that Dichter’s approach was unorthodox: he employed psychiatric techniques to uncover the unconscious motivations and emotional reactions towards certain consumer goods. Therefore, much of his findings included intensely personal sentiments.

[3] Warren’s Mint Cocktail Chewing Gum and Bub Bubble Gum, 1947, Box 2/48C, Ernest Dichter papers (Accession 2407), Hagley Museum and Library, Wilmington, DE 19807, 9.

[4] A Motivational Research Study for Hollwood Chewing Gum, 1972. Box 66/1439C, Ernest Dichter papers (Accession 2407), Hagley Museum and Library, Wilmington, DE 19807, p.79

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