Arctic Gum Drop Fiasco

May 21, 2010 at 8:28 am Leave a comment

It’s 1907. The intrepid  Dr. Frederick Cook, a Brooklyn physician, has set sail for parts north. He promises to reach the North Pole or perish in the attempt. He returns on September 1, 1909, claiming to have reached the pole in April 1908.

As the newspapers reported on Cook’s account of his adventure, as well as the increasingly loud accusations of fraud, Cook’s supporters and backers endeavored to defend and account for his success.

His financial backer, Mr. John Bradley of Brooklyn, explained that Cook was prepared and equipped for the most rigorous challenges of the journey. “This was no intensified joy ride undertaken on nerve,” he told the Washington Post two days after Cook’s return. “Every imaginable contingency had been provided for.” That meant 5,000 gallons of gasoline. And two barrels of gum drops.

Gum drops? Mr. Bradley explained: “An Eskimo will travel thirty miles to get a gum drop, for his is the sweetest tooth in the world.”

Cook was already something of a curiosity. He had previously claimed to be the first to scale Mount McKinley in 1906. To some, Cook’s account of reaching the North Pole, particularly the timing of his arrival and the time it took him to get back to Greenland, seemed highly unlikely. Meanwhile, a rival for the claim to “first to the pole” had emerged, Robert Peary, who claimed to have reached the pole in April 1909 and who went about doing everything he could to discredit Cook, including circulating the charge that his claim to Mount McKinley was also false.

Robert Edwin Peary (1856-

Unfortunately, the gum drop story didn’t really help Cook’s credibility. Here comes this big explorer hero, and his secret weapon is…gum drops? The newspapers began publishing all kinds of fanciful accounts of how Cook reached the pole by bribing Eskimos with rations of gum drops. Worse, sketches began to appear depicting Cook dangling gum drops on strings over the mouths of Eskimos in the hopes that they would lead him to the pole as they chased the beloved gum drop.

Poor Cook was besieged. Candy store windows were filled with mounds of “Cook’s Gum Drops.” When he arrived in a new city on his national lecture tour, gum drop manufacturers would deluge him with hundreds of pounds of the candies to welcome him.

The Saturday Evening Post published a full-length dramatic parody of the Cook expedition under the title “A Typical American Drama of the Present Day in Several Acts.”  Captain Cook, or “Look” in this version, is an easy target: vain, self-important, and clueless:

An Eskimo quartet, crawling out of the igloos, comes down stage and sings a touching ballad: Give me a gumdrop, mother, only a single drop, for that last bit of blubber is sticking in  my crop. Chorus by Eskimo women and children, dogs assisting. Mother appears and explains she hasn’t a gumdrop to her name, and, being an ancient crone, isn’t very well provided with gums, either. Loud lamentations by the Eskimos. They must have gumdrops or they perish. Sympathetic vibrations by the aurora borealis. It looks as if this flourishing Eskimo village is done for. But ha! what is that yonder, rounding the headland? A ship! A ship!

[The explorer arrives, stern and sturdy but needing a shave, clad in fur, in the bow of the ship. ]

“Look!” shout the Eskimos, pointing at the stern and sturdy figure.

“You are right,” the stern and sturdy figure says, “I am Look,” and turning to his hardy crew, continues, “Even here in this remote and gelid corner of the world they knew me. Stir yourselves, my gallant men, and look alive. Broach a cask of gumdrops and distribute them carefully to these guileless and innocent children of the Frozen North, taking in exchange all the furs and ivory they have, while I relieve my surcharged feelings in song.”

Sings “My Whiskers Have Grown Very Long Since I Saw Dear Brooklyn Last.”

The Cook-Peary controversy gripped America’s attention for the next year or two, but Cook seems to have gotten the worst of it. By December 1910, he was complaining loudly to anyone who would listen: “I never heard the gum drop yarn until I came to New York.” According to Cook, it was not his expedition that was a fake, but rather the whole wacky gum drop story: “We took no gum drops with us on our polar trip. And to my knowledge no Eskimo ever ate a gum drop while with  me.”

Cook really wasn’t the only one who suffered in this account. The stereotypical and gently offensive image of Eskimo gum drop lovers played into American ideas of their own superiority. The Eskimos in these tales appear infantile and gullible in their love of the childish gum drop.

It might not have been gum drops, but it was in fact true that the Inuit peoples of the Arctic, having survived on a traditional diet of fish and seal for so many millennia, were suddenly being exposed to food stuffs previously unknown. In the report of a 1892 expedition to Barrow Point, Captain J. Murdoch wrote that the Barrow Eskimos had “acquired a fondness for many kinds of civilized foods, especially bread of any kind, flour, sugar and molasses.” These novelties would displace the ideal nutrition of their traditional diet with empty carbohydrates, and suddenly the Eskimos had gained not only sugar and molasses, but also heart disease, diabetes, and new cancers.

Sources: “Take  Cook’s Word,” Washington Post 3 Sept 1909; Samuel G. Blythe, “A Typical American Drama of the Present Day in Several Acts” Saturday Evening Post 16 Oct 1909; “Brands Gum Drop Yarn a Fake,” Washington Post 21 Dec 1910. For a fuller account of the Cook-Peary pole controversy, see Wikipedia entry on Frederick Cook at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frederick_Cook. Cook image from wikipedia; Le Petit Journal cartoon from PicApp.com. On the introduction of refined carbohydrates into traditional diets and the resulting “diseases of civilization,” see Gary Taubes, Good Calories, Bad Calories 89-99.

Entry filed under: 1890 to WW I, Candy Humor, Heroes and Personalities. Tags: .

Sugar and Snow: Jeri Quinzio and Eskimo Pies News Brief: Beckett Eats Pop Rocks

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Candy: A Century of Panic and Pleasure

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Candy in American Culture What is it about candy? Here you'll find the forgotten, the strange, the curious, the surprising. Our candy story, one post at a time.

Samira Kawash, PhD
Professor Emerita,
Rutgers University

(C) Samira Kawash

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