Chew on This

In 1891, salesman William Wrigley, Jr. moved to Chicago to peddle soap. As an incentive to storeowners to stock his product, he offered free cans of baking soda. When he discovered that the baking soda was the more popular product, he began selling it and using chewing gum as an incentive. And when the gum proved to be the hot item, he became a very wealthy man.

I bet this man could walk and chew gum at the same time. Artist: S. J. Woolf (Samuel Johnson Woolf, 1880-1948)Time, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

He wasn’t the first person to crash onto the gum-selling scene, but he was possibly the savviest because Wrigley focused heavily on marketing. In 1915 he was sending free samples to homes all across the United States and had launched a series of newspaper ad campaigns with a wide range of claims about the benefits of chewing Wrigley’s gum while avoiding all those dastardly knock-offs.

Wrigley’s gum was sanitary, long-lasting, and refreshing. Kids loved it and it was good for teeth, stimulated appetite, and quenched thirst. It was soothing after a nice healthy smoke or it could take the place of one if you couldn’t indulge on the job. It eased digestion, relieved stress, and freshened breath. Not to mention soldiers in World War I probably couldn’t function without it. Allegedly.

I question the research, but for some reason I have the sudden urge to chew Wrigley’s gum. Public Domain image.

And you know, some of these claims actually sort of hold up. But one advertisement I found particularly suspicious claims that early man sucked on rocks to moisten his mouth, because he didn’t have gum. Let me tell you, William Wrigley, Jr. might have been a genius when it came to advertising, but his anthropological research missed the mark.

An article published in December of 2019 in the journal Nature Communications squashes the Wrigley rock-sucking theory when it describes a wad of chewing gum that is about 5,700 years old.

Discovered in southern Denmark, this wasn’t the first ancient gum ever uncovered by paleontologists. It wasn’t the oldest either. There’s evidence that some of the people of northern Europe were chewing birch bark tar as far back as 9,000 years ago. The Ancient Mayans, too, chewed chicle from the sapodilla tree, as did the Aztecs who even had elaborate rules of conduct regarding it. For example, if an Aztec schoolgirl popped a chicle bubble in class, she had to immediately spit it out and probably got sent to the principal’s office.

You had me at “purity package.” Image by Wokandapix from Pixabay

What’s exciting about this recent gum discovery is that researchers managed to extract from it a complete human genome sequence. The chewer was a woman, though it’s not known why she might have been chewing this particular wad of birch bark. It’s possible she was looking for some pain relief from a toothache or perhaps she was softening it so she could stick it to the underside of a desk.

We do know she was a dark-skinned, blue-eyed, hunter-gatherer who’d eaten duck and hazelnuts for dinner and had been infected with the Epstein-Barr virus, aka mononucleosis, aka the “kissing disease.” Which might explain the gum.

Although I doubt her gum had quite the sweet taste or breath-freshening qualities of Wrigley’s. It probably wasn’t as sanitary, either. But it was surely better than sucking on a rock.

14 thoughts on “Chew on This

  1. I listened to a podcast a few months ago about the history of chewing gum. This early gums sounded absolutely disgusting. But nothing’s more disgusting than Seattle’s gum wall….or finding gum under desks, for that matter. : )

  2. I just read an article about that piece of gum today! So interesting what they can do and the information they can get from something like that. I’ve never been a gum chewer myself. For some reason, gum gives me horrific anxiety. Don’t ask me why, because I have no idea lol! 🙂

    1. It really is amazing what they can learn. I read that one of the most exciting things about this was that no one had really thought it was worth trying before and now this success has opened up a whole new method of study.

      Gum causes me a little anxiety these days, too because it hurts my jaw. I don’t chew it much anymore, but I used to. My orthodontist used to insist that non-sticky Trident was the way to overcome the pain of braces.

      1. I’m not sure where my gum anxiety is rooted. But I even have anxiety dreams about it – where my mouth is so full of gum that I can barely breathe. I don’t know hahaha. Maybe based on the recent findings, it’s one of those DNA memories that Jack London talks about in “Before Adam” hahaha!

  3. I never was a gum chewer, even as a kid. it always seemed like a waste of time and energy. Besides, I could never blow a bubble as big as the other kids.

  4. OK, so can they tell if she ground her teeth in her sleep, too! Amazing and spooky all at the same time, isn’t it, what historical and theoretically accurate info can be gleaned from the oddest stuff found in the oddest places?

    This post caught my eye because a former neighbor of mine is now the executive director of the Pedigree Foundation. Pedigree Dog Food is one of the many brands now owned by Mars Company. Before starting with the Foundation, this woman was the internal and external PR and marketing wonk. At the same time she was starting at Mars and while we were still neighbors, Mars bought Wrigley.

    Isn’t it also amazing what seemingly innocuous but still possibly interesting and/or enlightening info I can pull from the deep dark recesses and weakening synapses of my brain? I hope you’ll find this little (semi-personal) tidbit interesting, too!

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