To Chew or not to Chew?

Even as gum became fully entrenched within the cultural landscape, there was some skepticism towards its consumption. While market researchers in the 1950s found that the average consumer continued to believe gum was a healthy treat for children, dentists and health advocates began warning parents about the dangers of sugar on their teeth.[1] Gum companies fought this critique by financing studies at Northwestern University to cut down on sugar by 60%, leading to innovations in sugarless varieties.

Much of this debate coincided with questions over what exactly gum was made of. While companies were transparent about chicle-based gum manufacture, the transition to synthetic ingredients made things murkier. In 1939, when the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act required food labels to list ingredients, chewing gum makers requested exemption on the grounds that it would be impractical to list the 25 to 30 ingredients on a gum wrapper or package. Thus, these materials could collectively be called “gum base” and plasticizers were called “softeners.” The problem was the “gum base” was also made up of potential toxins, such as polyisobutylene — the same petroleum-based rubber used to make the inner tubes of tires. With additives like preservatives, sweeteners and artificial flavors, the fact that gum was not meant to be swallowed worked to its benefit in some ways. There was no “real” harm in consuming it. However, disposing of gum posed its own unique set of problems.

gum removal.jpg

The appeal of chewing gum as an activity necessitating no effort or occupation, and in fact a product encouraged to be consumed while doing other activities, became its greatest challenge.[2] The problem of disposing of chewed gum vexed city officials. Was spitting gum out into the streets an act of littering? The policy for such an instance or exception was unclear in the early decades of gum’s popularity. San Diego made it unlawful to put chewed gum “upon any floor or furniture of any public building, hotel, conveyance, restaurant, or place of amusement, or upon any public sidewalk” in 1915, but with so many people chewing gum, how could such an ordinance be enforced? Part of the thrill, one might argue, of chewing gum was in disposing somewhere inappropriate. Children stuck gum under their school desks to, teenagers made the underside of movie theater seats a topographical map of discarded gum (chewed quickly to facilitate amorous encounters), and men and women on the streets—too harried and bothered with their lives to give proper thought to fishing for an empty wrapper or tissue to use—carelessly or discreetly spit it out anywhere they pleased. There was also something illicit about taking something from one’s mouth, contaminated and half-consumed, and leaving it behind for others to find. The already liminal character of chewing gum, ingested but not swallowed; neither food product waste nor plastic/paper refuse, created differing interpretations of how it ought to be treated once its reason for being had been accomplished.

Cleaning up gum was often done privately through hired firms. The New York Central Railroad had their own “full-time gum man” assigned to Grand Central Station, yielding an average of seven pounds of scraped-up gum each evening. New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia led an unsuccessful “Don’t Gum Up the Works” campaign in 1939. One Wrigley man argued that people would return to chewing tobacco instead of gum if its usage was restricted. But bringing attention to the problem of gum-littered streets pressured companies like American Chicle to begin printing instructions on how their wrappers were to be used for gum disposal starting in 1940.


Firms clean up layers of gum at Seattle’s infamous Gum Wall

Today, companies specialize in gum removal. One method of extracting gum from concrete includes freezing and chiseling it off with a knife. Typically, a 200-degree hot water pressure washer is needed to melt the gum off. Cities and other public institutions generally contract gum removal services when the duty isn’t carried out by custodial agencies. Gum companies such as the Wrigley Company and Perfetti Van Melle have also collaborated with federal agencies around the world to tackle the problem of gum litter through federally-backed campaigns like the Chewing Gum Action Group (CGAC). Despite these efforts, the gum base is not biodegradable and cannot truly be disposed of. As such, it remains a constant presence on the landscape and a reminder of gum’s continued role in everyday consumption.

Back – Gum Poppin’ and Popular Culture                                Next – The Second Life of Gum

[1] Nelson Sumter Walke, Good Health for You, Your Family, and Your Community (New York City: McGraw-Hill, 1955), 77; Michael L. Goran and Luc Tappy, eds., Dietary Sugars and Health (n.p.: CRC Press, 2014), 54;

[2] “Chewing Gum—Throwing Away of in Public Place Prohibited” in Public Health Reports (1896-1970), Vol. 31, No. 6 (Feb. 11, 1916), p.357