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Between chew and shoe, it has solved crimes and patched blimps. And created a gooey global mess. : Stuck on Gum

September 19, 1993|ROY RIVENBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A 9,000-year-old piece of chewing gum, still bearing the teeth marks of a Stone-Age adolescent, was unearthed in Swe den this summer--a testament to mankind's deep-seated need to gnaw on flavored rubber.

No word on whether the gum was found stuck to the bottom of a prehistoric theater seat. But if it's anything like its modern cousins, the 9,000-year-old blob of honey-sweetened resin probably lost its taste 8,999 years, 364 days, 23 hours and 59 minutes ago.

From such humble beginnings, gum has evolved into one of history's most ubiquitous--and weird--substances.

In formulas from kosher to chlorophyll, it has been used to solve murder cases, patch blimps and meet the ransom demands of Borneo headhunters who kidnaped a diplomat. It has financed a baseball team and bought an island. And its mysterious ingredients include tropical saps still transported out of jungles on the backs of elephants.

But this year, as civilization celebrates the 100th birthday of Wrigley's Spearmint and Juicy Fruit, there remains a dark side to gum. With 90,000 tons of the stuff going into and out of the mouths of kids and adults annually, enough human cud gets glued to sidewalks and school desks to form a gum Queen Mary. And it, too, could be around 9,000 years from now.

In one country, Singapore, the substance is considered so obnoxious that mere possession of it is punishable by a year in jail.

*

Modern chewing gum oozed into existence during the late 1800s, thanks to a one-legged Mexican general, a New York photographer, a soap salesman and a Baptist preacher. Before that, U.S. gumnivores chomped on paraffin wax and lumps of spruce tree resin.

The gum revolution officially began in 1869, when Mexico's on-again, off-again dictator, Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna--one-time conqueror of the Alamo--went into exile on Staten Island and met shutterbug Thomas Adams. Looking for a scheme to finance his next ascent to power, Santa Anna supplied Adams with 2,000 pounds of chicle, hoping the young photographer might find a way to convert the milky latex into a cheap substitute for rubber.

If the plan had succeeded, "the world might now be . . . driving cars that roll on Juicy Fruit tires," wrote Robert Hendrickson in "The Great American Chewing Gum Book." Instead, Adams wound up wrecking all his wife's pots and pans, and decided to dump the chicle into the East River.

A trip to the drugstore changed his mind. There, Adams overheard a young girl ask for a penny's worth of paraffin wax candy. Recalling that chicle had been chewed for centuries by the Mayans and their descendants, he decided to try salvaging his failed experiment by marketing it as Adams' New York Gum No. 1.

Janitorial work has never been the same.

The new product proved an instant hit and other entrepreneurs soon followed. One was soap-family scion William Wrigley Jr., a grammar-school dropout who promoted his Sweet 16 and Vassar-brand gums with saturation advertising and wacky dealer premiums such as nickel-plated slot machines and Iroquois hatchets.

By 1919, the year he mailed sample sticks to everyone listed in U.S. phone books, the Sultan of Spearmint was one of the nation's 10 wealthiest men, with a gumpire that extended from Catalina Island--bought sight unseen for $2 million--to Chicago's Wrigley Field, home of his Cubs.

Meanwhile, in New York, Baptist minister W.H. Mason was working on the first modern gumball machine, which he patented and turned over to his son, Ford, to manufacture. Ford Gum & Machine Co. soon began producing gumballs, too, and young Mason spent a decade perfecting ways to protect his candy from the unspeakable evil of moisture condensation inside the see-through glass globes.

"In the old days," he later told author Hendrickson, "a drop of water would ruin the colors of a barrel of gumballs." Once he invented his water-resistant glaze, however, "you (could) take a handful of treated gumballs and hold them under a running faucet without any color coming off."

Today, gum scientists work on equally important and urgently needed advances in gumdom, including gum in the shape of ants, gum that resembles a beeper and gum that comes in a tube with spiked hair that looks like Don King.

Additional ground-breaking developments include kosher gum (made without animal fats and overseen by a special gum rabbi) and the vaguely unsettling, liquid-centered Freshen-Up.

Gum chewers, of course, have devised their own innovations:

* Forensic dentist Skip Sperber once matched a used piece of cinnamon gum left on a dusty dresser at a San Diego murder scene to killer Patricia Beebe, whose missing filling created distinctive teeth marks.

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