I loved chewing gum as a child. Big League Chew was a favorite, as well as Bubble Yum (watermelon – especially if it had the green outer ring and pink center). I patiently put up with Trident and Dentyne when they were the only sticks around (typically grandparent-provided). For a few years, my parents kept me supplied with boxes of Bazooka Joe when I was trying to collect the comics (for the uninformed, each piece of gum was individually wrapped with a short comic about the antics of Bazooka Joe and his pals).
I was reminded of my passion for chewing gum, and especially the Bazooka Joe comics, while working on a small collection of Kis-Me Gum Company materials. This gum manufacturer (headquartered in Louisville, Kentucky) gave prizes with its gum as well – the “Wonderful Playset,” a full-color page that had to be carefully cut apart and pasted onto an outlined sheet to create a color picture. I was impressed – an interactive gum prize, from the 1890s, no less!
My research on the collection led me to discover that not only did Kis-Me Gum give out cutesy cut-out pictures, but also collector’s cards for famous Confederate figures! The portraits were given away in packs of Kis-Me gum, and one could send away for the album by sending in 100 Kis-Me wrappers and 25 cents. The album held 141 images, along with a group shot of Jefferson Davis and Confederate commanders that was to be pasted into the front cover.
I can image an excited child, opening up her latest Kis-Me gum pack, hoping for that coveted Robert E. Lee or J.E.B. Stuart image, and wailing, “Aaawwww, P.G.T. Beauregard….” [No offense to the oft-overlooked General Beauregard is intended by such a comment. I had a similar experience as a child, when the excitement of a presidential coin was offered in a cereal box. I was sure I’d get a founding father, or perhaps Lincoln...but Millard Fillmore rolled out of the bottom of the box. MILLARD FILLMORE. I still glare at his portrait at The Filson.]
While I was excited by the existence of gum prizes in the 1890s, I was also a bit surprised by the presence and publicity of gum in that era, leading me to do a bit of historical hunting. It turns out that “chewing” for reasons other than actual nutritional consumption has a history that goes back thousands of years – our ancestors chewed tree resins, grasses, leaves, and waxes. The first commercial gum in the United States was derived from spruce resin and was sold in the eastern U.S. during the early-to-mid nineteenth century. When the spruce resin supply dwindled, paraffin wax, sweetened with vanilla or licorice, was used as a substitute.
Today’s chewing gum had its start in the late 1860s, when chicle, a gummy substance extracted from sapodilla or chicozapote trees in Mexico, was brought to the United States. Thomas Adams and his sons made the first chicle gum in the U.S. (Adams New York No. 1), an enterprising invention after their failed attempts to blend chicle with rubber to make a cheaper carriage tire. (Supposedly the idea came from Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, of Alamo fame, who met Adams on Staten Island during his exile – I wonder if the Adams gum company gave away “famous Alamo figures” collector portraits? Alas, I found no evidence to support this supposition.)
The modernization of gum continued in the 1880s, with the addition of flavors (initially by John Colgan, a druggist in Louisville, but improved upon by Cleveland popcorn salesman William J. White, who gave gum its first peppermint flavoring). Jonathan P. Primley, creator of the first fruit-flavored gum (and perhaps originator of the idea of prizes with gum, as described above), also used sex appeal to market gum to men and women with his“Kis-Me” brand and his slogan “Far better than a kiss.” Advertisements included catchy (and corny) rhymes such as, “He asked her with a tender glance, which gum she most preferred, “Oh Kis-Me!” she replied at once, and he took her at her word.”
At that time, the act of chewing gum by women and men was seen as inelegant, and perhaps unhealthy. The Columbus Medical Journal, A Medical Magazine for the Home, Volume 33 (September 1909) includes a segment on “Physical Objections to Chewing Gum,” which mainly consist of overworking the salivary glands before meals and “unduly stimulating the mucus membranes” due to too much flavoring in the gum. The writer did recommend gum for “women who are subject to hysterics or fits of bad temper” as “it might be the best sort of remedy.” He also recommended, “It should not be chewed in public. At least, not in public places such as street cars, theaters, churches. Upon the public thoroughfare it might be admissible.”
Gum became more widely accepted as the twentieth century progressed, and also diversified with the development of bubble gum and marketing strategies such as packaging with baseball cards. Today’s youth (and adults) can find dozens, if not hundreds, of brands, styles, and flavors of gum at the local grocery, drug store, convenience mart, coffee shop, book store - almost everywhere. I have a pack of Orbit Sweetmint with me.
**For a more serious look at the history of gum, and more information on the gum enterprise in the twentieth century, see Michael Redclift’s Chewing Gum: The Fortunes of Taste (New York: Routledge, 2004).