June 16, 2009
Gum is one of those things we tend to take for granted. Whether we chew it or not, most of us deal with it on a daily basis. It’s the stuff kids smack and pop in public, or the secret weapon against garlic breath we keep stashed in our purses. It’s the goo that makes us grimace on sidewalks.
But have you ever thought about where it comes from?
Mayan archaeologist Jennifer P. Mathews has thought about it so much that she’s written an entire book on the subject: “Chicle: The Chewing Gum of the Americas, from the Ancient Maya to William Wrigley,” published last month.
As Mathews explains, chewing gum has been around on this continent for hundreds of years in the form of chicle, a resin extracted from the sapodilla tree in southern Mexico and Central America. The resin is the tree’s equivalent of a natural Band-aid, meant to form a protective layer over cuts in the bark. (Same principle as rubber—both are latexes.)
The Mayans and the Aztecs figured out a long time ago that by slicing the bark strategically, they could collect this resin and create a chewable substance from it. The Mayans cooked and dried it into “cha,” which Mathews says “quenched thirst and staved off hunger,” and the Aztecs recognized chicle’s function as a breath-freshener.
Interestingly, however, the Aztecs seemed to view public gum chewing as socially unacceptable for adults, especially men. Mathews quotes the observations of 16th-century Spanish missionary Bernardino de Sahagún:
“All the women who [are] unmarried chew chicle in public. One’s wife also chews chicle, but not in public…with it they dispel the bad odor of their mouths, or the bad smell of their teeth. Thus they chew chicle in order not to be detested.”
Sahagún goes on to reveal that adult women who dared to chew chicle in public were viewed as harlots, while men who did so were “effeminates.” (I’m sure major-league baseball players would love to hear that!)
Of course, as Mathews notes, the Mayans and Aztecs weren’t the earliest cultures in the world to chew gum. Pliny the Elder wrote about a plant-derived substance called mastich chewed (or masticated, as it were) by the ancient Greeks, and archaeological evidence suggests that chewing birch-bark tar was popular with Scandinavian young people thousands of years ago. Northern Native American cultures chewed spruce tree resin, and European settlers picked up the habit and capitalized on it.
But none of those things are the ubiquitous chewing gum we know today. That goes back to chicle again, and an American inventor named Thomas Adams Sr., who somehow (the history is murky) got a supply of chicle through a connection to an exiled Mexican president, General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. Adams and his sons first tried to vulcanize the chicle into a useful industrial substance, like rubber, but eventually hit on a better idea—boiling and hand-rolling it into pieces of chewing gum.
“They sold out their first batch at the local drugstore in hours and decided to go into the manufacturing business,” Mathews writes. “By the late 1880s, Adams gum was sold widely…They produced five tons of chewing gum daily.”
Around the same time, a young soap salesman named William Wrigley came up with a smart marketing gimmick: His company would give free chewing gum to vendors who placed large soap orders. When he realized that “the gum was more popular than the soap itself,” he switched careers. It took several false starts and a massive advertising campaign before the William Wrigley Jr. Company really took off, but by the time he died in 1932, Wrigley was one of the richest men in the nation.
The average American chewed 105 sticks of gum a year by the 1920s, creating a massive demand for chicle. As the fortunes of Adams, Wrigley and other chewing gum magnates surged, many Latin American communities would soon pay the price:
“Workers in Mexico, Guatemala and Belize became highly dependent on North American corporations buying their product, and fluctuations in the prices and rate of purchases had a huge impact on their countries’ economies. This unsustainable industry set into motion another so-called collapse of Maya civilization that continues to have an effect today.”
As is often the case, human appetites outmatched nature’s resources. Unsustainable harvesting methods used to increase yields killed at least a quarter of Mexico’s sapodilla trees by the mid-1930s, and scientists predicted total forest depletion within four decades. Fortunately for the trees (but unfortunately for Latin American economies), chewing gum manufacturers soon began switching to cheaper, synthetic bases made from petroleum, wax and other substances. By 1980, the United States was no longer importing any chicle from Mexico.
But chicle may be staging a small comeback. In Britain this year, a small Mexican company called Chicza just launched what it is marketing as “the world’s first biodegradable chewing gum.” Has anyone spotted a product like this in the United States yet? If not, I expect to see it soon.
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