On the front lines of Mayor La Guardia’s 1939 chewing gum war

Posted On Wed, January 2, 2019 By

Posted On Wed, January 2, 2019 By In Features, History

Gum, and Gum disposal, advertising on the 8th Avenue IND, via The Municipal Archives

In December 1939, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia was at war – with chewing gum. The situation was one we would recognize today: the subway was stuck. With subterranean transit stalled and sticking in stations, the Mayor believed the answer was a full-scale assault on chewing gum. La Guardia led the charge against gum, urging New Yorkers to throw away their finished sticks, rather than sticking them to the city’s streets and subway stations. In true La Guardia fashion, he turned his crusade against sticky subways into a city-wide contest, soliciting catchy anti-gum slogans from the public. And in true New York fashion, the public responded with a variety of slogans, from the sweet to the sly, including “Don’t be Dumb, Park Your Gum” and “Shoot the Wad.”

Was this the predecessor to the MTA’s Courtesy Counts Campaign? Via The Municipal Archives

In 1939, gum was cheap, but it was costing the city a fortune. In 1932, New York debuted its municipally owned subway, the Independent Lines (IND). By the end of the decade, the city was dolling out thousands to keep its subway clean. And gum was a major scourge in the fight for an immaculate IND. On December 4, 1939, La Guardia issued a statement to the city and to the nation’s leading gum manufacturers explaining “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 Board of Transportation had been utterly bested by the barrage of bubblegum. The secretary of the Board of Transportation, Wm. Jerome Daily, reported that “two porters who were on special detail for six months scraping the 14th, 34th, and 42nd Street Stations – because they were the worst – were eventually transferred to other duty because their efforts were futile. It was just a hopeless task.”

What’s worse: Gum or feet? via The Municipal Archives

What was needed, agreed the Mayor and the secretary, was “the correction of bad manners by the gum chewing public.” To that end, La Guardia sought a way to win the hearts and minds of New York’s gum chewers. Instead of issuing summonses for littering, he solicited slogans – asking New Yorkers to submit creative anti-litter catchphrases.

And submit they did. Slogans came rolling into the Mayor’s office from all over the city and around the country. Milton Firth of West 42nd Street offered, “Try to keep your city dapper, Park used gum inside this wrapper.” Edith Goldberg, from Brooklyn, wrote, “Wrap your gum, you, too, have a sole.” Former Parks Department employee John Kroll wrote, “Careful with that gum and save your city quite a sum.”

Then there were the New Yorkers who took the contest a step further. Staten Island’s Redmond O’Hanlon submitted a poem in the style of Robert Burns; John A. Roos of Riverside Drive reserved the right to enter his slogans in any future contest for a cash prize; A.S. Katz of the City’s Law Department offered to provide drawings to go along with his slogans “at no extra cost.”

Part of a four-page anti-gum cartoon submitted by Frances Paelian of Spuyten Duyvil. Via the Municipal Archives

Ultimately, Rose L. Beckman, a teacher at Abraham Lincoln High School in Brooklyn, submitted the winning slogan: “Don’t Gum Up the Works.”

But for John McCord, of the New York School of Filing at 841 Madison Avenue, the situation was about more than slogans. He wrote the Mayor “If your campaign against gum-chewers goes over, you will be hailed as America’s Greatest Crusader and be awarded, without doubt, the Nobel Prize.” He went on to observe, “Wrigley is as great a menace to American culture as the present national administration is to big business.”

Wrigley and other gum manufacturers, for their part, got behind the campaign. They printed directions on their gum packaging, asking customers to dispose of their gum after chewing, and Philip K. Wrigley himself wrote that the next run of advertising cards, debuting January 1, 1940, would carry the mayor’s message. Chicklets even carried the campaign to radio.

Wrigley packaging via the Municipal Archives

The short yet targeted assault on chewing gum had a real impact on the city’s streets and subways. By January 25, 1940, Assistant Commissioner of Sanitation, Edward Nugent, reported that “the Mayor’s effort has brought a decided improvement in this matter.”

The Chewing Gum War of 1939 might not have gotten La Guardia the Nobel Prize, but it did help unstick the IND. If only today’s MTA could find such a simple way to not gum up the works!


Lucie Levine is the founder of Archive on Parade, a local tour and event company that aims to take New York’s fascinating history out of the archives and into the streets. She’s a Native New Yorker, and licensed New York City tour guide, with a passion for the city’s social, political and cultural history. She has collaborated with local partners including the New York Public Library, The 92nd Street Y, The Brooklyn Brainery, The Society for the Advancement of Social Studies and Nerd Nite to offer exciting tours, lectures and community events all over town. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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