Bubble gum was introduced in Philadelphia in 1928 where it was invented by a 23-year-old named Walter Diemer (1905-1998). Diemer was not a chemist—he was an accountant who worked for the Fleer Chewing Gum Company.
Why was it left to an accountant to create what became a best-selling product?
Others at the company worked on the “dream project of inventing bubble gum” but it had been 22 years since anyone had even come close. One day when someone asked Diemer to “watch the pot” in the laboratory, Diemer became interested in figuring out how to improve their gum.
How the Fleer Company Began
What became the Fleer Chewing Gum Company actually began in Philadelphia in 1849 as a company that made flavoring extracts. Frank Fleer (1856-1921) married into the family, joining the business that eventually carried his name.
As Fleer worked with different flavors, he heard that in Mexico and the Southern Hemisphere, natives chewed chicle, the dried sap from the Sapodilla tree. (A version of this gum was already being made by New Yorker Thomas Adams who introduced his gum in 1871.) Because of his interest, Fleer led the company’s effort at adding chewing gum to their product line.
Bubble Gum Attempt Results in Blibber Blubber
By the end of the 19th century, many companies sold chewing gum. Wrigley came out with a gum; Dentyne was created by a pharmacist who sold it to improve dental hygiene; and another company sold a gum that could be used as a tobacco substitute, to name a few.
The new entries made the gum market very competitive, so Frank Fleer worked on the next “new thing.” He wanted a gum that was strong enough and flexible enough for customers to blow bubbles.
One of his inventions worked well. Calling it Blibber Blubber, Fleer began testing it with consumers in 1906. Unfortunately, the gum was too sticky. You could blow bubbles but then the gum stuck to everything. Turpentine was the only thing that would remove it.
Bubble Gum First Mastered by Fleer Company Accountant
Creating bubble gum was on the back burner for Fleer Company for more than two decades. The company’s regular gum still sold well, but they continued to buy their gum base from an outside supplier, which limited their profits on the product.
By 1928, Fleer turned the presidency of the company over to his son-in-law, Gilbert Mustin. Mustin wanted to bring costs down, so he set up a laboratory on the third floor of the Fleer office building so that he and others could experiment with ways to make their own gum base.
Mustin was on the third floor of the building one day mixing up a new batch of gum base when he was summoned to a phone call. The only telephone in the company was near Mustin’s office on the main floor. Mustin popped his head into the accounting office right next door to the lab and asked junior accountant Walter Diemer to step into the lab to watch over the batch Mustin just started.
Diemer was inspired by what he saw. Though Mustin came back to finish with his latest batch of gum, Diemer decided he might see what he could learn about the process at home.
Diemer knew what the basic ingredients of the gum were and began trying a variety of ways to combine them. He finally came up with something he thought would work and took it to co-workers to test. Though his goal had been to create a base the company could use and avoid having to purchase it, his new mixture even permitted the blowing of small bubbles. Maybe he’d found the secret. The gum tasted good, and everyone was pleased.
The next day, however, it was another story. Diemer arrived at work to check on the gum. To everyone’s disappointment, the gum hardened to the point that it was no longer chewable. While he certainly made progress, it felt like being sent back to square one.
Diemer worked for another four months until he found a possible solution. He added a little more latex (a natural substance from rubber trees) to the mixture. This meant that the gum remained elastic and chewable for a longer time.
Mustin was delighted and gave permission to Diemer to teach the factory workers how to make the new gum. As they neared the end of making the first large batch in the factory, they all realized that this big gray mass would not sell. It needed an appetizing color. The only food coloring available in sufficient quantity at the factory that day was pink. Diemer instructed the workers to add pink to the mixture. That happenstance explains why bubble gum is usually pink.
Launching the Bubble Gum Product
Right after Christmas in 1928, the product was ready to go. Employees were excited to see if bubble gum had appeal.
The Fleer Corporation also made saltwater taffy that was hand-wrapped in individual papers. Taking the taffy papers, employees wrapped about 100 pieces of Dubble Bubble. Mustin instructed Diemer to take the product to a nearby candy store where he could demonstrate the product and see if it would sell. The retail price was to be a penny. By the end of the afternoon the candy store sold all one hundred pieces of bubble gum.
With this success, the product needed a name. Someone at the company deemed that it was Dubble Bubble—referring to the fact that the bubbles blew much larger than the previous Fleer product, Blibber Blubber.
Why No Patent?
Neither Diemer nor the Fleer Company ever took out a patent on the product. Patent filings must explain the ingredients of a product and how it is made, and this information is made public. The company used this as an excuse as to why they never patented Dubble Bubble—they didn’t want to reveal the secret.
However, Fleer patented earlier products. The Fleer attorneys were likely concerned about how to handle the situation. Diemer invented the product, but the company probably didn’t want an employee holding the patent on one of their major products.
As an accountant, Diemer probably never signed any type of waiver. The attorneys may have felt it was advisable to “leave well enough alone.”
Fleer, however, recognized Diemer for his major contribution to the company. He left his job in accounting and was promoted to be head of manufacturing for Dubble Bubble and oversaw the product line. He was often in sales meetings or on the road demonstrating how to blow bubbles.
Bubble Gum Weathers the Depression
Any product developed in the late 1920s ran into challenges after the stock market crash of 1929.
But ironically, a small treat like bubble gum that cost only a penny became an “extravagance” that families were willing to pay for. Throughout the 1930s, gum sales had staying power. By the end of the decade, Americans were spending about $4.5 million per year on Dubble Bubble. The gum was so popular it was distributed as part of military rations at the outset of the war.
By 1942, the government tightened rationing of sugar and latex, bringing production of bubble gum to an end until after the war.
When Fleer began making the gum again, it regained its popularity. For a number of years, Dubble Bubble had the bubble gum market to itself. Then in 1947, the Topps Company came out with Bazooka bubble gum.
Gum Marketing Through the Years
In 1930 the Fleer Company changed the gum-wrapping process, inserting a funny paper within the gum wrapping. Dub and Bub, the Dubble Bubble twins, were the first stars of the Fleer Funnies. In addition to Dub and Bub, customers also received Fleer Fortunes and Dubble Bubble facts on the tiny piece of waxy paper.
At some point during the 1930s, Fleer dropped Dub and Bub and replaced them with stick people comics. In about 1950, a character named Pud and his neighborhood gang replaced the stick characters. By the 1960s Fleer was still relying on Pud but in an attempt to modernize, the cartoonists slimmed him down.
What Happened to Walter Diemer and the Fleer Company?
Diemer became a senior vice president at the Fleer Company and was also put on the board of directors. He stayed with the company for the rest of his career, retiring in 1970, but remaining on the board for a few more years.
As for the Fleer Corporation, the Philadelphia factory was closed in 1995, and the family put the company on the market. In 1998 Concord Confections purchased the candy division of the company. Concord picked up production of most of the original products and added a bubble gum ball that sold well.
In 2004 the Tootsie Roll company bought Concord. Dubble Bubble continues to be manufactured–two of the three plants are now in Canada.