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Chicle Gum A Truly American Chew


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

I quit smoking several years ago. I replaced cigarettes with two-milligram nicotine gum, unflavored. If I was a 16th century Aztec and chewed gum I might have been arrested. Depends, only children and old women were allowed to get away with this shameful behavior. I'm 57, so would I get a pass in an Aztec court?

Let's ask Jennifer Mathews. Together with Julian Schultz, she has written a new book about the 11,000-year history of gum. Published by the University of Arizona, it's called "Chicle." And Jennifer is in our New York bureau. Jennifer, could I still chew gum and hold my chin up in 1540s Mezzo-America?

Ms. JENNIFER MATHEWS (Author, "Chicle"): You could if you were doing in a private space. But if you were doing it in public space, you would probably be seen as a kind of prostitute really. It was a marker of prostitutes. They were talked about as clacking like castanets down by the marketplace.

HANSEN: Okay. Well, I want to continue with social moirés because there are many more of them. But describe briefly what chicle is.

Ms. MATHEWS: It's actually, it's a natural latex that is produced by the Sapodilla tree. And it's a protection that the tree produces so if an insect attacks it or if animals bite it or if a chiclero, somebody who extracts the chicle, takes a machete and cuts into it, then the latex oozes out of the tree to form a protective layer.

HANSEN: Now, there's a moment in history where the exiled Mexican president, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, and an amateur American inventor by the name of Thomas Adams met in New York, and chicle arrived in the United States. Did Adams and Santa Anna do anything with it?

Ms. MATHEWS: Santa Anna had been president 11 times and was exiled at the time when he was living in Staten Island and wanted to return to power. And so he was looking for somebody who could reinvent a new rubber substitute basically so that he could fund his return to the presidency. And had brought a store of chicle from Veracruz, and basically they worked for months trying to vulcanize it the way Charles Goodyear had the rubber and it simply didn't work.

And Santa Anna basically lost interest and ended up going back to Mexico penniless. What ultimately happened was Adams was really frustrated with the process as well and happened to go into a candy store and ran into a young girl who was ordering paraffin wax gum.

And he realized that kids loved the paraffin wax gum and that chicle was the perfect ingredient to make something along those lines.

HANSEN: William Wrigley enters the picture and he advances the cause of gum by adding flavor and sugar as well. Spearmint and Juicyfruit were his contributions. And they're lasting brands. What was his secret?

Ms. MATHEWS: Advertising. At one point, he sent a pack of chewing gum to every resident listed in the United States phone book.

HANSEN: You're kidding.


HANSEN: When did gum begin to no longer contain much chicle?

Ms. MATHEWS: That was after World War II. What had happened was William Wrigley convinced the United States Army that they should include chewing gum in the rations of every U.S. soldier. And at that point, there was such a demand on chewing gum because soldiers spread the habit around the world.

And he basically ran out of chicle. There was such a need for it that they needed to find a synthetic substitute. So, in the late 1940s he basically stopped importing the chicle latex from places like Guatemala and Mexico.

HANSEN: How big an industry is gum today?

Ms. MATHEWS: Chewing gum is a $19 billion industry today.

HANSEN: So, why…I mean, here you are. It's so popular on the one hand. I mean, we see the teenagers who chewed it in the movies and the socially acceptable moirés continue. The villains chewed gum and I assume the heroes smoked.

Ms. MATHEWS: Right.

HANSEN: And you had people like Leon Trotsky saying chewing gum was a way for capitalism to keep the working man from thinking too much.

Ms. MATHEWS: Right. It was really viewed negatively around the world. And in fact, in many places today it's still seen as, you know, basically Americans, people in the U.S., chewing their gum like cows.

HANSEN: It's a crime in Singapore, if I'm not mistaken.

Ms. MATHEWS: Yes, that is correct.

HANSEN: I'm sorry, but I'm still seduced by those pink pillows of bubblegum and I think it's a thrill to blow a bubble. What do you think?

Ms. MATHEWS: I'm a big chewing gum fan, but I have to say after writing this book I've become a bit of a gum snob. I had never really thought about what I was chewing and then I came across a chicle-based chewing gum. It's called Glee Gum, and it's about the only gum I chew anymore.

HANSEN: Jennifer P. Mathews is the co-author of "Chicle," published by the University of Arizona Press. She joined us from our New York bureau. Thanks a lot.

Ms. MATHEWS: Thank you, Liane.

(Soundbite of song, "Does Your Chewing Gum Lose It's Flavor Overnight")

Mr. LONNIE DONEGAN (Singer): (Singing) Does your chewing gum lose its flavor on the bedpost overnight? If your mother says don't chew it, do you swallow it in spite? And you catch it on your tonsil and you heave it left and right. Does your chewing gum lose its flavor on the bedpost overnight? It comes… Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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