Original publish date: September 12, 2016
I began working on this article Sunday night. It was the 15th anniversary of 9/11 and I’d been watching stories about our shared national tragedy all day long. While cloaked in that veil of sadness I realized my article deadline was already 3 days past and I couldn’t think of anything to write about. I needed a smile. So I thought I’d try and dig up something that was borderline nonsense, certainly not news, but might just make you smile.
40 years ago, Bubble Yum officially made it’s Hoosier debut. Some websites claim it came out in 1975, but 1976 is the first year I recall being able to buy it in Indianapolis, so I’m going with that. Just in case you forgot, Bubble Yum (created by LifeSavers) was the very first soft bubble gum ever created. It was an instant hit and sales quickly shot through the roof. Before 1976, bubble gum was hard and often took jaws of steel to work it into bubble-blowing shape. Before 1976, we didn’t question the laws of the gum universe. Bazooka, Wrigley’s, Fruit Stripe, Dubble Bubble, Dentyne, Chiclets, Beechies, Trident, Razzles, Juicy Fruit, Joe Blo, Topps baseball card gum; we didn’t care, we just chewed away in blissful ignorance.
What is bubble gum, how does it work and how the heck did it ever catch on? Well, the bubble part should be pretty self explanatory. The gum base is what gives it that bounce-back texture that makes it fun to chew. Gum base often contains polyethylene, a long molecule that’s also used to make plastic bottles and plastic bags. As you can imagine, each company keeps their special recipe a secret. What we do know is that all gum bases are made of three main ingredients : Resin is the main substance you chew, wax softens the gum and Elastomer adds flexibility. Elastomer is a big fancy word for “rubber”.
Don’t let those three ingredients scare you, despite what you might’ve been told growing up, if you swallow a piece of gum it’s highly unlikely to end up stuck in your stomach for seven years. Even though gum base is indigestible, it passes through the digestive system harmlessly and is eliminated from the body alongside other foods.
The best chewing gum brands infuse sweetener and flavoring into the gum base so that the flavor is released more slowly. As you chew, the sweetener and flavoring dissolve in your saliva and spreads over your tongue. Eventually most of the sweetener and flavoring disappear and the flavor fades away. Gum base does not dissolve in saliva, so you lose the flavor, but not the gum. But why do we chew gum? Bubble gum satisfies the natural human impulse to chew. Some people chew to relieve stress, others to combat bad breath or aid digestion, but most do it just because they enjoy the taste.
Northern Europeans were chewing birch bark tar 9,000 years ago, not only for enjoyment but also for medicinal purposes and to relieve toothaches. The ancient Maya chewed sap from the sapodilla tree, a substance called chicle, as a way to quench thirst or fight hunger. The Aztecs also chewed chicle but only kids and single women were allowed to chew it in public. Married women and widows could chew it privately to freshen their breath, while men could chew it in secret to clean their teeth. In North America, the Indians chewed spruce tree resin and passed the habit along to the European settlers who followed.
Bubble Yum represented a real breakthrough, a gum that was ready for bubble blowing almost immediately after you popped it in your mouth. Each package contained five individually wrapped rectangular pieces of gum, each piece contains about 25 calories. At first, Bubble Yum was available in both the original variety and a luscious grape version. Both versions were a huge success right out of the gate, and naturally, they spawned more and more flavors over the years: Orange, Wild Cherry, Spearmint, Wild Strawberry, Sour Apple Berry, Rockin’ Rasberry, Yellin’ Melons, Bananaberry Split, Wet N’ Wild Watermelon, Hawaiian Fruit Punch, Cotton Candy, Checker Mint, Sour Cherry and Chocolate among others.
300 million packs were sold in its first 15 months on the market, so much that production couldn’t keep up with demand. Bubble Yum became an instant sensation. The standard pre-mastication routine among early Bubble Yum users was to squish a block of Bubble Yum between your fingers before chewing. Hey, in pre-microchip days, we had to take our fun wherever we could find it. “Why is it so chewy?” was the question of the day during that Bicentennial year. It didn’t take long for kids to invent a nefarious answer.
In the Spring of 1977, rumors began to spread that the gum’s soft, chewable secret was that the gum was made out of spider eggs. Soon, the urban legend was the viral topic in classrooms and playgrounds nationwide.
A less well-circulated rumor dating from the same period claimed that Bubble Yum also caused cancer. Tall tales about a girl waking up with webs all over her face or nine youngsters dying after swallowing the gum spread quickly among kids and were naturally taken as gospel. The fact that there were little granules of sugar that you could feel with your tongue didn’t help quell the rumors.
To combat the panic and halt the dive in Bubble Yum sales, the Life Savers Company embarked on a $100,000 advertising campaign of full-page rebuttal ads printed in prominent U.S. newspapers from coast-to-coast. Each ad began with the headline “Somebody is Telling Very Bad Lies About a Very Good Product.” Life Savers’ president William Mack Morris told People Magazine that, “Fighting the rumor was like punching air.”
Within 10 days of that first public whisper, company surveys showed that “well over half” of the children in the New York area had heard the rumor. It spread like wildfire from bus stop to lunchroom among schoolkids of all ages. Of course it wasn’t true. So despite quick efforts by the folks at Life Savers to dispel the myth, the story still took awhile to die. After all, it made for great sandlot conversation guaranteed to make any girl’s pigtails curl. Eventually, the story faded away and sales again began to soar. Bubble Yum sales soon surpassed the venerated Life Savers candy to become the most popular bubble gum brand on the market.
Although still a closely guarded corporate secret, speculation persists that Bubble Yum’s secret softening ingredient is lanolin, a waxy substance derived from sheep wool. While not necessarily dangerous to your health, chewing on lanolin does not exactly sound appetizing. Bubble Yum chose Floyd D. Duck, an anthropomorphic punk-style duck character, as their official mascot, which somehow doesn’t help subdue that unsavory image. Nabisco bought Life Savers in 1981, and The Hershey Company acquired the brand in 2000.
Bubble Yum quickly spawned other versions of soft bubble gum. By 1977, Bubblicious, made by Cadbury, hit store shelves, followed by Hubba Bubba in 1979, and Big League Chew in 1980. The era of soft bubble gum had arrived and we owe it all to Bubble Yum’s successful war against the imaginary reproductive habits of spiders through colorful urban legends. Today, soft & chewy gum is sold in a variety of shapes and flavors. Although, sadly, Willy Wonka’s three-course dinner chewing gum, said to taste like tomato soup, roast beef and blueberry pie, is unlikely to become a reality in our lifetime. Bubble Yum is not likely to disappear from store shelves anytime soon.
The United States is among the top three countries with the highest rates of chewing gum consumption worldwide. In the US, 59 percent of people chew gum, surpassed only by Iran (82 percent) and Saudi Arabia (79 percent). A primary reason why the Middle East has more gum chewers than the US is because chewing gum is often given out by merchants in place of small change. Seems like Bubble Yum’s appeal is not limited to our shores alone. Perhaps that is why an original first-generation unopened pack of Strawberry Stripe Bubble Yum from 1976 sold for $ 482 on eBay a few years ago. So check those telephone drawers, tackle boxes and catch-all bins, your pack-rat tendencies might actually pay off for a change.
One last tidbit from the way-back machine before I close. How many of you remember the Hollywood heart throb who started his career as a TV commercial pitchman for Bubble Yum? Today he’s a Hollywood A-lister and recent Oscar winner, but in 1988 Leonardo DiCaprio was a fresh-faced 14-year-old teenager pitchin’ Bubble Yum to the masses. Leo, then sporting a thick mop of blonde hair, wears a tie and checkered shirt as he blows pink bubbles for the camera. Little Leo dances to a giant Boom Box and touts “Big Mouth Bustin’ Bubble Yum” to a generation of teeny-boppers on the small screen. Those teeny-boppers undoubtedly have teeny-boppers of their own now. Google it and you’ll see, it’s worth a giggle.