The wild world of gumball machines
Jun 23, 2021 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
I’ve always had a sweet tooth, but this Summer my sugar cravings are off the chart! While the vintage classic, Smarties, are high on my list – when you want pure nostalgia look no further than bubble gum. Some of my fondest childhood memories involve gumball machines. There was something special about putting a quarter in the slot, turning the knob, crossing my fingers and hoping a red gumball emerged victorious. Even though the burst of delicious flavor lasted for a moment – what a spectacular moment it was! Then, of course, came the playground game of seeing who could blow the biggest bubble. These competitions were serious business for a third grader. Laughing, braiding friendship bracelets and chewing gumballs defined many a lazy, youthful Summer. One of my favorite vintage treasures is a gumball machine gifted to me by a dear friend. I’ve since had to fill it with gumballs fashioned out of yarn to save my teeth, but just glancing at it brings a smile to my face. Let’s explore the wild world of gumball machines and see what happy memories pop up!
Before the machine debuted, developments in the science of bubble gum had to occur. (As an aside, I would love my job title to be “bubble gum scientist” but I digress…) Gum has been a special treat for us humans since day one. Early versions of gum came from tree resin or sap. It was a global phenomenon that spanned generations: ancient Greeks chewed gum while they philosophized, the Mayans chewed gum while they invented the calendar and settlers learned about gum from Native Americans. For centuries gum remained an organic treat, available for those lucky enough to be near a tree or some beeswax. It wasn’t until the late 1800s that things started to change…
Funnily enough we have a dentist to thank for championing gum. By day Dr. William F. Semple was tending to his patients in Ohio, but by night he was busy researching chemical reactions. By 1869 he felt confident in his recipe and applied for a patent on December 28th. His “chewing-gum” had honorable intentions, promising to support good dental hygiene. I would venture to bet you would not enjoy Dr. Semple’s special blend. His gum was not sweet to the taste, at a high-level it was dissolved rubber mixed with chalk. I doubt this early version would have lasted five minutes at the Parthenon!
Thankfully, many other hobbyist / inventors were on the hunt for that perfect bubble. This is where Walter Diemer enters our tasty tale. Walter was the account for the Fleer Corporation. (If that name rings a bell, it’s because they are the makers of Dubble Bubble & pioneered the sports card industry.) Fleer was founded in 1885 and, while I don’t know much about the working culture, I like to imagine Walter was greeted each morning by a scene out of Willy Wonka’s color-filled factory. Perhaps this assessment is spot-on, because during his tenure Walter caught bubble gum fever. During his nights and weekends he tinkered with different mixtures, trying to improve upon their original recipe (which went by the utterly fantastic name of “Blibber-Blubber”). In 1928 Walter cracked the code, discovering a formula that gave gum the perfect elasticity and flavor. In a rush to make a prototype, Walter grabbed the only dye available (which just so happened to be pink) and a legend was born!
The gumball burst onto the scene and demand soared (aided by the Great Depression). Gumballs, like its predecessors, became the go-to treat for people everywhere. But the question was – how to distribute it to the people (especially people who didn’t have a lot of spare change). And this is our entry point into the wild world of gumball machines. Now, just like gum, tinkerers had been playing with vending machines before these colorful orbs came to be. Victorian era inventors had mechanisms for selling all sorts of items. This was the dawn of the industrial age and efficiency was in vogue. While Dr. Semple was working away in Ohio, inventors and candy enthusiasts were placing penny-operated vending machines across the Eastern seaboard. To attract customers, they even added little figurines which could move along with the machine’s motions. While Dr. Semple’s health-conscious “chewing-gum” was never sold by one of these automated salesmen, other gum brands became the product of choice. (And they had much more marketable names, like “Tutti Frutti.”)
Up until the 1920s gumball machines were a novelty – something you could only find at certain NYC train stations. But by 1934 the Ford Gum and Machine Company of Akron, New York introduced their iconic design and gumball machines became part of the American landscape. Its shiny metal cap and clear glass container made the perfect companion for Walter’s gumballs. Staring at all the brightly-colored little spheres, jostling for attention proved hypnotizing. Even at a selling price of one penny, the gumball industry quickly took flight. Today you will pay more than a cent for a gumball, but the joy found in the gumball machine experience lives on and the proof is in the robust collecting market.
If you want to add antique or vintage gumball machines to your treasure trove, be sure to carefully inspect the machine first. Since the Ford design hasn’t changed since the 1930s, reproductions abound. Your best bet is to look at the casting itself – like so many other vintage collectibles you want to see markings. Additionally, you can review the materials to give you a hint about authenticity or age. Cast iron typically indicates older pieces, while chrome places you in the 1930s and beyond. Next you’ll want to look for details: older gumball machines are like pieces of mechanized art. If you see claw feet or intricate scrollwork you’re on the right track. While most gumball machines are painted bold fire-engine red, don’t be surprised if you find other examples from the rainbow of color options. Once you find your perfect gumball machine, take care not to feel discouraged if you can’t get into the actual base – it’s an easy fix for an experienced locksmith. The last tip is to have fun! Just remember how rewarding it felt to blow the biggest bubble by the monkey bars all those years ago and let yourself be transported to a world of simple joys. Tell me dear reader, what was your bubble gum brand of choice as a kid?