THE NEW YORK CITY MUNICIPAL ARCHIVES holds the delightful artifacts of a little-known injury-free war. It was a battle against the disgusting wads of gum discarded on the sidewalks of our city. The story of the chewing gum war is told through archived press releases, newspaper clippings, and letters. The Mayor’s “correspondence files” contain items sent by the public, including hand-written notes, typed letters, and original cartoons, poems, and songs, as well as letterheads, gum wrappers, ad cards and tin signage from the gum manufacturers. All of the following comes from the allies, united in a brief campaign fought during the winter of 1939.
SUGAR WAS CHEAP during the Great Depression. Chewing gum was an affordable treat that sold well. But New York City was paying a high price to scrape the sticky mess from the ground.
The city had recently taken over the Independent Subway Line and balked at the cost of cleaning gum from the platforms. The Mayor released a statement to the morning papers on December 4, 1939:
“This may seem like a trifling matter, but it costs the City of New York literally hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to remove gum from parks, streets and public places.”
The Secretary of the Board of Transportation, Wm. Jerome Daly, informed The Mayor that two workers scraping the worst stations for six months “were eventually transferred to other duty because their efforts were futile. It was just a hopeless task." He agreed with The Mayor that the only remedy was the correction of bad manners."
The size of that group of gum droppers would be unscientifically tallied by William Powell, the Assistant Commissioner of the Department of Sanitation. He guessed that 1-out-of-5 people who lived in New York City chewed gum. Since there were approximately 7 million people living in New York City in 1939, that added up to about 1.3 million gum chewers.
What kind of leader attempts to change the bad manners of 1.3 million New Yorkers?
Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia served New York City as Mayor for three terms through the 1930s and 40s. Barely five feet tall, the “Little Flower” backed progressive causes and helped New Yorkers survive The Great Depression and World War II. He was known as a tireless advocate for children. He brought entire orphanages to baseball games. He read the funny papers live on the radio for children during a newspaper strike.
LaGuardia’s idea was to attack the sticky problem with a cultural campaign. No fines, no bans, no summonses, but a contest to win over the hearts and minds of everyone who cared about New York City. He issued a press release that resulted in numerous stories in newspapers across the country.
“Mayor Battles to Unstick City”
"What to Do with Old Gum?
The Mayor’s campaign invited the public to teach and encourage themselves to act appropriately. And the public responded with creativity!
"Shoot the Wad"
"Don’t be dumb, park your gum!"
From Milton W. Firth of West 42nd Street.
Edith Goldberg of Brooklyn wrote: “Wrap your gum. You, too, have a sole.”
Four pages of cartoons with captions came from Frances Paelian of Spuyten Duyvil.
John F. Klohr, purveyor of “Insurance of All Kinds,” confessed to giving away sixty sticks of gum per day for 15 years. He expressed remorse, and promised that in the future he would encourage people to use the wrapper in disposing of the gum.
John Krol, a former employee of the Parks Department, sent his slogan: “Chew! But Don’t Strew Your Streets With Goo!”
John A. Roos of Riverside Drive reserved the right to enter his slogan in any future contest for a cash prize.
The gothic letterhead of W.G. Schuer belied brevity and wit.
A poem in the style of Robert Burns was submitted by Redmond O'Hanlon:
“Owed to N.Y.C. – Gum Free Streets ”
LaGuardia’s beloved status was motivation enough for some: “Do It to Please the Mayor!”
The campaign drew creative submissions from people in many professions and from all walks of life:
A.S. Katz, a lawyer employed by the City of New York, offered his cartoons “at no extra cost.”
From John McCord, of The New York School of Filing.
From James A. O’Neill
Engineer Office, War Department
Boston Army Base, MA
The denizens of the outer-outer-boroughs participated enthusiastically.
From Lynbrook, Long Island: “Be popular – keep your gums up.”
From East Orange, NJ: “Stick to your own gum so others won’t.”
From Atlantic Highlands, a long poem by Corwin Knapp Linson.
From East Hapswell, Maine: “Chew It. But Don’t Strew It.”
The winning slogan was submitted by Miss Rose L. Beckman, a teacher at the Abraham Lincoln High School in Brooklyn, N.Y.:
“Don’t Gum Up the Works”
The winner beat out “Chucking Chicle Chokes the Charm of our Choo-Choo Station.”
and the ear-worm ditty:
“Be kind to the streets and sidewalks
I am sure you have nothing to lose . . . ”
The candy and gum manufacturers responded with enthusiastic support. They printed new directions on packaging: “Park used gum inside this wrapper.” And they made tin signs to encourage good manners.
A letter from Philip K. Wrigley of the William Wrigley Jr. Company (Chicago) supported The Mayor’s quest, offering to change the next print run of ad cards for street cars, buses and train cars. However, Wrigley mentioned that the American Chicle Company had vending rights on the City-owned Eighth Avenue Subway, and as such, there wasn’t much more the Wrigley Company could do on this line . . . without additional vending right.
Wrigley's Juicy Fruit Wrapper
The Vice President of the American Chicle Company wrote back to the Mayor:
“…we are pleased to advise you that on or shortly after the first of next year the 1c wrappers of all of our standard brands will bear the legend 'Save this Wrapper for Disposal of Gum after Use.'”
American Chicle also maintained their vending rights on the Eighth Avenue Line.
The Goudey Gum Co., of Boston, and Beech Nut, of NY, both supported the campaign.
Sweets Laboratories, in Harlem, supported the Mayor’s plight, but explained that they sold chicle – the gum base – to the gum manufacturers. It turned out Sweets made gum, not sweets!
The campaign spread to the airwaves. The publicist David O. Alber notified The Mayor about the Frank Novak and the Stardusters radio show, sponsored by Chiclets, to be aired in mid-December, 1939. The Stardusters, a male trio, would sing a song about good gum manners to the tune of “Comin’ thru the Rye.”
Young & Rubicam, the marketing firm, produced a newsreel about the gum-wrapping campaign for the Fred Allen Show, which aired in December of 1939.
High School newspapers took part, too. This is a page from The Class Speaks, the newspaper of The Chelsea School (P.S. 33) in Manhattan.
On January 25, 1940, the Assistant Commissioner of Sanitation, Edward Nugent, reported on the impact of the campaign:
"...from observations in touring the city, the Mayor's effort has brought a decided improvement in this matter."
The campaign ended swiftly and peacefully. Unfortunately, as you may have noticed, the battle against gum continues. To citizens and visitors I say, lovers of our fair city, all:
“Gumby, please! Don’t Gum Up the Works!”
All images from Mayor LaGuardia Collection, New York City Municipal Archives