Monday, November 8, 2010

Life Lines 21


Chewing gum is something frowned on in school (it is often stuck under tables and chairs) or even by most pedestrians as they eye the flattened, dirt dyed, remains of dropped gum on sidewalks or passageways (like the tunnel connecting the Subway Shuttle’s East and West sides). It is at least as filthy a habit as cigarette smoking, but not as dangerous to human health. People chew gum because it helps keep their teeth clean (and if they use sugarless gum it even prevents cavities). They also chew gum to make their breath smell fresher, especially if the gum is flavored with mint. The gum we chew is made of chickle, a sap of the sapodilla tree. In the 1860s Thomas Adams tried to make rubber out of it but it didn’t thicken enough so he used it as chewing gum. In 1892 William Wrigley bought the rights to use chickle and mass marketed his gum by flavoring it with mint. As a child I chewed with Adams’ gum and Wrigley’s gum. I also chewed its predecessor, paraffin. I would buy tiny paraffin bottles filled with sugar syrup and the paraffin, when warmed to body temperature, was a suitable gum.

In 1993 a Swedish archaeologist found birch resin in the layers of silt in a Stone Age hut and it had teeth markings suggesting it was chewed. The ancient Greeks chewed a resin from a shrub called mastiche (and hence the word “masticate” – to chew). Native Americans also chewed resin that they scraped from spruce trees. I’ve tried chewing pine resins when I was visiting in Colorado but they were very bitter and they contain a lot of phenols which are not a very good idea to swallow because they can be carcinogenic. The phenol content probably healed sore gums (by killing bacteria) and in an era without toothpaste and toothbrushes, that may have been another reason why our ancestors chewed gum.

The most recent finding was in Finland at an archaeological site of a long forgotten settlement. It was a birch resin that had been chewed (the signature of tooth marks is the evidence). I was delighted that a second item revealing our ancient behavior was also found – an amber ring. Amber is fossilized resin and no doubt the amber was scraped into a flattened disk and then drilled through until it fit the hand of the holder or the person for whom it was made. We don’t know the symbolic significance of that ring but it was clearly intended to convey some sentiment (like marriage, coming of age, or status in the community).

Those who are infuriated by gum sticking to the soles of their shoes or matting their hair or infiltrating their clothing when sat on, may have silently applauded the action of Singapore’s Prime Minister in the 1970s who made it a criminal offense to buy, sell, or chew gum in Singapore. When I was in Singapore in 2001, I did not see a single wad of flattened gum on their streets. My favorite use of gum as a child was pressing it on a stone tied to a string and retrieving coins when it was dropped down grates in New York’s streets. You could call it urban fishing.

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