How I envied the girls who could crack their gum and blow big pink bubbles. Friends tried to coach me, but I never got the stuff to stretch around my tongue, and thus had no handy weapon against stern nuns or ridiculous parental decrees. Was it an accident that bubblegum was Barbie pink, paling as it swelled with air? Boys stuck their gum in your hair or under the desk, where bored fingertips could trace a topography of hardened gray distractions. But girls blew slow, insolent bubbles, staring right at you, the meaning of the gesture unmistakable.
Does General Antonio López de Santa Anna anticipate those tiny insurrections when, exiled from his autocratic rule of Mexico, he washes up on Staten Island? It is 1869, and the ancient pastime of gum-chewing—a human practice since the Neolithic period—has barely been commercialized. Along with his uniforms and regalia, Santa Anna has packed chicle, a natural tree gum that was the Mayan counterpart to Finland’s birch bark tar, Greek mastic tree gum, Chinese ginseng root, Eskimo blubber, South Asian betel nuts, our First Nations’ sugar pine and spruce sap, our Anglo settlers’ tobacco.
(Another mistake of Creation: it should have been humans, not cows, who chewed their cud. Freud would brand it an oral fixation, this need we have to be always working our mouths, sucking lemon drops or chewing gum or smoking or eating gummies or licking off our (did you know it was addictive?) lip gloss.)
When Santa Anna arrives, chewing gum is only beginning to be seen as a consumer good. That transformation began in the U.S., of course. In 1848, John B. Curtis turned the local Indians’ spruce-sap resin into The State of Maine Pure Spruce Gum. Then somebody topped him by making gum out of paraffin wax, sweetened by dipping a glob of it in powdered sugar.
Santa Anna is not thinking of such ritual pleasures when he shows glassmaker and inventor Thomas Adams his chicle. Santa Anna wants Adams to make him a fortune and a new empire by turning the chicle into latex rubber. So he hands over the stash he brought from Mexico, flavorless but addictively chewy, made from the sap of the sapodilla tree.
The word “chicle” comes from a Nahuatl word that translates as “sticky stuff.” The Maya used it to freshen their breath, clean their teeth, and fill cavities. But when he scales up, Adams cannot get the stuff to vulcanize, hardening into a substance durable enough for, say, a bicycle tire. Finally, dejected, he gives up and switches gears, making a batch of chicle balls for kids to chew.
His New York Chewing Gum catches on fast, and by 1899, the company Adams formed has been incorporated as a “chewing gum trust” called the American Chicle Company. Operating the largest gum-making plant in the world, the company churns out countless packs of Chiclets and Dentyne. Other gum-makers entered the game with brightly colored balls of bubblegum; candy-coated pellets; powdery, bendable sticks of Wrigley’s Doublemint and Juicy Fruit; Big Red cinnamon; cube-shaped Bubblicious; squares of comic-stripped Bazooka. Twentieth-century Americans learned to chew gum fast to counter a spurt of nerves, then ditch it just as fast so we could sip a drink, give a speech, or kiss someone good-night.
We teach the world to love our chewing gum, especially when the G.I.s carry it with them during World War II. There is a casual warmth to holding out a fresh stick of gum to a stranger. Chewing it is cooling; feels like food but burns its own calories; cost little, as vices go; freshens breath; soothes nerves; distracts you from boredom; can taste like cloves or licorice, exotic fruit or mints; can deliver a hit of caffeine or wean you from nicotine. A consumer triumph!
But here is where the story turns into a morality play. Santa Anna’s greedy bid for redemption has itself been co-opted, and the urge to make more for less is about to corrupt it completely.
Overharvested, chicle grows expensive and hard to get. So the industry begins making an artificial gum base out of a distinctly unappealing list of far cheaper ingredients: butyl rubber, petroleum wax, polyethylene, polyisobutylene, polyvinyl acetate. In other words, modern humans spend hours of our lives chewing on synthetic plastic rubber.
And then we drop wads of it on sidewalks, subways, grass, beaches, movie theater floors, and the dark underside of stadium seats. And it does not biodegrade, at least not for millennia. Instead, it bonds with asphalt, rubber, or anything else made of polymeric hydrocarbons, and then the sticky stuff is stuck.
This happens for most of the 374 trillion sticks of chewing gum that are slid into wrappers every year. Cities spend hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to blast hardened gum off their sidewalks and benches. Etiquette? Gone. Gum was once used by the old to condemn bad manners and the young to rebel against a mannered society. Now manners are a lost cause—and gum is doing real harm. It is just one more example of how we try too hard, whether to have fun or to make a buck, and then the things that once charmed us with their whimsy end up destroying another chunk of our world.
Today, chewing gum is the world’s second most common form of litter, right below cigarette butts. In 2000, London’s Oxford Street had a quarter of a million blobs of chewing gum stuck to its pavement. Singapore was so distressed by discarded gum that it banned the stuff altogether. British designer Anna Bullus created a way to turn old chewing gum back into frank plastic and craft Frisbees, boomerangs, rubber boots, coffee mugs, and lunch boxes from it. Her collection containers are called “gumdrops.”
Gum wound up an environmental bane because we never thought it through. Now companies are hurriedly making new “natural” gums…but why not give the stuff up altogether? Sales are already down, now that we have phones to distract us while we wait in supermarket lines. Without Santa Anna’s rubber chaw, we will never again do the moonwalk of the biped who has just stepped into fresh gum; children will not scream when gumstuck hair is hacked off their head; dogs will not worry about a lump of gum stuck between their paw pads; plastic gum will cease to glom up our soil and oceans and pebble our hardscape.
We do not need “a soft, cohesive substance designed to be chewed without being swallowed.” We have campaign rhetoric for that.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.