Toronto, Canada: In February 2015, Mars Inc announced the closure of its Wrigley plant. The reason? North Americans are chewing less gum than ever before.
While chewing gum may not seem like a noteworthy invention, what is especially remarkable is its cultural effects.
The origins of chewing gum date back to the ancient civilisations of Greece, Mexico and South America where people chewed on natural latex, wax or resin to freshen their breath. The first version of gum to hit the West was derived from chicle – a milky sap from the sapodilla tree found in Central America.
Chicle made its way to the US in the 1860s. When the sapodilla trees could no longer keep up with the demand, North American factories began producing synthetic versions. Thomas Adams opened the first chewing gum factory in the late nineteenth century, but it was William Wrigley’s entrepreneurial thinking that cemented gum in the mindset of American culture.
Wrigley had an inventive approach to promotion. In the early 1900s he began by giving away free samples to the masses to help ignite a gum habit. By the 1930s he honed his marketing message towards fashion-forward females. Magazine adverts highlighted the beautifying effects of gum chewing, including its ability to help cure jumpy nerves and develop ‘a graceful cheekline’. But from the 1940s, he shifted the image of the gum user from an elegant, upper class female, and began to promote gum as a means of fun, social exchange for men and women of all classes. This swing in message spread to the youth market, where gum became an accessory to flirting.
50s adolescents found escape from the structure of society in rock and roll and the fiction of cinema. It was in the movies they first witnessed gum chewing as a rebellious act, through heroes such as Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront (1954) and rebel rocker Gene Vincent in The Girl Can’t Help It (1956). Disillusioned youngsters copied.
Chewing gum and sticking it under the table has enduring symbolism. It’s an act that became a badge of behavioural courage. A rebellious move which broke the rules of etiquette. The roll of the eyes, the slow removal of glistening gum and the triumphant press as it meshed to the underside of the school table: this routine became so familiar that it would be referenced in pop culture for generations to come.
The table – that traditional site of discipline and obedience – was repurposed as the perfect accomplice to the teen’s deviant personality. And over time, the furniture itself mutated; concealed spectrums of decades-old gum gave the table a colourful character all of its own.
But somewhere along the line this image lost its hold. In March 2015, Business Insider reported a decline in US gum sales since 2010. Gum is failing to attract its key consumer group: young people. Today gum chewing is seen as a rather light attempt at sticking it to the man.
Teenagers want to buck the system, and shoving a wad of gum under a school desk simply doesn’t cut it anymore. Perhaps we are close to an age where our fingers will no longer trace the grooves of a half masticated gumball hidden under a tabletop.