Hello, Snackers. Everyone’s wrong today. Everyone.
Bubble Gum: An Investigation
Here’s something I’ve learned while researching and writing these posts: Nearly every food origin story is wrong. Caramel apples? Wrong. String cheese? Wrong. Six-foot-long sandwiches? Wrong. Carob as a chocolate substitute? SO WRONG. My friend Andy recently disproved the origin story of pecan tassies and over at Taste in December, Cathy Erway had a fascinating piece about how many “family” recipes are actually from various famous food brands (grandma was just reading off the back of the box).
So when I saw a mention of bubble gum originating with a lightbulb moment by a particular guy at a particular company, I had my suspicions. You can find this story all over the internet; here’s a typical version from a long, detailed, seemingly well-researched piece on the history of all forms of chewing gum published in 2018 in Serious Eats:
Of course, the most ubiquitous candy-coated gum is the gumballs we still see in vending machines in just about every grocery store in America. Legend has it that they were invented by a New York grocer who, dissatisfied with his sales of stick gum, wadded a bunch of it up and tossed it into a barrel of sugar. But, as with a lot of food origin stories, there's no solid documentation to back it up.
That's not the case with bubble gum, which traces its origins back to 1928, when a man by the name of Walter Diemer invented the stuff that bubble-blowing competitions and baseball card collections are made of.
You see where this is all going. That version of history is incorrect, as I quickly learned when I logged onto my magical research device and found this, from 1910:
It’s worth going and reading that Serious Eats history, or this one from the History Channel or this one from Thought Co. or … any of the other ones that, honestly, parrot the same talking points and probably all draw on the same original sources. The rest of the history of gum—assuming it’s correct; there may be other repeated errors; my time and interest here are not limitless—is fascinating stuff, and appears to have begun with the ancient Mayans and Aztecs chewing a tree resin known as chicle.
But right now, we’re interested in bubble gum, specifically, and while its origins seem to have come much later, they predate Walter Diemer. Some of the histories of gum on the internet hedge a bit by saying that Diemer created the first brand of bubble gum, but that’s also false (again, see the ad above from 1910) or that Diemer popularized bubble gum, but that’s also untrue, because it turns out it was a whole trend by more than a decade before ol’ Walter made his version.
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Actually, “trend” might be the wrong word, because it wasn’t the hot new thing so much as an early version of a now-familiar tale: kids annoying their teachers with their incessant gum-chewing. You know what I’m talking about, I trust. You remember the rules against it and the kids who did it anyway, blowing bubbles while the teacher was facing the chalkboard, but then the bubble popped and the gum-chewer got a sticky face and the whole class laughed and the teacher sighed and stared out the window for a frustrated beat.
That whole thing has been going on for more than 111 years now, if this 1911 story from the Daily Times of Davenport, Iowa is to be believed:
“BUBBLE GUM” IN FREEPORT SCHOOLS
Teachers having no end of trouble as a result
“Kiddies” delight in pulling off stunt to the great annoyance of instructors
FREEPORT, ILL.—Bubble gum has made its appearance at Freeport and school teachers are having no end of trouble as a result. The new gum derives its name from the fact that after it has been chewed for a time one may place it on the roof of the mouth and by blowing against it make a large bubble appear. This is a stunt which the “kiddies” take great delight in, especially during the school hours, much to the annoyance of the teachers. But that is not all. The bubbles get larger as they are blown and then they will break with a loud report and the sticky stuff is spattered over the face of the chewer.
The same year, in another Illinois town, bubble gum was popular enough that a con man swooped into town with fake bubble gum that no one could get to bubble, causing much indignation (and, according to news reports, mouth sores) from the red-faced, tired-lunged citizenry.
A year later, in Bangor, Maine, a bubble-blowing contest was part of a local festival, with the winner receiving a watch:
Also in 1912, in Wasau, Wisconsin, there was a different gum-related competition with a watch for the winner:
Lest you think these were just a few random small towns where bubble gum happened to be a popular item, there was also an entire daily edition of the syndicated comic Little Nemo in Slumberland, that revolved around bubble gum and the aftermath of a popped bubble:
The comic was also, it must be said, deeply racist, and this is the only panel I’m going to show you because the others … yikes.
Anyway, that comic ran around the USA in 1924, four years before Walter Diemer supposedly invented or popularized bubble gum. And while we’re at it, Diemer also claimed to have been the guy who made gum pink (because it was the only dye he had on-hand), but this is probably also a lie, because it sure looks like David Lytle Clark, inventor of the Clark Bar, had already popularized pink gum back in the 1880s, at least according to his obituary in The New York Times.
Where bubble gum actually originated is, alas, still a mystery. More research needed, and perhaps I’ll take a deeper dive another day. But next time you’re at a dinner party (if such things are ever safe again) and someone happens to bring up the matter of bubble gum (a popular topic among the sophisticates, I’m told), please know that the standard history, like the usual tales we tell about so many things, is a web of lies. It may have endured even longer than a wad of chewed-up Bazooka on the bottom of a shoe, but do not let its stickiness sway you into believing it.