Chewing gum in one form or another has a long history. From the ancient Greeks to Native Americans, many cultures had a tradition of chewing on tree sap of one form or another. In Central America, the Mayans and the Aztecs chewed chicle, the sticky sap of the Sapodilla tree. From the 1890s chicle was a staple ingredient of modern chewing gum, being replaced by synthetic products in the 1940s.
The earliest mentions of chewing gum in Australian newspapers date to the 1860s, in articles and humorous stories from America. By the mid-1880s, some importers were offering American products to the Australian public, with one merchant’s 1886 advertisement spruiking Adams’ Sappota Tolu Chewing Gum. However, it wasn’t until the 1890s that chewing gum was made locally.
In 1893, the founder of the MacRobertson confectionery company, Macpherson Robertson, made a trip to the United States. Among the companies he visited was Wrigley, which had begun manufacturing gum in 1892. Although it appears that Wrigley and other chewing gum manufacturers were loath to share their recipes and trade secrets, Robertson was evidently able to learn enough to begin making his own product in 1894.
Early advertisements for MacRobertson’s Pepsin Chewing Gum waxed poetic – literally.
Pepsin is a stomach enzyme that helps to digest protein, perhaps leading to further claims that the gum was a cure for “dyspepsia and indigestion”. MacRobertson’s was based in Victoria, but manufacturers in other colonies soon began to make similar products. Among them were Inghams in Queensland and Messrs. Ennever and Appleton in New South Wales.
In 1896, Table Talk in Melbourne published a laudatory article about the MacRobertson operation. It reported that:
In the gum department there are forty-eight girls all in white overalls and white caps as busy as bees, wrapping up and labelling the various kinds of chewing gum. Mr MacRobertson courteously explains the various interesting processes while acting as cicerone. Chewing gum is made from an insoluble gum, and duly incorporated with other ingredients – medicinal and otherwise – and flavoured to suit all palates.
At that point, the Pepsin gum had been joined by Celery, Café Clove, Kola, Tutte Frutte, Trilby and Koj Kure. The article assured readers that “Several unsolicited testimonials from doctors, barristers and others are on view in the office”. The product was packed in tins to preserve its freshness and each tin was sold for threepence.
While chewing gum quickly became popular, not everyone was keen. In 1897 there was a Board of Health inquiry into one sample of gum, which found that it contained 18 per cent paraffin wax, a substance that was considered dangerous if swallowed, especially to children. The following year, many newspapers reported the death of a seven-year-old child who had swallowed gum.
These reports did not deter the public and by 1913 the market in Australia was strong enough to encourage the Wrigley company to launch its own product here. It’s not clear when MacRoberston stopped producing their gum but it was not advertised after the 1890s.