words Justin McGuirk
Bubblegum is proof that man is a fundamentally creative animal.
Mere chewing gum, which relies on an act of mindless repetition, was chemically reprogrammed specifically to encourage an act of creation. Blowing bubbles may not be painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling, but then neither is spraying graffiti or building sand castles or any of the other impulsive things that humans do to satisfy their urge simply to make something.
It’s 100 years since that tiny evolutionary leap. People have chewed gum for millennia: the Mayans chewed on the sap of sapota trees (called chicle, hence the Chiclets brand) and Native Americans chewed the resin from spruce trees. Commercial chewing gum became available in America in 1848, but it wasn’t until 1906 that Frank Fleer, of the Frank H Fleer Company, tried to formulate a gum for blowing bubbles. As pioneers often do, he failed, and Blibber-Blubber was never marketed.
However, in 1928 an employee of the Frank H Fleer Company had another go and this time succeeded with Dubble Bubble. There is some debate about who this was – history records it as the company’s accountant, Walter Diemer, while revisionists argue that it was the company president, Gilbert Mustin – but Dubble Bubble set the mould that most bubblegum still follows. It was pink (apparently the only food colouring Diemer/Mustin had) and it was fruity.
The breakthrough came from adding latex, the stuff that condoms are made of, to
ordinary chewing gum. This gave added stretch to the bubble, so that it could be blown larger without tearing.
Dubble Bubble was so quickly established as an American essential that during the Second World War it was often included in soldiers’ rations (which is how it came to be popular in Europe). But it was inevitably superseded by a host of imitator brands, from Bazooka, which came with the Bazooka Joe comic strips, in the 1950s to Wrigley’s 1979 version, Hubba Bubba.
Like cigarettes, bubblegum inspires compulsive abuse. It is hard to imagine the chemical strawberry flavour being addictive, so it must be the bubbles. The obsessive urge to test the combined skills of lungs, tongue and lips against that viscous globule has pushed people to delusions of greatness, such as Susan Montgomery Williams, who in 1994 blew a record-breaking 23-inch bubble. Of course, there are disincentives – like having to shave your eyebrows off after your bubble bursts.
Culturally, bubblegum evokes a surprisingly coherent set of values – vulgarity, insouciance and a cheap sexuality. In filmic lore it is the stuff of teenagers, rebels, bored secretaries and prostitutes. Lolita is all too knowing in the way she plays with her gum, an attitude mimicked by the provocative ingénues of “bubblegum pop”.
Yet there is an innocent creativity to bubblegum. Blowing bubbles is how kids embellish themselves and demonstrate their prowess before they learn to blow smoke rings. Most adults would be hard-pressed to remember how to do it, but there was a time when it mattered to them.