Thursday, September 8, 2011

His Favorite Chew

Somewhere along the way most American school children study, briefly at least, the story of the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas. In the 1830s Mexican General Santa Ana, led his army against the garrison of Fort Alamo, killing all but two women and two children. It was a short lived victory for the general, and a few weeks later American forces defeated Santa Ana and declared Texas a part of the United States. General Santa Ana bargained for his life and was one of the few Mexican commanders not executed for war crimes. In 1845, the year that Texas became a state he was exiled from Mexico, entered the United States and settled in Staten Island, New York.

What we didn’t learn in school was that the general had a habit of chewing the milky sap of the sapodilla tree, common in the jungles of Mexico, and that when he went to Staten Island he took with him a large chunk of chicle. This tasteless resin was known to the Aztecs as chictli and was a great favorite of Santa Ana. Who could have guessed that the favorite “chew” of this exiled Mexican general would be the start of a huge American phenomenon?

On Staten Island, the former general introduced chicle to a local photographer and inventor, Thomas Adams who imported a large quantity of the gummy sap. He had an idea to convert the sap to an inexpensive synthetic rubber, but his plan failed. Impressed by the chicle-chewing enthusiasm of both his own young son and Santa Ana, Adams marketed the chicle as an alternative to the wads of paraffin popular at the time as chew. His first small tasteless balls of chicle went on sale in a Hoboken, New Jersey drugstore in 1871. It proved to be popular and was soon marketed in long, thin strips, notched so that a druggist could tear off a one penny strip.

The first flavored chicle was sold in 1875. It was flavored with balsam of tolú, a resin from the bark of a South American tree that was familiar in cough syrup of the time. This Taffy-Tolú gum spawned other flavors, and in 1880 came peppermint, soon the industry’s most popular. It wasn’t long before machines were installed on New York elevated train platforms to sell tutti-frutti gum balls. Modern processing, packaging and advertising made chewing gum ever more popular and spearheading it all was a former soap salesman, William Wrigley, Jr. Missing with his first two tries, Wrigley hit the jackpot in 1892 when he introduced Wrigley Spearmint, followed soon by Juicy Fruit. Both were soon America’s top-selling chewing gums.

The other side of the story is about Chiclets and bubble gum and begins with two brothers, Frank and Henry Fleer. Frank wanted to create a chewing gum that had a high surface tension and “snap-back” that could be blown into bubbles. This snap-back or elasticity is crucial; low snap-back and the bubble bursts over the chin and nose without contracting; high snap-back and most of the gum retreats to the lips. His first attempt was Blibber-Blubber Bubble Gum, which failed because it burst too soon and left a sticky mess on the chin. It took Frank until 1928 to the perfect his product, a bubble gum named Double Bubble. Meanwhile, brother Henry was working on a different challenge, a process of developing a white candy coating to encapsulate pellets of chicle. In 1910 the first Chiclets went on sale.

There were at one time censorious critics who saw chewing gum as a vice, and others who dreamed up notions of gum chewing endangering the salivary glands. One alarmed ‘expert’ announced, “By exhaustion of the salivary glands, gum puts many a foolish victim in the grave.” But these fears and criticisms held small sway against a cheap, flavorful and long-lasting morsel that exercises the muscles of the jaw and actually relieves facial tension.

What we see today is not the original taffy-like chicle of General Santa Ana, but a softer synthetic polymer. With the very unappetizing name of polyvinyl acetate, it is tasteless and odorless before being processed as chewing gum and Americans chew it at the rate of ten million pounds each year. As a part of the US Armed Forces’ field and combat rations soldiers consume chewing gum at five times the national average. Kind of seems fitting that the start of it all was a military general.


  1. What an interesting post today. I had no idea about the origin of chewing gum.

  2. Agree with Beverly. Who knew? And that Santa Ana settled in Staten Island. Think you should retitle the blog to Fascinating S**t You Didn't Know. And keep the info coming. If some of these things show up on Trivial Pursuit, your readers are way ahead in the game.


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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America