Archaeologists collecting prehistoric artifacts have discovered chewed chunks of tree resin left behind by early man. But it wasn't until 1848 that the first manufactured Spruce chewing gum was sold commercially. Spruce gave way to Chicle gum in 1869 and bubble gum was invented by the Frank H. Fleer Company in 1928. The bubble blowing chewable sensation caught on at once and before long a variety of companies were packaging their gum with promotional items like trading cards to bolster the sale of their product. Popeye was a natural born bolsterer and was soon helping to sell chewing gum to kids.
The Orbit Gum Company of Chicago apparently got into the premium business in 1932 when they packaged colorful baseball player buttons to promote their gum sales. In addition, Tattoo Chewing Gum was marketed with pirates on the wrappers and play money inside that same year. Presumably, this gum got its name by enclosing some form of tattoos at some point in time as well, but facts remain unclear on this matter.
One thing is certain, around 1933 Orbit Tattoo Chewing Gum was packed with Popeye Folders which sold for a penny a piece. Unfolding to about 2-1/2 x 10 inches, 30 Popeye Comics were issued with color 3-panel stories on the outside and games, puzzles & other activities on the inside.
The only known retail box (above left) for the Tattoo Gum Popeye Folders surfaced about 7 years ago. Yet to this day, the Popeye Tattoo Gum wrapper remains unobserved, even by long time non-sports card collectors and dealers. Presumably, the wrappers could be collected and exchanged for the 1933 Orbit Gum Popeye Movie Book (left). This rare premium flip book was stapled in the middle to produce four different "animated" scenes of Popeye, Wimpy and Olive. The scenes were drawn especially for the book and do not resemble art from the comic strip or the cartoons.
Very little information is actually known about the Orbit Gum Company. The only observed evidence of their longevity is reflected in various premium copyright dates over the short span of three years from 1932 - 34. Some time in the mid 30s, remaining inventories of the Popeye Comics showed up in generic little candy boxes and during the holidays in odd mesh Christmas stockings that were stuffed with nondescript trinkets and toys. This suggests that perhaps their bubble burst and the company may have gone out of business around this time.
When William Wrigley Jr. came to Chicago in the spring of 1891, He was 29 years old with $32 in his pocket. He started out selling soap. As an incentive to merchants to carry Wrigley's soap, he offered them free baking powder. When baking powder proved to be more popular than soap, he switched to the baking powder business. Then Wrigley got the idea to offer merchants free chewing gum with each can of baking powder. And of course, gum proved to be the business that finally stuck in Wrigley's chaw, so to speak.
Juicy Fruit was a mainstay of the Wrigley line as early as 1902 and always a kid favorite. Thus the famous chewing gum was a natural to align itself with the King Features Syndicate comic strip characters in 1933 - 34 to promote The Comic Club. The thousands of boys and girls that sent away to join The Comic Club eagerly awaited the receipt of a manila envelope in the mail bearing the image of everybody's favorite squint-eyed sailor welcoming them to the club. The initial premium came with 19 Comic Club stamps, a membership certificate and Comic Club Play Money.
The $50 bill featured Popeye. On one side the sailor gave out a safety tip. On the other side, Popeye -- always known for his great sensitivity -- reminded kids: "A youngster wich seems to be dumb may have exter good qualikies wich nobody's noticed!" The old salt had a way of giving insecure children the positive affirmations they longed for.
Once you joined the Comic Club, the real fun began. Members could send 12 outside package wrappers from 12 five-stick packages of Wrigley's Chewing Gum and one 3 cent postage stamp to cover packing and return mailing to receive a free comic mask of any of the characters pictured on the stamps.
Wrigley tapped Einson-Freeman, the folks who produced the Popeye Shipwreck Game and other rare licensed products, to fashion cardboard masks of Popeye, Olive Oyl, Wimpy and the other KFS characters. The mask design was patented by the Long Island City company which later went into partnership with Sam Gold as part of his premium production empire. The offer for the premium masks ran through July 1934. King Features revived the masks in 1938 by offering newsprint versions through the Hearst Sunday papers. "Fun? You bet it's fun wearing one of these swell Journal-American Comic Masks!" The instructions prompted children to carefully cut out the masks and paste them on heavy butcher paper, using rubber bands to fit the mask to the head.
Chewing gum was in short supply on U.S. shores during WWII. After the war, Popeye and Olive got into the business of selling the sticky treat once again. In 1948, the Jane Shaw Candy Company of NYC cooked up Popeye Bubble Gum. No premiums were offered but the sight of a 2 by 10 inch hunk of mouthwatering gum had to be pretty tempting to postwar kids, particularly since it was the World's Largest bubble gum or so the label claimed. That same year, Jane Shaw also produced Flash Gordon Pistol Packing Bubble Gum which was packaged in the appealing shape of a toy cardboard raygun.
In the 1950s, the Ad Trix Corporation issued 66 Popeye bubble gum cards. And Topps had kids chewing Popeye Tattoo Gum which had a watercolor transfer tattoo on the back of every wrapper. In the early 80s, green Popeye Shredded Bubble Gum (Looks Like Spinach...Tastes Like Bubble Gum) was marketed in packages designed to resemble chewing tobacco. Perhaps the politically incorrect manufacturer hoped that young Popeye fans would give up their pipe habit and go smokeless!
Today, archaeologists collecting chewable Popeye artifacts will discover some tasty vintage premiums, giveaways and wrappers left behind by early gum manufacturers.
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Digital Images/Text Copyright 2009 by Bruce C. Shults / Popeye and All Other Characters are Properties of and Copyright King Features Syndicate and the Hearst Corp - World Rights Reserved