Chewing Gum in America

by Erica Lome                  December 2016

    When was the last time you chewed gum? Do you recall unwrapping the paper label and the foil underneath? Maybe you purchased gum because you wanted to freshen your breath, or maybe you’re a fan of a specific flavor or brand. Let’s say you wanted a sweet treat that you didn’t have to sit down to consume while you went about your day. Once you were done, what did you do with it? Did you spit the gum out on the ground and forget about it, or did you carefully tuck their chewed wad back in its wrapper (supposing you kept it) and look for a garbage can. But really, did you give it a second thought?

Gum chewing in America goes back hundreds of years and today there are more varieties and consumers than ever before. But few people know what gum is made of, and even fewer think about gum as a disposable product. Chewing gum began as an organic, tree-based confectionary. By 1950, gum, like many other consumer goods, was made with synthetic materials. Tracing the history of chewing gum is full of surprises. It says something about the rise of American entrepreneurship. It reveals evolving social behaviors that were based on consumption. Gum is part of the story of the formation of urban life and leisure, along with Americans’ migration to the suburbs beginning in the 1920s. It is an example of the ways that companies and advertisers incorporated popular culture into commercial production. Not merely a cheap treat, chewing gum in all its of variations—minty, fruity, sugarless— played a crucial role in the development and spread of mass advertising beginning in the late nineteenth century. A surviving material culture of chewing gum including collectible comics, graphic packaging and gum wrapper chains, continues to resonate in everyday life. As for the gum itself, the sticky, colorful, synthetic, non-digestant consumable remains one of the most elusive disposable products of the modern era.

Next – From Spruce to the Streets

Above Image: Wrigley’s Double Mint Gum Bus Poster Ad, c.1930-1940. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.