Written by Serene Joshua, a second-year undergraduate student.
The history of chewing gum explained in 3 quick points
- It began with the Mayans and Aztecs who used to chew on resin
- The gum we chew today can be traced back to the US as early as 1848
- Chewing gum today is made from many materials, not just trees
Now let’s dive a bit deeper…
How did it all begin?
Let’s take it all the way back to two very popular civilizations – the Mayans and the Aztecs who existed in North America.
The Mayans and the Aztecs discovered that by piercing the bark of trees, they could gather this resin, a yellowish or brownish substance that is obtained from these gum or sap trees, and turn it into digestible material (something that can be eaten, that is).
The Aztecs knew that chicle (kind of a natural gum) served as a breath refresher, and the Mayans cooked and dried it.
“Chicle: The Chewing Gum of the Americas, from the Ancient Maya to William Wrigley,” by Jennifer P. Mathews, is an entire book devoted to the topic where she describes the evolution of chewing gum. Might be worth a read!
The Mayans cherished chicle chewing. However, they were not the only ones.
Ancient Greeks chewed mastic, a resin-like material produced by a tree found in southern Europe; the Scandinavians chewed birch sap; and primitive North Americans gnawed on spruce tree sap.
So, we see how Chicle and Resin were used as chewing gum for these civilizations.
How did chewing gum become so popular?
Okay, so early civilizations loved chewing resin, that makes sense! But what about the chewing gum we have today? That tastes nothing like resin…
Well, the chewing gum we have today had to go through a lot of changes before it became what it is.
This process began in the United States in 1848 with a man named John B Curtis. He created and distributed The State of Maine Pure Spruce Gum, the first chewing gum that could be sold. But, his name is not synonomous with chewing gum – it was another name that made it popular (read on….)
A few years after that, General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, a former president of Mexico, took chicle (gum made from the milky latex of the sapodilla tree), from Mexico to New York in the 1860s, where he offered it to Thomas Adams to use as an alternative for rubber.
Adams and his sons attempted to make the chicle into an industrially valuable substance, such as rubber but this didn’t exactly work. So, they ultimately came up with a smarter idea—boiling and hand-rolling it into pieces of chewing gum.
William Wrigley and chewing gum
Although William Wrigley – an American businessman – started selling gum in the 1890s, it wasn’t until the early 1900s that he really started to transform the market.‘
Here’s how he made chewing gum popular…
Wrigley used to sell high-end baking powder and soap. He believed that people always like something extra, so in order to draw attention to his product, he started to give away two packages of chewing gum with his baking soda.
The aha moment!
Wrigley soon realised that the chewing gum was more popular than baking soda. And that was how he turned his attention to selling chewing gums.
In fact, if you walk into a store today you can still see shelves stacked with Wrigley’s chewing gum. It’s quite popular!
FUN FACT: Did you know that American soldiers in the second world war were given chewing gum as part of their food portion while they were away at war? This helped them keep away hunger, moisten their mouth and make them less nervous.
So, do we still chew Chicle?
Chicle still exists, but gum manufacturers don’t really use it anymore due to various reasons.
The most important reason was that the Central American woods, which weren’t the best producers for widespread human use, began to suffer as a result of Wrigley’s and Adams’ popularity with their chicle-based chewing gum
Chewing gum producers soon started transitioning to less expensive, synthetic bases manufactured from petroleum, wax, and other materials, which is fortunate for the trees.
By 1980, Mexico’s chicle was no longer being imported into the United States.
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