How the Infamous Gum Girls Scandalized 1894 San Francisco

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A row of eight women dressed in matching uniforms of calve-length skirts, formal jackets, white shirts and ties, and petite caps.
The Gum Girls were considered scandalous attractions at the 1894 Midwinter Fair in Golden Gate Park. (OpenSFHistory / wnp37.01318)

In 1894, Golden Gate Park’s Midwinter Fair was the talk of the town. Featuring fairground rides, museums, an ostrich farm and the closest thing San Francisco ever got to an Eiffel Tower, the fair was a raging success with over two million visitors. There was just one element of the five-month exposition, however, that got visitors flustered and flabbergasted: the Gum Girls.

Hired to peddle chewing gum to the fair’s male clientele, the Gum Girls wore matching outfits, traveled in pairs, and were in the habit of whistling “Two Little Girls in Blue” any time they made a sale. Which was often. Chewing gum had only recently been transformed from its chicle-based roots into something fun and fruity. (The first fruit-flavored gum, Kis-Me, hit markets in 1886; Wrigley introduced Juicy Fruit just one year before the fair.) The song, penned by Charles Graham in 1893, became a near-constant refrain at the fair—particularly on the Midway, where the Gum Girls did most of their business.

As quaint as this all sounds, the Gum Girls were controversial figures from the very first day of the Midwinter Fair. For one, they flirted shamelessly with their male customers, largely motivated by the fact that they were working on commission. More scandalous still, they wore calf-length pleated skirts that exposed their ankles. That they also wore thick black stockings—meaning there was no bare flesh on display—did not quell the hullaballoo surrounding their revealing (by Victorian standards) attire.

One San Francisco Examiner reporter could barely conceal his ire while writing about the Gum Girls in April 1894. He did his best to denigrate the young women, implying they lacked grace and class.

The prevailing type of gum girl ranges in age from 25 to 40. Most of them are stout, with faces creased from experience. None of them are refined, of course ... They never wear gloves, but their hands are protected from the wind by quantities of rings. From their necks boxes of gum are strung by means of a strap. The boxes are always open and the gum girl is always patronizing her own wares. With wagging jaws and a stereotyped smile she gazes at each passer-by and invites almost every man to purchase.

The report continued disdainfully:

Everybody calls the gum girls by their first names. To say ‘Mrs’ or ‘Miss’ would seem very inappropriate and if you don’t know their given names and say Mamie or Lizzie at a venture you are almost certain to strike it right. Old patrons ask the gum girls how their children or grandchildren are, and these attempts at wit invariably bring out a flood of choice slang.

Two young women stand close together, the taller with her arm around the shorter. They wear matching uniforms of calve-length skirts, formal jackets, white shirts and ties, and petite caps.
A pair of Gum Girls in front of the Walter Baker Cocoa Building. (OpenSFHistory / wnp15.145)

Because the Gum Girls were routinely subjected to such disparagement, they found themselves on the receiving end of both verbal abuse and unwanted advances by men at the fair. (This was the primary reason they worked in pairs.) An incident on May 5, 1894, however, sent a loud and clear message to potential harassers all over the city.

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Gum Girl Violet Eilids was conducting a transaction one day, when the male customer reached over her gum box and started to “toy familiarly” with her necktie. Most displeased by the violation of her personal space, Eilids responded by punching the letch square in the face.

The next day, the San Francisco Chronicle reported:

Miss Violet Eilids, a late addition to the rank and file of the gum brigade, knows how to handle her fists in a scientific manner ... Doubling up her right, the girl planted a stiff, straight arm punch on the nose of her tormenter. He landed on his back among the [souvenir medal] machines, and now his nose is not as pretty as it used to be. The Gum Girl, who says she has taken boxing lessons from her brother, is now recognized as the champion of the brigade, which is thinking of taking an immediate course in the manly art as a means of self-protection.

Gum Girls' headquarters in Golden Gate Park, during the 1894 Midwinter Fair. (OpenSFHistory / wnp15.146)

The incident added to the Gum Girls’ infamy, but these thoroughly modern women continued their mission to keep visitors chewing right up to the end of the fair. For some, their boldness paid off with subsequent modeling and acting jobs. One named Marion Nolan—said by the San Francisco Examiner to be “the prettiest of the lot”—won a competition to be the face and body of a marble statue by sculptor Rupert Schmid. Nolan went on to marry a millionaire from Mexico City, became a San Francisco socialite, but was tragically gunned down by a stalker in 1909. Her likeness, captured in Schmid’s California Venus statue, lives on to this day at the Oakland Museum of California.

It would take 20 years after the Midwinter Fair for ankle-revealing skirts to hit the fashion mainstream. It also took that long for women who chewed gum in public to be seen as bold and independent, rather than simply unladylike. But for decades after they first strutted the paths of the Midwinter Fair, the Gum Girls’ reputations for being “bad girls” persisted by all who remembered them. Take, for example, this Dick Tracy newspaper cartoon from 1941.

Dick Tracy suspects a Gum Girl of criminal activity in a cartoon strip from Oct. 1941, published by the 'Salt Lake Tribune.'

Today, it’s easier to see the Gum Girls for what they really were: women bucking expectations and making their own money on their own terms. Most of all? They were simply ahead of their time.