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The Colorful History of Gumballs, America's Childhood Chew

Wed, Dec 18, 2019

Popping the mystery - how this colorful, chewy creation became a kid-approved staple

by Nicholas Helmick

 

As a kid, I chewed gumballs like no one's business. During weekend mall trips with my mom, I would spend the day clamoring for a quarter to drop into the giant spiral gumball machine outside of the food court to get that chewy prize. The sweet, colorful treat had a certain charm about it, and never failed to grab my attention.

At some point in my youth I stopped eating gumballs (and going to the mall altogether) until I began working at Color it Candy where, suddenly, they're everywhere! After being asked to write an article on the history of gumballs, I decided to start off my research with a trip to our gumball factory - and found myself transported to a brilliant Willy Wonka-esque workshop. Touring the facility, I watched as the gum was made, extruded into long ropes, cut up and formed into balls. I visited the rainbow-colored panning room, where the factory's expert "panners" coated each batch of ball gum by hand with a different colorful, tasty outer shell.

Walking through the massive factory, I was like a kid in a candy store - looking, tasting, asking questions and learning all about gumballs and their history, the interesting bits of which I will summarize in this article. So pop in a quarter, and let's learn about the exciting history of gumballs.

 


Mastic gum, an early form of chewing gum made from the resin of the mastic tree and chewed by Ancient Greeks.

 

From chewing gum to bubble gum

The history of gumballs begins with the history of chewing gum. Cultures around the world have been chewing gum-like substances for millennia, often derived from tree resins and other natural substances. The Mayans and Aztecs chewed chicle, made from the resin of the sapodilla tree, to stave off hunger and freshen breath.1 The Ancient Greeks chewed gum made from mastic tree resin for its digestive properties.2 However, it wasn't until 1928 that the pink, stretchy, bubble-blowing version of gum was invented by Walter Diemer at the Fleer Chewing Gum Company.

After an initial attempt to create a bubble gum by Fleer founder Frank Henry Fleer failed (it was too sticky and easy to break), Diemer - an accountant at the time - continued the work, experimenting with new gum recipes in his spare time and eventually finding success. By adding a natural form of latex to Fleer's original ingredients, Diemer was able to create a recipe that was less sticky and much stretchier, allowing bubbles to be blown easily, and that wouldn't stick to the face. Because his invention was gray in color, he used the only dye he had on hand - red, diluted to pink - to color it, creating the iconic pink color that became associated with bubble gum.3

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

The origin and evolution of gumballs

The exact origin of gumballs is unknown. However, there is a legend stating it was a grocer who first thought up the idea to put simple sugar coated balls into a vending machine, which later evolved into the colorful, flavored, candy-coated gumballs we know today. Although these original gumballs did not blow bubbles, bubble gum quickly overtook non-bubble gum as the dominant form of gumball after Fleer introduced it to the American market.

For much of the 20th century, gumballs stayed relatively consistent in terms of taste, shape and color. It wasn't until the turn of the 21st century that competition in the U.S. gumball industry began heating up, due to new manufacturers entering the market as well as competition from toy companies for space in vending machines. This led to a rapid burst of innovation within the industry, spurring creative gumball flavors, colors and gimmicks designed to catch the eyes and taste buds of young consumers. This trend of rapid innovation, and the process for coming up with new ideas, was noted by Color it Candy's Head of Marketing, Howard Granner, in a 2004 article in Vending Times:

"Introducing new products at the rate of one or more a month is a relatively new trend in ball gum. New ideas for products are generated by the marketing department, or they come through other people in our organization. Sometimes a customer will tell us they have an idea for a gum. The trick is trying to find something that's never been done before and still remain within that quarter price point."4

The gumball industry continues to evolve today. At Color it Candy, that has taken the form of increased color options, unique color mixes and a trademarked coating called "Shimmer" designed to give gumballs a distinctive, brilliant shine.


Unique color mixes, often based around holiday or other specific occasions, are an example of innovation within the gumball industry.

 

The origin and evolution of gumball machines

In the U.S., the history of gum and vending machines are intertwined; the first ever vending machine in the country was built by the Thomas Adams Gum Company in 1888 to sell Tutti-Frutti gum on New York City subway platforms.5 Nearly two decades after its success, the first vending machines to carry Gumballs were introduced to the public in 1907. Early gumball machine models all sported a glass (later replaced by plastic) top, filled with gumballs, sitting atop a metal base. This template became the "look" we now associate with classic gumball machines.

 


"The Wizard" spiral gumball machine redefined the experience of buying a gumball and led to a number of innovative and wacky gumball machine designs.

 

Similar to their gumball counterparts, the core look and function of gumball machines stayed consistent for much of the 20th century. It wasn't until 1994 that "The Wizard," the first spiral gumball machine, was released.6 This invention transformed not just the look, but the "experience" of the machine, turning it from a static vending machine into an interactive toy. Since then, innovations have largely focused on creating an "interactive experience" for kids and adults. With the introduction of electricity, this has led to a veritable banquet of whimsical designs and experiences. Head to a mall, theme park or other high-traffic locale and you can find machines ranging from giant 20,000-gumball towers to electric mazes that transport your gumball through a fantastic series of lifts, pulleys, ramps and drops. As modern technology continues to evolve, there's no telling what new joys kids of the future will experience while purchasing their sweet, chewy gumball.

 


No longer confined to 25-cent gumball machines, gumballs can be purchased online or in craft stores by color to match a theme, i.e. a birthday party.

 

The DIY movement

Today, gumballs have moved beyond just vending machines. The colorful treats have become a staple in many Do-It-Yourself projects, with their vibrant colors and sweet taste making an ideal snack to match the theme and color scheme of parties and other occasions. Brightly colored mixes of gumballs are often used in candy buffets, candy-based centerpieces and baked goods for weddings, gender reveal parties, birthdays, holidays and more. With the advent of the internet and social media platforms like Pinterest and Instagram, new and exciting ways to use gumballs are created and shared every day, allowing the sweet treat to continue bringing joy to kids and adults alike around the world.

 

Fun facts!

  • The Guinness World Record for largest bubblegum bubble ever blown is 23 inches (58.4 cm) in diameter, blown by Susan Montgomery Williams of Fresno, CA in 1994.7
  • During American Prohibition, a ban on all forms of gambling impacted some gumball machines, as they had the option to reward every 10th user with their coin back.8
  • Chewing gum burns approximately 11 calories per hour.9
  • Contrary to popular belief, if you swallow a gumball it will not stay in your stomach for years. Although it is not digestible, it will pass through your system in one piece after a few days.10
  • North American kids spend approximately half a billion dollars every year on bubble gum.11

 


About Color it Candy

In the 1960's, Color it Candy entered the gumball market with a focus on making high quality, delicious and easy-to-blow gumballs. Over the years, they became known for their commitment to creating vibrant colors and innovative mixes to meet the ever-changing needs of consumers. Today, Color it Candy produces a wide range of Gumball colors and mixes, perfect for themed parties, colorful celebrations or DIY projects.

 

References

1. Fiegl, Amanda. “A Brief History of Chewing Gum.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 16 June 2009, www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/a-brief-history-of-chewing-gum-61020195/.
2. “Greeks Have Been Chewing Gum for the Last 2500 Years.” CretePost.gr, 5 Dec. 2017, http://www.chaniapost.eu/2017/12/05/greeks-have-been-chewing-gum-for-the-last-2500-years/.
3. "Walter Diemer". Nndb.Com, https://www.nndb.com/people/422/000162933/. Accessed 3 Jan 2020.
4. "Oak Leaf Stays On Trend With Flavored, Colorful Ball Gum". Vending Times, Aug. 2004, p. 104, Accessed 9 Jan 2020.
5. "History Of The Gumball Machine | Candymachines.Com". Candymachines.Com, https://www.candymachines.com/History-of-the-Gumball-Machine.aspx.
6. Machine, 5'. "5' Wizard Spiral Gumball Machine". Gumballs.Com, https://www.gumballs.com/wizard-spiral-gumball-machine-5ft.html.
7. "Largest Bubblegum Bubble Blown (Assisted)". Guinness World Records, https://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/world-records/68101-largest-bubblegum-bubble-blown-assisted/.
8. "Bubble Gum Machine - Who Invented Gumball Machine?". Chewinggumfacts.Com, http://www.chewinggumfacts.com/chewing-gum-history/bubble-gum-machine/.
9. "Chew Gum To Lose Weight?". Los Angeles Times, https://www.latimes.com/health/la-he-skeptic10mar10-story.html.
10. Santos-Longhurst, Adrienne. "How Long Does Gum Take To Digest? How Long It Stays In Your System". Healthline, 2018, https://www.healthline.com/health/how-long-does-gum-take-to-digest#1.
11. Khan, Sumaiya. "Truly Surprising Bubble Gum Facts That Are Bound To Astound You". Tastessence, 2018, https://tastessence.com/bubble-gum-facts.