Between chew and shoe, it has solved crimes and patched blimps. And created a gooey global mess. : Stuck on Gum

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A 9,000-year-old piece of chewing gum, still bearing the teeth marks of a Stone-Age adolescent, was unearthed in Swe den this summer--a testament to mankind's deep-seated need to gnaw on flavored rubber.

No word on whether the gum was found stuck to the bottom of a prehistoric theater seat. But if it's anything like its modern cousins, the 9,000-year-old blob of honey-sweetened resin probably lost its taste 8,999 years, 364 days, 23 hours and 59 minutes ago.

From such humble beginnings, gum has evolved into one of history's most ubiquitous--and weird--substances.

In formulas from kosher to chlorophyll, it has been used to solve murder cases, patch blimps and meet the ransom demands of Borneo headhunters who kidnaped a diplomat. It has financed a baseball team and bought an island. And its mysterious ingredients include tropical saps still transported out of jungles on the backs of elephants.

But this year, as civilization celebrates the 100th birthday of Wrigley's Spearmint and Juicy Fruit, there remains a dark side to gum. With 90,000 tons of the stuff going into and out of the mouths of kids and adults annually, enough human cud gets glued to sidewalks and school desks to form a gum Queen Mary. And it, too, could be around 9,000 years from now.

In one country, Singapore, the substance is considered so obnoxious that mere possession of it is punishable by a year in jail.

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Modern chewing gum oozed into existence during the late 1800s, thanks to a one-legged Mexican general, a New York photographer, a soap salesman and a Baptist preacher. Before that, U.S. gumnivores chomped on paraffin wax and lumps of spruce tree resin.

The gum revolution officially began in 1869, when Mexico's on-again, off-again dictator, Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna--one-time conqueror of the Alamo--went into exile on Staten Island and met shutterbug Thomas Adams. Looking for a scheme to finance his next ascent to power, Santa Anna supplied Adams with 2,000 pounds of chicle, hoping the young photographer might find a way to convert the milky latex into a cheap substitute for rubber.

If the plan had succeeded, "the world might now be . . . driving cars that roll on Juicy Fruit tires," wrote Robert Hendrickson in "The Great American Chewing Gum Book." Instead, Adams wound up wrecking all his wife's pots and pans, and decided to dump the chicle into the East River.

A trip to the drugstore changed his mind. There, Adams overheard a young girl ask for a penny's worth of paraffin wax candy. Recalling that chicle had been chewed for centuries by the Mayans and their descendants, he decided to try salvaging his failed experiment by marketing it as Adams' New York Gum No. 1.

Janitorial work has never been the same.

The new product proved an instant hit and other entrepreneurs soon followed. One was soap-family scion William Wrigley Jr., a grammar-school dropout who promoted his Sweet 16 and Vassar-brand gums with saturation advertising and wacky dealer premiums such as nickel-plated slot machines and Iroquois hatchets.

By 1919, the year he mailed sample sticks to everyone listed in U.S. phone books, the Sultan of Spearmint was one of the nation's 10 wealthiest men, with a gumpire that extended from Catalina Island--bought sight unseen for $2 million--to Chicago's Wrigley Field, home of his Cubs.

Meanwhile, in New York, Baptist minister W.H. Mason was working on the first modern gumball machine, which he patented and turned over to his son, Ford, to manufacture. Ford Gum & Machine Co. soon began producing gumballs, too, and young Mason spent a decade perfecting ways to protect his candy from the unspeakable evil of moisture condensation inside the see-through glass globes.

"In the old days," he later told author Hendrickson, "a drop of water would ruin the colors of a barrel of gumballs." Once he invented his water-resistant glaze, however, "you (could) take a handful of treated gumballs and hold them under a running faucet without any color coming off."

Today, gum scientists work on equally important and urgently needed advances in gumdom, including gum in the shape of ants, gum that resembles a beeper and gum that comes in a tube with spiked hair that looks like Don King.

Additional ground-breaking developments include kosher gum (made without animal fats and overseen by a special gum rabbi) and the vaguely unsettling, liquid-centered Freshen-Up.

Gum chewers, of course, have devised their own innovations:

* Forensic dentist Skip Sperber once matched a used piece of cinnamon gum left on a dusty dresser at a San Diego murder scene to killer Patricia Beebe, whose missing filling created distinctive teeth marks.

* The crew of a British Royal Air Force dirigible crossing the Atlantic in 1911 hastily jawed several packs of gum in order to patch a leak. The men were "told to chew as if their lives quite literally depended on it," Hendrickson wrote. Likewise, in 1988, a 12-year-old baby-sitter in West Seneca, N.Y., used a wad of bubble gum to plug a gas leak after the toddler he was supervising pedaled a toy fire engine into a gas pipe.

* And, in Borneo after World War II, enterprising headhunters abducted a foreign diplomat and held him for a ransom of Fleer's Dubble Bubble, according to "The Great American Chewing Gum Book."

Gum vivants are also indirectly responsible for the apparent assassination of Bazooka Joe and his replacement by a double. After Brooklyn-based Topps Co. discovered in 1990 that "kids wanted more modern, hip characters in their Bazooka comics," the company sacked its original catalogue of several hundred comics (which it had rotated every five to seven years to keep the jokes fresh for successive generations of customers). Topps then shrank Joe's eye patch and turned him into a rap-chanting "Mystic Master of Space and Time."

"I'm Bazooka Joe and I'm extra cool, while I'm in or out of school. . . . I like to play a trick or joke, and jive some unsuspecting folk!" he raps in one recent comic.

Joe's altered image might also signal Topps' attempt to regain some of the edge it lost in the late 1970s when upstart Bubble Yum dethroned Bazooka from the No. 1 bubble-gum sales slot. Since then, the company has debuted cherry, grape, soft, sugarless and squeeze Bazookas, all to little avail.

As for future plans, Topps--like most gum manufacturers--remains silent.

"It's a secretive industry," says Joe Collerd, gum guru for Warner-Lambert Co.'s American Chicle division, makers of Trident and Dentyne. "We don't have electrified fences, but . . . (we do) closely guard formulas."

Wrigley's Chicago plant, for example, is protected by security cameras, uniformed watchmen and barbed wire. And gumball maker Ford--which also supplies the featured ingredient in Baskin-Robbins bubble-gum ice cream--forbids cameras and insists that its few visitors sign confidentiality agreements.

"We're all looking for the same things--longer-lasting and better flavors," Collerd explains. "If you end up with a breakthrough, you want to protect it."

And--despite the gum universe's normally unchanging nature--there have been breakthroughs. Sugar-free gum, introduced in 1964 by Warner-Lambert, now accounts for 40% of all sales. And soft-chew bubble gum, pioneered by RJR Nabisco's Bubble Yum in 1975, helped triple bubble gum's then-moribund 12% share of the total gum market.

Nothing, however, has been able to dislodge the Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co. from its dominance of the industry. Churning out 100 million sticks a day, the company now controls about half the world's gum trade.

Although temporarily wounded by the 1970s sugar-free invasion, the gum giant later steamrollered the competition by introducing Extra in 1984. The five-flavor sugarless line even knocked off perennial Wrigley ringleader Doublemint two years ago to become the No. 1-selling brand in the nation (although Doublemint remains the leading single-flavor brand).

Further down the top 10 sales chart, Big Red, Spearmint, Juicy Fruit and Freedent round out Wrigley's dominance of the $2.4 billion domestic gum market.

Mormons and teens are the champion chewers. According to gumologists, 15- to 24-year-olds rank highest for sheer volume of gum grazed--a full half of U.S. factory output.

And Utah boasts the highest per-capita gum consumption rate. George Stegy, of Ford Gum & Machine Co., figures it's because candy and gum are about the only vices allowed by the Mormon church.

Outside Utah, however, tolerance of gum varies wildly.

After lightning struck the village of Gbonwea, Liberia, for example, residents called in a shaman, who warned that Chiclets should never again be allowed into the town. And although he never quite spelled out the connection between chewing gum and electrical storms, villagers took his advice seriously.

In Singapore, it's more acceptable to urinate in an elevator (a $500 fine) than import a pack of gum (a $6,250 fine and/or a year in jail). The crackdown began last year, after gum twice jammed the doors of subway trains and became an increasing nuisance in movie theaters and other public locales.

Gum also is unwelcome at the Statue of Liberty. Two years ago, the copper mama was "infested" with the stuff, says supervisor M. Ann Belkov. Visitors were tossing it on the ground, sticking it to stairwells and dropping it from the torch. So Belkov ordered extra trash cans with signs saying, "Put your gum here."

It seems to work--sort of. Now, she says, people stick their gum onto the signs.

Part of the disposal problem might lie with swallow-phobia, the universal fear of eating gum. "It's a moral dilemma," explains one veteran chewer. "Do you swallow--knowing the gum will stay in your stomach for seven years--or do you drop it where someone can step in it?"

Judging from the tons of chewed goo attached to sidewalks and restaurant furniture around the world, most opt to drop, not realizing that gum passes straight through the digestive tract.

Gum's life span in the wild is unknown. One manufacturer swears the stuff disintegrates after several months of sun and rain. Others insist it's virtually indestructible.

Still, nobody seems to be calling gum an environmental hazard. The Sierra Club says it has more important things to worry about. And even a few janitors say the stuff is no longer Nemesis No. 1. That mantle--at least as far as L.A. transit and school officials are concerned--has been taken over by graffiti.

"Gum is like a mosquito," says Ed Floura, who supervises a traveling, 54-person maintenance crew for the L.A. school district. He estimates that each of his employees spends half an hour a day on gum control. "It just eats at you. It's a nuisance."

But a costly one. At one Glendale middle school, the clean-up bill for steam-washing the campus quad this summer was $2,667.

Someday, the gum industry promises, the product will be biodegradable. "It will break down in your mouth," says Gary Schuetz, vice president of marketing for Wrigley's novelty-gum subsidiary, Amurol Products Co. "It will be ecology-friendly."

Actually, one company already invented such a gum--by accident--and ran it through taste panels and trial sales. "It lasted 10 or 15 minutes, then fell apart in your mouth," says Ford spokesman Stegy.

It was brilliant, except for one problem.

Nobody liked it.

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