A Brief History of Chewing Gum

by Jon Prince

Think of articles of human culture that have been around for thousands of years. You might name cave paintings, hammering tools, bows and arrows. Did you think of gum? Betcha didn’t.

We’re not sure what it says about people that we have been finding things to chew on for all these many years, but at least we’re consistent. The ancient Greeks chewed on tree resin, as did the Mayans and Native Americans. Archaeologists have found tree resin with teeth marks in it from places like Finland and Sweden, dating back more than 5,000 years.

Native Americans showed the early settlers their chewing gum secrets, and the Curtis family in Maine harvested the resin from spruce trees and began selling bits of it for a penny each in 1848. With the addition of flavor to make it tastier and paraffin to make it softer, the Curtis family had invented the modern form of chewing gum, which they named “The State of Maine Pure Spruce Gum.”

Dr. William Semple, a dentist from Ohio, got a patent for his chewing gum formula in 1869, which was a mix of rubber, sugar, licorice, and charcoal. Yummy. He never sold his gum on the mainstream market, however, leaving plenty of room for New Yorker Thomas Adams to do the job. 

original dubble bubble gum packaging

When Americans began to import chicle, sap harvested from the sapodilla tree from the rain forests of Central America, the gum industry took another evolutionary step. Adams was an experimenter with chicle, trying to use it as a substitute for rubber, attempting first to make rain boots and toys, but later taking the easy route and simply adding some flavor to the chicle and calling it “Adams New York Gum No. 1 - Snapping and Stretching.” After a few tweaks including the addition of licorice flavor, his gum became the first mass-marketed chewing gum. It was called Black Jack and it’s still sold today (and yes, we carry it). 

Soon the demand for chicle outstripped the providers’ capabilities, and gum makers began to use paraffin and rubber as alternatives (most of the gum we chew today has a man-made latex base). 

Next comes the first big name in the history of chewing gum story: William Wrigley, Jr. Wrigley, who was selling soap and scouring products at the time, saw the huge potential in the chewing gum industry and used his deft marketing skills to make a name for himself and his company, which introduced Wrigley Spearmint Gum in 1893. While there were 12 other gum companies in the U. S. competing with his, none rose to fame as much as the Wrigley brand, thanks in part to tactics like hanging a flashing billboard advertisement over Time Square. 

By the early 20th Century, chewing gum’s popularity was vast and competition was stiff. With the advent of new manufacturing technology, more and more gum hit American store shelves and innovations continued to flourish. In 1928, Walter Diemer, an accountant for Fleer Chewing Gum, accidentally created a batch of gum that was different than the rest, a recipe that became bubble gum. Fleer introduced the recipe to the world as Dubble Bubble (and yes, we carry that, too). 

Now the world has sugarless gum, organic gum, all-natural gum, and bubble gum and chewing gum in a full spectrum of flavors and colors. Wrigley recently secured a patent  for a biodegradable gum. Whatever your favorites are, we have them here, so enjoy shopping knowing that by chewing on a piece of gum, you are keeping up a very, very old tradition.

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