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chewing gum

A vegetable secretion in the juices of many plants that hardens when it exudes, but is soluble in water. — Webster, 1882

“Chewing gum diverts attention from duty or study, and is one of the many familiar modern modes of killing time. It is a useless, indecent, unhealthy practice. Boys and girls, let it alone.” – The Herald of Health and Journal of Physical Culture, 1871

noteIn By the Shores of Silver Lake (Chapter 3,”Riding in the Cars”) the news butcher – a boy who sold newspapers, candy, cigars, fruit and other items to railroad passengers – shows Caroline Ingalls his basket of wares and asks if she would like to buy candy or chewing gum. Both Laura and Carrie are excited to see the beautiful colored Christmas candy in the box, and Ma splurges and buys the toothsome treat. Although the boy also has “long sticks of chewing gum,” the Ingallses do not purchase any.

Nine-tenths of the gum chewed in America at the end of the nineteenth century was made of chicle, the sap of the Sapodilla tree (Manikara zapota) of Mexico and South America, granulated sugar and flavoring extracts; image at left. The other tenth was spruce gum and white or paraffin gum, the later a product of petroleum, mixed with sugar and flavoring essence. While chewing gum containing chicle is sold today, vegetable gum has largely been replaced with synthetic material.

The only real secret in the making of chewing gum was the part of the process which refined, cleaned and prepared the crude chicle gum for the sugars and flavors. Today, chewing gum kits are sold which contain chicle, sugar, and flavoring. The ingredients are melted, mixed, cooled, and shaped into pieces. It’s that easy!

The sapodilla tree is a distant relative of the rubber tree. The gummy sap was first brought to America, not for the purpose of making chewing gum, but to adulterate rubber. In 1869, Thomas Adams of New York, imported ten tons of chicle gum and began a series of experiments for the purpose of mixing it with rubber and thus producing a cheap, hard rubber. The chicle could not be vulcanized, and the experiments proved failures. Then Mr. Adams tried to sell his useless gum, but no one wanted it. He was in a candy store and heard a little girl ask for “mystic chewing gum.”

It occurred to Mr. Adams that his chicle gum might make chewing gum, and he tried adding it to paraffin gum. The result was rubber gum of 1875. It was without flavor, for it was but refined chicle gum. At that time the chewing gums were the white, or paraffin gum and spruce gum, but chewing gum was confined to school children until flavoring compounds, the printed packaging, and advertising made it popular. As an experiment, Mr. Adams made 200 pellets of chicle gum and a drug store sold them for a penny each. The popular “Adams New York Gum” was advertised as the “snapping and stretching” gum.

A few years later, John Colgan, a druggist in Louisville, Kentucky, decided to flavor tasteless chicle gum with tolu balsam, calling his product “Taffy-Tolu.” But it was William Wrigley, Jr., who made gum-chewing famous, in large part by adding premiums to gum wrappers. Gum chewers were to save the wrappers and redeem them for valuable gifts, including oil lamps, lemonade sets, coffee grinders, and even baby carriages.

noteChewing gum. Among the quiet little manufactures of the country is that of chewing gum. Factories exist in New England, New York State, Ohio, Illinois, and Tennessee. The gum is sold by nearly all druggists, grocers and confectioners in the United States. Gum obtained from spruce trees was exclusively used until recently, when it found a rival in the so called gum mastic, a white and attractive article made from parafine, which is sweetened. The consumption of this chewing gum in the United States is about thirty tons yearly; that of spruce gum somewhat less, and that of the gum made in Tennessee, from balsam tolu, and sold in the Southern States, about twenty tons. Lately a material has been used, styled “rubber gum.” It is from the sap of the sapodilla tree, of South and Central America. The sap, like that of the India-rubber tree, has a milky look. The gum was first imported into the United States with a view of melting it with India-rubber, in order to produce a cheaper article of the latter. It was found to be unpliable, and therefore useless for that purpose. It has long been chewed by South and Central American Indians, and found useful in allaying thirst. Experiments were therefore made here in purifying it for chewing, and with final success. it is tasteless, and has the merit of lasting longer than other gums, which more quickly dissolve and crumble in the mouth. So great is its durability, that a piece half an inch square, after being heated in the mouth, can be stretched into a thread a hundred feet long. Its consumption reaches the enormous amount of fifty tons a year. Chewing gum, though certainly objectionable, is much less harmful and filthy than tobacco, and unlike tobacco, it does not require that the saliva shall be expectorated; it does not, like smoking, excite the nerves, nor like a superabundance of food or drink, hurtfully overload the stomach. — Scientific News. Reprinted in E.S. Gaillard, M.D. and D.L. Gaillard, M.D. The Richmond and Louisville Medical Journal XXVII (Louisville, Kentucky: Courier Journal Book and Job Printing Rooms, 1879), 368.

When chicle gum was received at factories from Mexico, it was covered with dirt, leaves and splinters of bark and wood. It was the consistency of putty. The gum was first cleaned of impurities and then worked in a kneading machine until it had the proper texture. It was refined with heat and chemicals. Then pure sugar and flavorings were mixed with the gum, the most popular being peppermint, wintergreen, vanilla, licorice, pineapple, strawberry, tolu, sarsparillo, or blood-orange. Sometimes two or more flavors were mixed and the gum given a catchy name. Pepsin and barley malt were used in “medicinal” gums.

After sweetening and flavoring, the gum was rolled into thin sheets, cut into pieces, wrapped in waxed paper, tissue paper, or even lace. Yet in spite of fancy preparations, there was still a large number of people who preferred the old-fashioned, non-flavored rubber gum. It was made up into sticks which were notched to break off into smaller “chews.” Perhaps these were the “long white sticks” of chewing gum offered to the Ingallses on the train from Walnut Grove to Tracy. When first put into the mouth, the pure untreated chicle crumbled between the teeth, but in a short time it became plastic. At the time of the Little House books, doctors advertised that chewing gum cured dyspepsia and aided in digestion when used before and after meals.

By gum! In By the Shores of Silver Lake (Chapter 11, “Payday”), Charles Ingalls laughs when he is telling Ma that Big Jerry enticed the men away from Silver Lake camp rather than cause trouble there. Pa says: “By gum, if he didn’t lead ’em all away to do their devilment somewhere else!”

Although the expression “by gum!” is said to be a euphemism for “by God” or “by God almighty,” by the late nineteenth century its use was already considered to be a very mild oath, and was used merely to express surprise. Ma doesn’t react at all to Pa’s use of the term, suggesting that it was not considered improper language to the Ingalls family. It is also possible that it was used to suggest that Big Jerry showed gumption or shrewdness in dealing with the rowdy men.


gum (FB 12, 28), see also “The Gum-Tree Canoe,” balsam gum
     “by gum!” (SSL 11) – Gumption. Capacity; shrewdness.
     chewing (SSL 3)