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The History of Chewing Gum
Image credit: Julia Bujalski

It’s Older Than You Think

Chewing gum has been around since ancient times. The writings of Pliny the Elder describe mastich, a plant-derived substance that was chewed by the ancient Greeks. Archeological findings also suggest that chewing birch-bark tar was popular among some European populations 9,000 years ago; it’s thought that they used this gum-like substance for enjoyment as well as for medicinal purposes, such as relieving toothaches. And according to archeologist Jennifer P. Matthews, chewing gum has been around in the Americas for centuries. The Mayans and Aztecs learned to slice the bark of the sapodilla tree to extract a resin called chicle. Both cultures cooked and dried the chicle into a substance called cha. The Mayans used cha to quench thirst and stave off hunger, while the Aztecs used it to freshen breath. Interestingly, the Aztecs had societal rules about public gum chewing, which they viewed as particularly socially unacceptable for men.

Native Americans Introduced It to Europeans

Northern Native American cultures chewed spruce tree resin. When the European settlers arrived, they picked up the practice, too. But it wasn’t until the late 1840s that the first commercial chewing gum was invented. John Curtis created the first commercial gum, which he called The State of Maine Pure Spruce Gum, by boiling spruce tree resin, cutting it into strips, and coating it with cornstarch to prevent sticking. In the early 1850s, Curtis opened the first chewing gum factory, located in Portland, Maine. Other gum developers soon followed suit. However, because spruce resin didn’t taste great and became brittle when chewed, gum makers began to experiment with other ingredients, such as paraffin wax.

It Was Popularized in the Late 1800s

An American inventor named Thomas Adams Sr. received a supply of chicle from an exiled Mexican president, General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. The two men hoped to strike it rich by turning the chicle into a viable substitute for rubber. Adams and his sons began working on the project, but were initially unsuccessful, causing the former Mexican president to abandon the initiative. However, Adams and his sons realized that boiling and hand-rolling the chicle into chewing gum was a viable alternative. Adams created a manufacturing company and by the late 1880s, Adams’ gum was being sold across the country and the United States was importing large amounts of chicle. In fact, chicle remained the main ingredient in gum until it was replaced with synthetic ingredients in the mid-1900s.


It Was Heavily Influenced by Wrigley

In the late 1800s, William Wrigley Jr. was working as a soap salesman. He decided to add free packs of chewing gum into every order as an incentive for store owners to stock his products. When he realized that the gum was more popular than the soap, he switched gears and started the William Wrigley Jr. Company. Juicy Fruit and Wrigley’s Spearmint both launched in 1893. Wrigley conducted extensive marketing campaigns to cement his place in the market, including sending free gum samples to millions of Americans listed in phone books and sending sticks of gum to children on their second birthday. A few decades later, an employee at Fleer, a rival gum manufacturer, successfully created a formula for the first gum that could be blown into bubbles. The first bubble gum was called Dubble Bubble and debuted in 1928.

It Had Environmental and Economic Impacts

Chewing gum gained popularity quickly. In fact, by the 1920s, the average American was chewing 105 sticks of gum per year. This created a massive demand for chicle, but unfortunately the chewing gum industry had already killed at least a quarter of Mexico’s sapodilla trees through unsustainable harvesting practices. In part because of this, chewing gum manufacturers started switching to synthetic ingredients derived from petroleum, wax, and other substances. While this was good for the environment, it hurt Mexico’s economy; by 1980, the United States had stopped imported chicle from Mexico altogether in favor of these cheaper alternatives.

Today, most chewing gum is made from synthetic ingredients. Found everywhere from corner stores to supermarkets, gum is extremely popular. Children and adults alike enjoy chewing gum. While classic flavors like spearmint and peppermint remain popular, today’s gum manufacturers are continually coming out with new and exotic flavors to entice consumers. Some of the craziest gum flavors available in recent years include: Thanksgiving dinner, foie gras, wasabi, meatball, eggnog, pickle, and rose.

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