Chew on that – An Irishman’s Diary on chewing gum
American GIs during the second World War helped make gum globally popular
Americans now spend some $2 billion a year on chewing gum. Photograph: Eva Katalin/iStock
Chewing gum has a long history. The ancient Greeks munched on mastic gum; the Mayans and Aztecs sucked on sap from the sapodilla tree (the same chicle, or milky latex, used in modern chewing gum); Native Americans liked the resin that oozes from spruce trees and the white colonists took to it when they arrived.
But although chewing gum has been around, in one form or another, since ancient times, the commercial birth of the product can be traced back to December 28th, 150 years ago, because that was when William F Semple (1832-1923) took out his patent.
It might seem ironic that Semple, of Mount Vernon, Ohio, was a dentist but he viewed his chewing gum as something to clean the teeth rather than as something soothing and sweet.
Semple dissolved vegetable gums in naphtha and alcohol to form a type of jelly, mixing in chalk, powdered liquorice root, sugar, orris root and myrrh; he then evaporated the alcohol and naphtha until the jelly-like substance dried and hardened. The purpose of the chalk was to get rid of food particles and plaque on the teeth.
The wrapper for Beeman’s new gum had a picture of a pig and the slogan, 'With Pepsin, You Can Eat Like a Pig'
Semple is an important figure in the growth of the chewing-gum business, as are John B Curtis and John Colgan, who had done their bit before him. But a great leap forward occurred when Gen Antonio López de Santa Anna, he of Battle of the Alamo notoriety and former president of Mexico, brought chicle from his native country to New York and gave it to scientist and inventor Thomas Adams (who worked as his secretary) as a rubber substitute. It didn’t work very well in the latter role but proved ideal for chewing gum.
Adams’s recipe used chicle together with sugar and sassafras flavouring. Chicle proved to be ideal for chewing and in addition got rid of the sharp taste and unpleasant texture that characterised Semple’s gum. In 1871, Adams patented his product and “Chiclets”, little pieces of gum covered in a hard-sugar coating, came on the market, on which Americans now spend some $2 billion dollars a year.
Another significant figure in the development of the chewing-gum business was William Wrigley jnr. He moved from Philadelphia to Chicago to make his way as an entrepreneur. Starting off in scouring soap, he offered his customers baking powder as an incentive to buy his soap; when the baking powder proved more popular than the soap, he switched to selling it, now giving two packets of chewing gum with each can of baking powder.
You’ve probably guessed what happened next: the chewing gum proving more popular than the baking powder, and Wrigley’s company concentrated on manufacturing the gum. Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit and Wrigley’s Spearmint Gum became two of the most popular chewing gums in history.
We’ve seen that Semple was from Ohio and in 1890, another Ohioan, Dr Edwin E Beeman, gave the world Beeman’s Pepsin Chewing Gum, which soon became enormously popular. Dr Beeman had been selling bottles of powdered pepsin as an aid to digestion (the enzyme pepsin occurs naturally in the stomach and breaks down proteins).
His bookkeeper suggested adding it to chewing gum and he blended it with chicle, long chewed as gum. The wrapper for Beeman’s new gum had a picture of a pig and the slogan, “With Pepsin, You Can Eat Like a Pig”. The businessman who bought over Beeman’s company had a better idea of PR because he replaced the pig with the doctor’s kindly face.
American GIs during the second World War contributed to making chewing gum popular all over the world. They were given it as part of their rations and traded it with locals for other commodities in various countries in which they were stationed. Today it is a multibillion-dollar industry.
Was Semple the dentist very wrong in taking out his patent 150 years ago and does chewing gum damage teeth? Not necessarily, as some studies show that sugarless gum sweetened with xylitol has an antibacterial effect and can actually fight the bacteria that causes teeth to decay. Furthermore, chewing gum stimulates the production of saliva, which dilutes the acid produced by bacteria. And more saliva has the added beneficial effect that the calcium and phosphorous minerals it contains can repair soft spots in tooth enamel, thus either halting or healing tooth decay.
But as for the disgusting practice of spitting out gum on the street or leaving it stuck to tables, chairs, windowsills, radiators and so on, well, that’s a totally different problem for which the gum itself can hardly be blamed.