Monday, 25 January 2010

Adams Pepsin Chewing Gum, Camden

When Thomas Adams brought in early 1870 his first 200 balls of chicle to a New York drugstore little did he know he was about to launch an almost worldwide phenomenon. Chewing gum was nothing new -actually men were already chewing tree resin in prehistoric times- but it was American entrepreneurs who turned it into a mass product during the last decades of the nineteenth century.

Adams, a photographer and inventor, was trying to make rubber tyres when he was introduced to general Antonio López de Santa Anna, the exiled Mexican caudillo who had governed his country on seven occasions (yes, the one who won at El Alamo in 1836 only to lose at San Jacinto a few weeks later. Thus Mexico lost Texas. In 1838 it was his leg he lost during the Pastry War against the French). Santa Anna was trying to finance a military expedition to oust the Mexican government by selling large quantities of the natural gum from the Manilkara chicle, a tree found in the Yucatán peninsula and across Central America (that expedition never happened). Attracted by the rubber-like qualities of the sample he was given, Adams ordered one ton from Mexico. Yet all his experiments to make tyres out of chicle failed. Then one day he entered a drugstore and overheard a little girl asking for some chewing gums. Intrigued, Adams asked the shopkeeper what that was. The answer was a by-product of paraffin wax sold under the name Curtis White Mountain (Curtis had launched the first commercial chewing gum ‘Maine Pure Spruce Gum’ in 1848 but a combination of the spruce resin’s bad natural taste and deforestation led to the introduction in 1850 of vanilla and liquorice flavoured paraffin wax). Immediately Adams realized he had found what to do with his stock of chicle, whose chewing qualities were much better. The first batch of gums he brought to the store sold rapidly. He was quickly back, this time with boxes of 200 strips wrapped in colourful tissue. A picture of New York's town hall adorned these boxes of 'Adams New York No. 1'. To convince other shopkeepers to store his chewing gums, he offered them to take them back if they couldn't sell them. That wasn't necessary. They were an immediate success and by 1871 Adams founded Adams & Son and opened his first factory. There was one problem with chicle though: it was tasteless and did not absorb flavours easily. With its strong taste liquorice looked ideal and so 'Adams Black Jack' was born. Sour oranges also proved popular at the time. Adams success encouraged other entrepreneurs to launch their own brands of chewing gums in other parts of the US. From the beginning Adams understood that communication and proximity to the customers were essential. As William Wrigley Jr later declared, "anyone can make gum, selling it is the problem" (and Wrigley, who produced the first mint chewing gums, was an expert in that domain). Thus Adams placed ads on billboards at key positions along Broadway, and in 1888 he installed vending machines of his invention on the platforms of New York's elevated subway to get commuters to chew his brand new Tutti Frutti gums during their journeys.

Meanwhile in Ohio, while carrying out some experiments, Dr. Edward Beenam realized that the pepsin found in pigs' stomach could be turned into powder and prescribed to patients with digestive problems. His remedy available in little blue bottles gave birth to a thriving business. One day though Beenam complained to Nellie Horton, a shop assistant or bookkeeper (depending on the source) that sales had not been as good as expected of late. She was chewing some Yucatán gums made by William J. White and suggested he tried to combine both since pepsin had a nice taste. Beenam's Pepsin Chewing Gum, "a delicious remedy for all forms of indigestions" as a 1891 ad claimed, was born. However the first batches produced by the Beenam Chemical Company of Cleveland did not sell well, mostly because a pig was represented on the wrapping paper. Packaging did matter! Once this blunder was rectified (the animal was replaced by a portrait of Edward Beenam) sales went up and by 1892 his pepsin chewing gums had grown into a half-million-dollar business.

In 1899 Thomas Adams retired as president of Adams & Son, aged 81. That very same year the company became part of the American Chicle Company, a ten-million-dollar trust organized by William J. White. White was a former popcorn salesman who began making chewing gums in the 1880s. Within five years he had accumulated a huge fortune and become "Gum King". Having already distributed chewing gums to congressmen in Washington, it was he who, while visiting England in 1898, put a chewing gum in the hand of the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII, and encouraged him to taste it. Immediately he sent a telegram to the US to tell everyone his chewing gum had been successfully endorsed by the future king! The American Chicle Company brought together not only W. J. White & Sons (Cleveland) and Adams & Sons (New York) but also J. P. Primley (Chicago), the Kiss-Me Gum Company (Louisville), and S. T. Britten & Co. (Toronto). It was in 1899 as well that Edward Beenam sold his chewing gum business to the American Chicle Company. The new company kept successful individual brands going, including Beenam’s Pepsin Chewing Gum (until 1978 that is).

Was it after the American Chicle Company was founded that Adams began making pepsin chewing gums as well? Or had the production begun earlier? Apparently the difference between the two was that while Beenam’s tasted pepsin, in Adams gums the pepsin taste was hidden behind a tutti frutti flavour.

The American Chicle Company was purchased by Warner-Lambert in the early 1960s. In 2000 it was acquired by the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, which in 2003 sold its candy brands to Cadbury. Cadbury still retains the rights but very few brands once produced by the American Chicle Company are still available. Adams Pepsin Chewing Gum isn’t one of these.

Chewing Gum

Just in case you wondered, very few chewing gums are still produced using chicle. Synthetics were introduced in the early 1950s and were rapidly adopted across the whole industry, resulting in the collapse of many plantations in the Yucatán peninsula.

If you want to find more about this utterly disgusting product (the taste is awful, the noise some people make when chewing is revolting, and I am not speaking of all the gums that end on the pavement) I would recommend the study Chewing Gum by Michael Redclift.

Finally, here is a quote from Lyndon B. Johnson about Gerald Ford I couldn't resist telling the students when I was teaching American history and politics: "Jerry Ford is so dumb he can't fart and chew gum at the same time."

Location: Ferdinand Street / Picture taken on: 14/08/2009


Jane said...

how on earth did you know this sign said that?
I can't see any words in there at all...!
Mightily impressed!
(As usual)

Sebastien Ardouin said...

Thanks for you kind comment Jane. The original pictures are obviously much bigger and of better quality (blogspot seems to compress them -even resized ones- quite a bit, with subsequent loss of quality). I usually take several pictures from different angles and with some close-ups. Sometimes playing a bit with Photoshop helps to make some details stand out, including the ouline of letters. Actually on this one "Pepsin" (large upper case white letters above the drawing of the box of gums) and "Chewing Gum" (bold lower case white letters across the yellow top of the box) were easy to read. "Adams" was trickier. Only ".da.s" have stood the test of time but it is still possible on the original pictures to make out the outline of the other letters. What I thought was confirmed when I looked on the internet as "Adams" was a name almost always associated with "Pepsin Chewing Gums."