Monday, September 9, 2013

How Chewing Gum Corrupts Young Ladies

By Kelli Huggins, Education Coordinator

This is the story of how in 1890s Elmira, chewing gum almost led to the corruption and decline of an entire generation of young ladies.  Or at least this was the story according to one “Mrs. E.S.E,” a concerned crusader who was desperate to stave off an impending crisis and restore moral order to her city.

On February 16, 1890, the Elmira Telegram printed Mrs. E.S.E.’s open letter to the “young ladies of this fair city.”  In the letter, she describes a deeply troubling outing she and her husband had shopping on Water Street, Elmira.  She observed two teenage girls in a shoe store, one of whom was “industriously” chewing gum.  A disgusted Mrs. E.S.E. stated that the habit distorted the girl's otherwise pretty features and disrupted her speech.  She provided a snippet of the conversation for dramatic effect:

“Mother bought Agnes (chew, chew) a pair of shoes and they were too narrow, (chew, chew, chew).  She wants a wider pair (chew, chew).” 

Mrs. E.S.E also noted that upon the girls' departure, the attractive clerk had on his face “a look of disgust which could not be mistaken.”  Thus, the girl’s filthy habit was also ruining her chances of her finding a suitable husband.
As she left the shoe store and continued her errands, Mrs. E.S.E. found herself surrounded by a gum-chewing nightmare.  The shop girls, the Saturday promenaders… everyone was chewing gum.  Mrs. E.S.E. ended her letter with an impassioned plea to girls to stop their chewing.  Aside from the general facial ugliness it caused, she claimed it could cause lopsidedness of the jaw from favoring chewing on one side, and eye and stomach problems.
A gum box circa 1910.  Who knows how many young girls were disfigured by its contents.

Mrs. E.S.E. was not alone in her critique of the habit.  Elmira's Mrs. Helen Bullock, a member of the Women's Christian Temperance Union, was a leading anti-gum activist.  She was particularly concerned about gum containing opium.  In addition to arguments that gum chewing was a gateway habit to intemperance, others thought it could cause blindness.   So how could gum chewing possibly be thought to cause blindness, you ask?  In 1888, the Telegram published an interview with an optician explaining the “science” of the gum-blindness connection.  Apparently, over-exertion of the jaw muscles was dangerous because they were connected to the spine, which was in turn connected to the optic nerves.  Eventually the nerves become “enfeebled” and the eyes sunken and gray.    
Mrs. Helen Bullock.  "NO GUM FOR YOU!"
So ladies, before you pick up that next stick of gum, remember your Victorian morality.  As a chronic gum chewer myself, I never knew I could blame my poor eyesight on this “disgusting habit.”  Perhaps I should go find a mirror to see if my features have become grotesquely distorted as well.  Alas, as Mrs. E.S.E would have us know, you'll never get a husband with sunken, blind eyes and a lopsided face!          

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