Chewing gum divides opinions. Some find it to be a purely annoying habit whereas others couldn’t live without this jaw-exerciser. Chewing is actually quite an old habit as people all over the world have chewed on natural materials such as thickened resin and latex from different types of trees, leaves, sweet grasses, grains and waxes for hundreds of years. How modern gum came to be is an interesting story. Here’s what happened.
The oldest piece of chewing gum was discovered in Sweden in 1993. This 9000 year old piece of honey-sweetened birch resin had tooth marks in it that was evidence for what it was used for.
The ancient Greeks chewed mastiche, the aromatic resin of the mastic tree. Grecian women chewed mastic gum for the same reasons many still do today; to clean their teeth and freshen their breath. The ancient Mayans chewed chicle, the milky latex from the sapodilla tree. North American Indians taught the American colonists to quench their thirst by chewing the sap from spruce trees.
The first commercial chew
It wasn’t until 1848 before a man named John B. Curtis saw the money-making opportunity and produced and sold the first commercial chewing gum called ‘the State of Maine Pure Spruce Gum’. However, the taste of pure spruce wasn’t appreciated, so Curtis started selling flavoured paraffin-derived gum instead. (Paraffin is a petroleum by-product.)
The first patent
The next milestone was in 1869 when patent no. 98,304 was issued to William Finley Semple from Mount Vernon in Ohio. His idea was that rubber combined with other unnamed ingredients would make chewing gum. However, the world never got to see his mysterious product.
Modern chewing gum products evolved from chicle, which is latex sap derived from the sapodilla tree that grows in Central America. Chicle was brought to the United States in the early 1860s, but our next gum hero was introduced to chicle before that by a Mexican general by the name of Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. Thomas Adams was a commercial photographer who spent the last years of his life experimenting with the sapodilla tree sap in an attempt to come up with a substitute for rubber. After several failed attempts he one day got the urge to pop a piece of the mass he created in his mouth. Adams liked the taste and came up with the idea of adding flavouring. He later invented ‘Black Jack’, a liquorice flavoured gum and opened the world’s first chew factory. In 1871 ‘Adams New York Gum’ could be bought in drug stores for a penny a piece.
The first bubble gum
The very first bubble gum called Blibber-Blubber was invented (but never sold) by Frank Henry Fleer in 1906. The recipe was later developed and pink food colouring was added by an employee, accountant Walter Diemer. He invented the successful Double Bubble bubble gum in 1928.
The largest producers
The next big name on the chew scene was businessman William Wrigley Jr. who saw a business opportunity in the sticks of gum he was giving away as incentives to his clients. In 1893 he introduced two iconic products, ‘Wrigley’s Spearmint’ and ‘Juicy Fruit’. ('Hubba Bubba' is also a product of this company.) Wrigley is still the largest producer of chewing gum in the world, followed by Cadbury Trebor Bassett.
Chewing gum took United States by storm between 1890 and 1900, but it wasn’t long before the habit of chewing was criticized as vulgar by politicians, the press and clergymen. This activity has since become an acceptable habit in our spare time, but not so much in job interviews and customer service jobs.
By the 1960s chicle was replaced by synthetic rubber that is cheaper to manufacture. By adding some sweeteners, flavourings, preservatives and softeners and you get modern chew. However, there are still manufacturers such as Peppersmith that use the natural chicle instead of synthetic polymers.
As you might have noticed, the history of chewing gum is a rather complicated one featuring several different actors. The industry has been one of the most consistent performers within the confectionary trade, but there has been a decline in growth in recent years due to falling consumption mainly in Western Europe and North America. There is also a clear trend towards healthier, sugar-free gums, which now account for 75% of the global market. Still, it is hard to see chewing gum disappearing from the market, especially when you consider its long history.