“Chew Chew Chew Chew Your Bubble Gum:” The sweet old times of O-Pee-Chee Gum Company Limited of London, Ontario

A typical advertisement for a product offered by O-Pee-Chee Gum Company of London, Ontario. Anon., “O-Pee-Chee Gum Company.” The Aylmer Express, 6 June 1912, 5.

I have a favour to ask, my reading friend. Would you be willing to entertain the possibility of accepting a well-known if defunct Canadian confectionery company as a worthwhile topic under our agriculture and food heading?

Much obliged.

You will of course have noted that today’s illustration was / is brought to us by The Aylmer Express, a newspaper which still existed as of 2022. Even though that particular name made its appearance in that small Ontario town located near Ottawa, Ontario, in January 1880, that weekly newspaper can trace its origins back to the The Aylmer Enterprise, a weekly founded in September 1869, but back to our topic of the week, a well-known if defunct Canadian confectionery company.

Our story began with two brothers, Duncan Hugh “D.H.” McDermid and John McKinnon “J.K.” McDermid, who were respectively born in June 1865 and March 1867, seemingly on a farm in Janetville, near Lindsay, Ontario.

At some point in the 1880s or 1890s, the McDermids moved to London, Ontario, where they found employment in various businesses. John McKinnon McDermid worked as a clerk in a shoe store, then as a bookkeeper in a wholesale grocery store for example.

In 1897, the McDermids joined the staff of C.R. Somerville Company of London, a firm which manufactured a variety of items, like boxes, chewing gum, novelties and popcorn. When the firm’s owner fell ill soon after, the McDermids stepped in as interim managers. Charles Ross Somerville was seemingly satisfied with their efforts and kept them close to him.

In 1908, Somerville sold C.R. Somerville to an American chewing gum giant. Soon after, American Chicle Company moved what was good and useful for chewing gum production to Toronto, Ontario, where it operated a poorly known subsidiary by the name of S.T. Britten & Company.

Incidentally, a cofounder of American Chicle, in 1899, was an 81-year-old American inventor and photographer during the American Civil War. Thomas Adams was / is one of the founding fathers of the chewing gum industry. His involvement began in the 1850s, while helping exiled Mexican president Antonio de Padua María Severino López de Santa Anna y Pérez de Lebrón to interest American businessmen in the use of a sweet natural gum produced by Mesoamerican trees in… buggy tires. After failing to turn chicle into a rubber substitute, Adams changed tack and invented chewing gum, in 1859 or so, I think.

Well, actually, he did no such thing. You see, countless people in Mesoamerica had been chewing chicle for centuries by the time Adams had his lightbulb moment – and became very wealthy indeed. It is also worth noting that spruce tree resin-based and paraffin-based chewing gums (Yuk!) were commercialised in the United States around 1848-50, by John Bacon Curtis, the true inventor of chewing gum, I think. But I digress. Back to the McDermid brothers.

Confident they could run C.R. Somerville’s cardboard box division / department, the McDermids began to run it, presumably with the blessing of Somerville. Indeed, they purchased Somerville Paper Box & Printing Company Limited in 1910.

In March 1911, the McDermids launched O-Pee-Chee Gum Company in order to produce, well, chewing gum. The new firm’s Gipsy chewing gum would soon become famous.

Incidentally, opichi is an Ojibwe word which means a robin. In turn, the Ojibwe are an Anishinaabe people currently living in Canada and the United States.

It has been claimed that the word o-pee-chee can be found in the 1855 epic poem The Song of Hiawatha by American poet and educator Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Yours truly looked and looked but could not find o-pee-chee, or opichi for that matter, anywhere in that poem. And yes, Longfellow was mentioned in a December 2021 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee. Ours is really an interconnected world, is it not?

Mind you, it has also been suggested that the name O-Pee-Chee was derived from the expression Oh, peachy! which might have been used by young people around 1910, but I digress.

In 1921, the McDermids sold O-Pee-Chee Gum to a trust in order to incorporate their baby as O-Pee-Chee Company Limited, a firm which was from then on controlled by members of the family. At the time, the firm produced chewing gum, mints and several types of popcorn.

By the second half of the 1920s, O-Pee-Chee’s bubble gum had created enough interest in the United Kingdom to justify the construction of a new plant on Canadian soil, completed in 1928. Said plant contained some of the most modern chewing / bubble gum and candy making equipment on planet Earth.

The Second World War imposed a great many changes on O-Pee-Chee and staff. Many young men who worked there joined the colours, for example. In 1942, Canadians were also introduced to the joys of food rationing. The federal government launched its rationing efforts with sugar, but soon also included in said efforts things like tea, meat, coffee, butter and alcohol.

For O-Pee-Chee, the rationing of sugar proved rather problematic. It could only produce limited amount of bubble gum. Indeed, O-Pee-Chee pretty much had to reinvent itself, as a producer of dried / powdered eggs destined for the British market. The depredations of German submarines meant that a great many shipments never made it to their destination, however. Up to 36 000 merchants sailors perished at sea between 1939 and 1945.

Incidentally, in late August or early September 1944, Willard Garfield Weston, the head of Canadian bread and cookie giant George Weston Limited of Toronto and quite a few other firms, including E.B. Eddy Company Limited of Hull, Québec, a pulp and paper company also known for its matches, acquired Somerville Paper Box Limited, as this firm was seemingly known by then.

You may be pleased, or not, to hear (read?) that George Weston was mentioned in June 2021 and March 2022 issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee.

Sadly enough, the president of O-Pee-Chee, John McKinnon McDermid died in October 1945. He was 78 years old. His brother, Duncan Hugh McDermid, had died in December 1942, at the age of 77.

The son of the former, John Gordon McDermid, became president of O-Pee-Chee in 1945 or 1946. Sadly enough, he died in 1953, at the age of 49.

The mantel of presidentship then fell on the shoulders of a long-time member of the managerial team. That individual, Frank P. Leahy, bought O-Pee-Chee from the McDermid estate in 1961.

Leahy was said / known to be very secretive – and quite wealthy. The bubble gum king of Canada, as he was sometimes / often called, had no problem telling journalists looking for information that, O-Pee-Chee being a privately-owned firm, they would be told very little about what was in all likelihood the largest firm of its type in the country.

Leahy was so concerned about competitors trying to steal some of O-Pee-Chee’s secrets that the recipe and ingredients of the bubble gum was known only to 4 highly trustworthy people beside himself. Here is the list of said ingredients: A2, E96, LL50, T22, T33, T45 and W32. Are we seeing the light, my reading friend?

It is worth noting at this stage of our peroration that some / many products by O-Pee-Chee had not been designed in house. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, for example, the firm signed licensing agreements with a pair of American firms. Products made in the plants of the latter were soon made in O-Pee-Chee’s facilities. These new products substantially increased the sales volume of the Canadian firm.

A case in point was seemingly Bazooka bubble gum, a well-known product launched in 1947 by an American firm, Topps Chewing Gum Incorporated, and launched in Canada at an unknown point in time. Yours truly remembers Bazooka bubble gum, and the character whose adventures could be found in small comic strips inserted inside each package. Do you remember Bazooka Joe, my reading friend? I do. I owe a sizeable percentage of the dental composite resin in my mouth to my love of sugar a long loong time ago.

Bazooka bubble gum was seemingly named after the M1 portable anti-tank rocket launcher developed in the United States during the Second World War. Now, did you know that the bazooka was / is also a musical instrument, invented around 1905 by future radio and film personality Robin “Bob / Robbie” Burns, when he was about 15 years old? He would play variants of that instrument for many years, but I digress. Ley us digress a tad more by adding that Burns was mentioned in an April 2020 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee.

Besides the sugar rush, a reason young and not so young Homo sapiens spent / spend inordinate amounts of money buying bubble gums had / has to do with an increasingly significant aspect of the history of O-Pee-Chee I would like to broach with you. Yours truly is of course referring to the trading / collectable cards found in packages of bubble gum and countless other products. Such cards were not invented by O-Pee-Chee, of course. They had made their appearance in the United States and United Kingdon in the late 1880s or early 1890s.

That trading card aspect of the history of O-Pee-Chee owes its origins to the Great Depression, a period during which O-Pee-Chee’s books consistently showed a lot of red. The firm’s first card sets, close to 15, came out in the 1930s, a decade which ended in 1940 of course, including 7 hockey card sets, 2 baseball card sets and 1 military card set.

Being the wing nut that I am, the latter piqued my curiosity. Sorry. O-Pee-Chee’s 1939 Fighting Forces set was comprised of 48 cards printed in Canada. Each card had an 18 or so line text in English, with an additional 3 or so lines of text in French at the bottom. Sixteen of the cards made up the Airplanes subset, the largest one after the Ships (12 cards) and Miscellaneous (8 cards) subsets. Oddly enough, the Airplanes subset was the one to contain civilian items, 3 of them in all. Only one of the 48 cards in the Fighting Forces set seemed to show a Canadian machine, in this case an elderly Vickers Vedette forestry patrol / utility flying boat of the Royal Canadian Air Force. The choice of aircraft was quite interesting, if not exotic, by the way, with machines in the colours of no less than 15 countries.

Even though additional sets came out in the 1940s, one could argue that O-Pee-Chee got into the trading card game only around 1957-58 when it entered into a marketing agreement with Topps Chewing Gum to develop sets of entertainment and sport cards, with an emphasis on a trio of sports, baseball, football and hockey. You remember that American firm, do you not? Bazooka Joe? Sigh… You have the attention span of a flea, my reading friend. But then, so do I.

Initially, it looked as if Topps Chewing Gum printed and produced the cards which were then shipped to O-Pee-Chee’s facility for packaging with the bubble gum. The Canadian firm began to print and produce at least some of its cards in 1961. This being said (typed?), Topps Chewing Gum may, I repeat may, have designed at least some of these sets.

In the early 1960s, when Beatlemania swept North America, the… Err, you do know what the word Beatlemania means, do you not? Good. In the early 1960s, when Beatlemania swept North America, the word appearing in American and Canadian newspapers no later than September 1961 (United States), October 1963 (Canada – English) and February 1964 (Canada – French) respectively, O-Pee-Chee bought the rights to manufacture and market Beatles bubble gum cards for the Canadian market. Its sets, 64 cards in colour and 165 cards in black and white produced in 3 series, came out in 1964.

You will of course remember, my reading friend, that a famous Beatles song was / is entitled When I’m Sixty Four. Released in 1967, it was actually written in… 1956, by James Paul McCartney, who was 13 or 14 (!) at the time, but I digress.

It is worth noting that O-Pee-Chee and Topps Chewing Gum developed their first annual sets of hockey trading cards more or less in parallel from 1968 onward. Bilingual texts began could be found on each O-Pee-Chee card. Incidentally, bilingual texts also began to appear on O-Pee-Chee’s baseball cards in 1970, a few years after sets of baseball cards became a yearly thing.

Yours truly will not bore you with detailed date on each set or subset.

You are most welcome.

I will point out, however, that O-Pee-Chee produced a variety of sets for quite a few American television series and motion pictures, from Alf to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

The one set of O-Pee-Chee trading cards that yours truly remembers was / is Man on the Moon, a set originally developed in 1969, by Topps Chewing Gum. That set contained 55 cards. Each of these had a space related photograph on the front and an element of a pair of photographic puzzles on the back. My complete set undoubtedly went bye bye at some point many years ago. Pity. It might be worth something in 2022.

Incidentally, Topps Chewing Gum released an updated, 99-card version of Man on the Moon in 1970.

Every aviation and space museum worth its salt should have one of these sets in their collection. Just sayin’.

A set of trading cards yours truly would have been interested in came out before I was born. Jets consisted of 240 cards issued in 1956 and no, jet aircraft were not the only type of flying machine represented in that set originally developed by Topps Chewing Gum. The only Canadian elements in the sets sold in Canada were presumably the bubble gum and the wrapper. This being said (typed?), yours truly counted 15 or so flying machines in that set which could be found in the collection of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum.

Yours truly will not bore you with the names of these 15 or so flying machines.

You are most welcome.

When Leahy died, in 1980, his son in law, Gary E. Koreen, bought O-Pee-Chee from his spouse.

As you may well imagine, the August 1994-April 1995 strike and October 1994-January 1995 lockout which brought to a halt to activities of Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League, hit O-Pee-Chee’s trading card business particularly hard. Indeed, the firm announced that it would leave that very business and refocus its efforts on candy. For some reason or other, the firm’s management later rescinded that decision.

In December 1996, Nestlé Canada Incorporated of North York, Ontario, a subsidiary of Nestlé Société anonyme, a multinational food and drink processing conglomerate headquartered in Switzerland, gobbled up O-Pee-Chee.

This being said (typed?), Koreen kept the O-Pee-Chee brand name alive in the hockey trading card collecting market through licences with Topps Company Incorporated, as that firm was now called, and, from 2006 onward, with another important American entity, Upper Deck Company, Limited Liability Company. As of 2021-22, hockey trading cards bearing the name O-Pee-Chee were still being produced.

Understandably enough, vintage O-Pee-Chee trading cards were / are very popular with collectors. Some of them can command surprisingly high prices indeed. At some point, good condition examples of the hockey players Howard William “Howie” Morenz (Montréal Canadiens) and Edward William “Eddie” Shore (Boston Bruins) cards from the 1933-34 National League Stars Series were said to have a book value of around $ 15 000. Each.

And if you think that is a lot of dough for a small piece of cardboard, let me tell you about the mint quality 1979-80 Wayne Douglas Gretzky card which sold for $ 1 290 000 (about $ 1 860 000 in 2022 Canadian currency) in December 2020. I kid you not. Back in August 2016, that same O-Pee-Chee card had sold for a measly $ 465 000 (about $ 725 000 in 2022 Canadian currency). In 2011, that card had sold for slightly more than… $ 94 000 (slightly less than $ 240 000 in 2022 Canadian currency). An increase in value of about 33.8 % per year. The mind boggles.

All three amounts may well have been world records at the time. Of course.

Countless people go to bed hungry each night, or die from easily preventable diseases, while other people blow $ 1 290 000 on a piece of carboard that fits inside a coat pocket. Let us move on before my cranium explodes.

If one is to believe the data on trading cards collecting websites, more 1 300 separate sets of trading cards bearing O-Pee-Chee’s name, including more than 1 100 sets of hockey trading cards, came out between the early 1930s and the early 2020s. Wow…

To conclude, as you must have guessed by now, there was / is no way on the Flying spaghetti monster’s green Earth that the Manilkara chicle trees growing on our planet could provide the gum needed for the gazillions of pieces of chewing gum produced on a yearly basis. With few exceptions, the chewing gum one can buy today is made from synthetic rubber. The industry had seemingly made the switch by the 1960s. A case in point, O-Pee-Chee made the switch before 1961. Bon appétit tout le monde!

This writer wishes to thank all the people who provided information. Any mistake contained in this article is my fault, not theirs.

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Rénald Fortier