Blood Orange, Licorice, Vanilla Cream, Pineapple, Forbidden Fruit, Pepsin and Lemonade? Do those flavors sound good? In the 1890s and 1900s, those were some of the flavors of the popular Zeno Gum. Back at the turn of the 20th century, there were vending machines where you could buy a single piece of Zeno gum for a penny. One of the Zeno gum machines will be on display at the Western Illinois Museum as the June Artifact of the Month.
Housed in an oak wooden cabinet, the little gum machine stands about 16 inches tall, 7.5 inches wide and 8.5 inches in depth. The sign on the front says, “Drop one cent in the slot and get Zeno Chewing Gum.” The customer inserted a penny into a slot, which would drop down inside into a chute, activating the interior clockwork motor that would then gently push out the stick of gum and deposit it on a little metal shelf.
The back door of the cabinet opens to reveal the interior clockwork mechanism that dispensed the stick of gum one at a time. The operator would load the sticks of gum into the machine and then use a big key to wind up the motor. Every time gum was loaded, the motor had to be wound up. Now mostly forgotten, Zeno chewing gum was hugely popular and advertised itself as “Zeno means good chewing gum” and “Uncommonly good! – in every flavor”.
This Zeno gum machine is from the Eph Mercer store, once located in Vermont, Illinois. The museum acquired a number of items when the store closed after Eph Mercer’s death in 1976. Filled with not only merchandise, but also his personal collection of widely assorted antiques, Eph’s country store was locally famous.
The Rubber Paint Company of Cleveland, Ohio created the Zeno Manufacturing Company in 1890. W.N. Brewer, an employee at the Rubber Paint Company, had the idea to start making chewing gum with rubber as one of the ingredients as a sideline of the company. He created the Zeno company, and started making chewing gum in a factory in Chicago.
The Thomas Adams Gum Company built the first vending machine in the United States in 1888, selling gum on New York City train platforms and in subway stations. The Zeno Company decided to jump onto this new trend and sell its gum in machines also. In 1890 Zeno gum vending machines were introduced and the machines were placed in locations such as bars and barbershops.
When the Zeno Manufacturing Company began gum production, the vending machine was included free with the purchase of 1,200 sticks of gum. The Zeno Company made several versions of their wood machines. The primary differences between models were the positions of the coin slot and the existence or absence of writing on the sides. The model in the museum’s collection has no writing on the sides and the cast iron name plate above where the gum was deposited onto a little metal shelf is stamped ZENO PAT. AUG. 1, 1893. Eventually, bright yellow porcelain-enameled steel machines replaced the Zeno gum machine wooden cabinets.
You might think that chewing gum is a modern invention, but it is not. Chewing gum goes back in history to almost 5,000 years ago. Ancient Greeks, Mayans and Native Americans people have chewed on tree resins. In the US, Native Americans in Maine showed early settlers the resin from spruce trees was something to chew on. The enterprising Curtis family of Maine packaged the spruce gum and began selling it for a penny. Adding flavor and paraffin to make it tastier and softer made the gum even more popular. This mixture of ingredients is more like the chewing gum we know today. Other gum companies formed and created their own gum formulas, adding rubber, sugar and other flavors, such as licorice and charcoal.
In the 19th century, Americans began to import chicle, the sap harvested from the sapodilla tree from the rain forests of Central America as a substitute for rubber. New Yorker Thomas Adams was an experimenter with chicle, attempting first to make rain boots and toys, but later simply adding some flavor to the chicle and calling it “Adams New York Gum No. 1 – Snapping and Stretching.” After a few tweaks including the addition of licorice flavor, his gum became the first mass-marketed chewing gum (and the first gum to be sold in a vending machine). Adams called his gum Black Jack and it is still sold today.
In the booming town of Chicago, Illinois in the 1890s, the Zeno Company enjoyed great success with their line of exotically flavored gums. The company would soon become part of gum history when they began a business relationship with a young Chicago businessman with the most famous name in gum history, Wrigley. After working as a soap salesman for his father, a soap manufacturer in Philadelphia, the 29-year-old William Wrigley, Jr., moved to Chicago in 1891. At first, he stayed with the family business and sold washing soap, but Wrigley sought to increase the business by offering vendors baking powder as a free item along with the soap. When the baking powder became more popular than the soap, Wrigley decided to drop selling soap and start selling baking powder. Wrigley, an intrepid salesman and developer of innovative sales techniques, then decided to try a new sales gimmick and give away two packages of chewing gum free with each can of baking powder.
Chewing gum at this time was still relatively new and trendy and for many customers, an intriguing item to try. The two sticks of free gum were more popular than the baking powder that Wrigley was trying to sell, so Wrigley decided to enter the gum business.
At first, Wrigley himself was not involved with the gum production. In 1892, Wrigley contacted the Zeno Manufacturing Company of Chicago and contracted them to manufacture gum for him. The first gums produced by Zeno for Wrigley were called Lotta, Vassar, and Sweet Sixteen Orange.
As business prospered, Mr. Wrigley saw the potential of selling gum without the other products, and gave up the soap and baking powder business altogether and concentrated on selling gum made by the Zeno Manufacturing Company. By 1894, Zeno was not only producing chewing gum under its own label, but also for a number of other companies, of which the most important business was for William Wrigley Jr.
By 1897, Wrigley’s annual gum sales exceeded one million dollars, and Wrigley and Zeno together employed about 500 people. Zeno gum machines were located in many public places, and chewing gum continued to gain in popularity with the gum business continuing to expand. In 1910, Wrigley and Zeno formally combined their businesses, creating the William Wrigley Jr. Company. With the merger of the two companies, the Zeno brand was discontinued and now is only a footnote in gum history.
This little gum machine tells a story of a time when gum chewing was a new, fun activity and when a penny bought you a stick of gum. It recounts a time of old fashioned vending machines with only one simple function, with no bells or whistles. This artifact preserves the history of a little company that played a pivotal role in the history of gum business.
The Zeno gum machine will be on display at the museum from June 1-30, 2013.
From an essay by Heather Munro.