Creating the Chewing Gum Habit

Americans chewed gum for a variety of reasons. Gum was sweet and flavorful, like more expensive treats and confectioneries made with white refined sugar, a relatively new luxury for middle and working class consumers. It was also cheap and convenient for the chewer on the go. Adult men began chewing gum to cover up the stink of tobacco, and in some cases gum served as a substitute for the vice of smoking. Health reformers claimed gum curbed the desire to drink alcohol, introducing a moral dimension to the product even as personalities like Emily Post decried the act of chewing gum as unseemly and indecent.[1]

Gum companies also offered a variety of reasons why chewing gum was good for the body. Gum could be associated with the masticating craze first put forth by the scientist Francis Balkwill in 1866. Masticating—chewing vigorously before swallowing food —was considered by many to have enormous health and physiological benefits. Prolonged chewing, exclaimed Horace Fletcher (1849-1919) of the doctrinal “Fletcherism” movement, “led to better systemic and dental health, helped to reduce food intake, and consequently, conserved money.” Since chicle-based gum was soft yet tough enough for even the most ardent masticator, chewing gum’s health benefits became part of its promotional strategy and were featured on gum wrappers.

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Beeman’s Pepsin Gum ad, circa 1893.

A strong jaw was not the only physical incentive for chewing gum. From the earliest years, companies promoted gum’s ability to ease digestion, clean teeth, cure halitosis, and relieve pain.[2] Dr. Edward E. Beeman (1840-1906) hit upon chewing gum’s potential as a medical aid when he added pepsin, a digestive enzyme, to gum in 1888. Pepsin Gum claimed to be a cure for heartburn, indigestion and other minor ailments. Aspergum, containing aspirin, promised pain relief when the Dillard-Nalle began selling it in 1927.[3]

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Adams’ Tutti-Frutti Vending Machine, c.1890s. The International Vending Machine Musuem

By the 1880s, the widespread availability of candy and other sugar-based products linked gum to what anthropologist Sidney Mintz identifies as “the creation of new everyday rituals.” Stopping at the soda shoppe or ice cream parlor carved out spaces for leisure and social interaction within the fast-paced metropolis. Yet while gum similarly enticed consumers with fruity, minty and sweet flavors, the product did not quite fit in with other confectionaries. First of all, one didn’t swallow gum, and one certainly didn’t need to sit down in a cafe to chew it. People consumed gum in increasingly public ways: gum was sold at corner stores, cigar shops and by druggists, and its portability meant gum could be chewed and thrown out anywhere and everywhere.

Thomas Adams invented the first patented vending machine for making chewing gum in 1888 and immediately installed them in New York City subways. Later in the early twentieth century, companies hired young women and children to sell gum on the streets as a prelude to more intensive marketing efforts. Because chewing gum occurred in public and on the streets as often as it did inside the home, people perceived it as less cosmopolitan than other sit-down treats; people of all walks of life enjoyed it. Gum was now an impulse-buy, and disposing of gum was equally impulsive.

On city streets, certain gum companies hired children to peddle their wares as an impulse purchase. Boys sold gum from bicycles and horse trolleys. Women dressed up with a smile and a company-branded uniform.

In sum, gum defied attempts to define it. Consumable and disposable, juvenile and virtuous, cheap to buy but commercially valuable, by the turn of the twentieth century many people didn’t know what to make of gum, but they knew they wanted it. Entrepreneurs took advantage of this confusion by marketing to as widespread an audience as possible, and let chewers make up their own minds about what gum meant to them.

Back – Putting the “Chew” in Chewing Gum                    Next – Making Chewing Gum Pop

[1] “Comment and Criticism,” Science 8, no. 204 (December 1886), 621.

[2] Dental hygiene was remarkably poor in nineteenth-century America, and many gum companies promoted their products as a quick and easy remedy to more noticeable symptoms, such as bad breath and stained teeth. The National Association of Dental Examiners was founded in 1883, but the practice of habitually cleaning teeth and going to the dentist was slow to catch on in America. See the History of Dentistry Timeline at the American Dental Association website: http://www.ada.org/en/about-the-ada/ada-history-and-presidents-of-the-ada/ada-history-of-dentistry-timeline.

[3] Back in 1886, a circulated study at Amherst College advised children to chew gum daily before eating and between meals, so that the extra saliva aided in their digestion of fat-making foods. Chewing gum “indirectly stimulates the secretion of the digestive juices of the stomach.” One skeptical columnist in another medical journal retorted, “Until there is some guaranty as to the composition of what is called chewing-gum, we should hesitate before recommending it in such unqualified terms.” Comment and Criticism, Science Vol. 8, No. 204 (Dec. 31, 1886) pp.621

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