From 1890 to 1900 was the greatest era in the history of chewing gum in the United States. The press, the pulpit, and the medical profession were largely occupied in denouncing the “vulgar” habit as detrimental to mankind. Sparked by an off-chance discovery of the perfect chewing gum ingredient, the fad took off in early 1890 and continued its grand run for well over a decade.
The History of Chewing Gum
Chewing gum in various forms has existed for thousands of years. A piece of chewing gum dating back 4,500 years B.C. was found in Bokeburg, Sweden. Made from natural birch tree tar (which had already been used as glue at the time), the piece of chewing gum contained small teeth marks indicating that teenagers and young children had chewed the gum. The method used to manufacture the gum remains a mystery to this day as birch bark gum requires heating the bark in sealed containers without any air present (if the gum is cooked where air is present the birch tree tar chars).
Forms of chewing gums were also used in Ancient Greece. The Greeks chewed mastic gum, made from the mastiche resin of the mastic tree. The Maya Indians of Mexico chewed chicle which is resin from the sapodilla tree. Many cultures throughout history have chewed gum-like substances made from plants, grasses, and resins.
Spruce Tree Resin Gum in Early United States
The native American Indians chewed resin made from the sap of spruce trees in order to keep their cheeks moist on long overland hikes. The New England settlers soon picked up this practice. Familiar with the spruce tree resin based chew, in 1848, John B. Curtis advanced the manufacturing process and developed and sold the first commercial chewing gum called the State of Maine Pure Spruce Gum. Selling out of his small shop in Bangor, Maine, the product had an unfortunate “spruce tree” aftertaste that many found unsavory. Curtis attempted to add various other flavors to the product but nothing seemed capable of disguising the unpleasant taste of spruce tree. By 1850, Curtis discontinued use of the spruce tree resin in the chewing gum product and instead formulated a chewing gum made of paraffin wax. The paraffin wax based product tasted better but the texture was not as pleasant as the spruce resin based gum. Neither product produced tangible sales for Curtis.
Stumbling across Chicle Chewing Gum
There are conflicting accounts of how modern day chewing gum was invented, whether by accident or the calculated endeavor of a determined inventor.
Chicle, the dried sap from the South and Central American sapodilla tree, was first brought to the United States by the former Mexican president, dictator, and general Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, whose exploits included the attack on the Alamo. In 1869 Thomas Adams, a Staten Island glass maker and professional photographer, boarded with Santa Anna who was living in exile on Staten Island in New York. Adams was taking with General Santa Anna when he noticed a lump of the strange chicle substance sitting on a table. Santa Anna explained how the sapodilla tree was hacked so that it bled sap, which was then collected in large containers and used as glue or as a cooking ingredient. Intrigued by the mysterious substance, Adams worked with Santa Anna to import a small amount of the chicle resin and set out to develop a synthetic rubber product for tires that would utilize the dried sap substance.
His first idea was that the substance might be made into a soft rubber substitute for use in tires, toys, masks, or rain boots. Repeated experiments extending over a period of two years proved ineffective and he was forced to give up the idea as impracticable. Sitting at his bench staring at mounds of his failed experiments, on a whim he tore off a chunk and popped it into his mouth. He was pleasantly surprised and decided he would manufacture the article into chewing gum.
Or was the Invention of Chewing Gum a Calculated Endeavor?
Decades later, Thomas Adam’s son, Horatio, had a slightly different version of the story. As he explained in a 1944 speech at a manager’s banquet for the America Chicle Company, Adams may not have accidentally popped the chicle into his mouth on a whim”¦
“…after about a year’s work of blending chicle with rubber, the experiments were regarded as a failure; consequently Mr. Thomas Adams intended to throw the remaining lot into the East River. But it happened that before this was done, Thomas Adams went into a drugstore at the corner. While he was there, a little girl came into the shop and asked for a chewing gum for one penny. It was known to Mr. Thomas Adams that chicle, which he had tried unsuccessfully to vulcanize as a rubber substitute, had been used as a chewing gum by the natives of Mexico for many years. So the idea struck him that perhaps they could use the chicle he wanted to throw away for the production of chewing gum and so salvage the lot in the storage. After the child had left the store, Mr. Thomas Adams asked the druggist what kind of chewing gum the little girl had bought. He was told that it was made of paraffin wax and called White Mountain. When he asked the man if he would be willing to try an entirely different kind of gum, the druggist agreed. When Mr. Thomas Adams arrived home that night, he spoke to his son, Tom Jr., my father, about his idea. Junior was very much impressed, and suggested that they make up a few boxes of chicle chewing gum and give it a name and a label. He offered to take it out on one of his trips (he was a salesman in wholesale tailors’ trimmings and traveled as far west as the Mississippi). They decided on the name of Adams New York No. 1. It was made of pure chicle gum without any flavor. It was made in little penny sticks and wrapped in various colored tissue papers. The retail value of the box, I believe, was one dollar. On the cover of the box was a picture of City Hall, New York, in color.”
Regardless of whether Adams came upon the chicle chewing gum idea by accident or through a calculated conscious deduction, he immediately set out to manufacture and market the new chicle based chewing gum product. Adams approached a prominent manufacturer who assured Adams that the substance was no good for the chewing gum. Rather than relent, Adams set to work on his own accord. By 1871, Thomas Adams and his new company, Adams Sons and Company, had patented a machine for the manufacture of chicle based chewing gum (the first of its kind). He sold his chewing gum for one penny per stick on a small scale to local dealers as “Adams New York Gum No. 1″. To boost sales, Adams began including a “prize package” of tickets redeemable for prizes with each package of gum sold. The sales of Adams New York Gum began to pick up as the public began their fascination with the new product.
The Chewing Gum Boom
Adams’s business boomed, and soon chicle became the most widely used chewing gum base. In 1871 Adams created a licorice-flavored gum called Black Jack, the first flavored gum. Black Jack gum also sold as sticks rather than chunks, as was popular with the public at the time. Black Jack gum (as with other gums of the day) did not hold its flavor well though. The problem was solved in 1880 by William White who discovered that flavor could be retained if the chicle gum solution was mixed with sugar and corn syrup. By 1888, an Adams’ chewing gum called Tutti-Frutti, used the sugar and corn syrup mixture to create a flavor holding gum that became very popular across the United States.
The chewing gum habit quickly spread across the United States. Soon Tutti-Fruitt gum could be found in stores, bars, and even vending machines in the New York City subway stations. By 1890 Mr. Adams was employing two hundred and fifty hands in a factory six stories high. The firm was the nation’s most prosperous chewing gum company by the end of the century. Adams built a monopoly in 1899 by merging with the five largest and best-known chewing gum manufacturers in the United States and Canada under the name American Chicle Company, and achieved great success as the maker of Chiclets. When he died he left each of his four sons independently rich.
Said the New York Sun, in the latter part of 1890:
“Cynical critics point out that no fancy of the American people had become such a craze as the public indulgence in the gum-chewing habit, and that no craze has flourished so in the face of public odium. The habit, as a matter of cold fact, has reached a stage now that makes it impossible for a New Yorker to go to the theatre or church, or enter the street-cars or 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. Cynics who observe it have sighed for the return of the sturdy discipline of their youth, when the schoolmaster used to spank everybody caught chewing gum in public.”