History: The Great Bubblegum Wars of 1979

by Brian Clarey

Embedded dead-center in the walkway to my front door is a flattened and blackened wad of yellow chewing gum. This bothers me on many levels. I know, for example, that one day soon I will step squarely on this piece of gum and it will create a stringy, gooey mess. For the record, I would rather step in dog crap than gum. Also, there is a flowerbed to the side of this walkway, maybe 18 inches from where the gum is planted, and I don’t understand why the kid didn’t pitch the gum into the dirt instead of a thoroughfare where everybody in the family treads every single day. I know it was one of my children who did this, but I can’t prove it. Yet. My daughter, the youngest, is a prime suspect. She is crazy about gum, like many of the other women in her family, and she usually has some in her candy stash under the bed. But she’s a very neat little girl, and she knows to put her gum in the garbage can like the one about three feet from where this discarded wad rests.

The youngest boy could easily have done this, for he is aware of his sister’s gum stash and he has no regard for the rules. He denied it when I confronted him, but he denies everything naughty he does and hopes I can’t sniff out his lies. The oldest son, too, could have done this. He doesn’t particularly care for gum, but he is an unapologetic slob. Last week we caught him wiping boogers on the wall. I will crack this case, or maybe I’ll just punish them all until one of them cracks. if only to teach these kids a lesson about bubblegum and my generation’s venerated place in the history of the confection. You whippersnappers out there might not remember, but not so long ago there was only one flavor of bubblegum: bubblegum. There were a few variations in the formula — some were a little minty, some were a little spicy — but for the most part it was just sugary pink. And there were just three species in which it was available. You could get it out of a gumball machine. You could get one of those hard wafer pieces out of a pack of baseball cards. Or you could jaw your way through a square of Bazooka for two cents and follow the antics of Bazooka Joe while you chewed. Bazooka Joe, by the way, was the guy with the eyepatch. The guy with the turtleneck pulled over his face was Mort. Don’t feel bad: A lot of people make that mistake. At any rate, things had remained static in the world of bubblegum until 1975, when Life Savers introduced Bubble Yum. And that was the beginning of the Bubblegum Wars. Bubble Yum was different. Revolutionary, even. It was soft, for one. It came in packs of five for the same price as a candy bar or a roll of Life Savers. And there were many flavors. Grape Bubble Yum, I recall, was particularly delectable. And it was popular. By 1976, every kid in school had a pack of Bubble Yum stashed somewhere in his bookbag — ostensibly for after-school enjoyment, but the bold ones always tried to sneak a piece during class time or on the playground. I don’t know what the deal is these days, but back then chewing gum in school was verboten. As with any popular product, imitators rushed to the market. The first to come along was Cadbury’s Bubblicious in 1977, which featured psychedelic packaging and a narrower gum chunk. Bubblicious made a chocolate flavor, which was pretty gross, but I really liked the watermelon. The appearance of Bubblicious coincided with a rumor that began to spread about Bubble Yum: namely that the gum was filled with spider eggs. The version I heard was that this girl, one night, she went to bed with Bubble Yum in her mouth and while she was sleeping she blew a bubble? And when she woke up there was exploded Bubble Yum all over her face? And the Bubble Yum was filled with spider eggs. The company rebutted the rumor with full-page ads in 50 different newspapers, including the New York Times. Then, in 1979, came Hubba Bubba, a Wrigley product, which was noteworthy because, as the Wild West-themed commercials promised, “It doesn’t stick to yer face.” This was regarded as a big technological advancement, as gum in the hair was reaching epidemic proportions, at least in my school. Then Wrigley came out with Big League Chew in 1980, adding another major player to an already oversaturated market. Now, of course, there’s Bubble Tape and bubble crystals and powdered bubblegum, bubblegum Easter eggs, bubblegum Band-Aids and bubblegum jewelry, but none of that would have been possible were it not for Bubble Yum and the revolution in mastication it sparked.