General Santa Anna Is Responsible For Modern Chewing Gum

By Debra Kelly on Thursday, June 19, 2014
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“It’s time to kick ass and chew bubble gum [. . .] and I’m all outta gum. ” —Duke Nukem, Duke Nukem 3D

In A Nutshell

While people have been chewing on rubbery resins for centuries, chewing gum in the form that we know it now is the direct result of actions of the most unlikely of inventors: exiled Mexican revolutionary General Santa Anna. After buying into a swindle and losing much of his money, the exiled general needed another source of income and a way to finance his next revolution. He thought that was going to be using a rubbery substance called chicle as a new type of material for tires, but instead, it took off in a different direction. Now, we buy it in the form of Chiclets.

The Whole Bushel

Mexico’s General Santa Anna is another historical icon that packed a lot of living into one life. A president of Mexico, he was also the general that gained most of his infamy when he led more than 1,500 men against American troops at the Alamo. People now certainly do remember the Alamo, but they’re less familiar with Santa Anna’s other contribution to today’s culture: chewing gum.

Santa Anna is something of a bizarre figure in his own right. Originally, he fought on the Spanish side in Mexico’s battle for independence from their European colonizers; eventually, he turned traitor and went to fight for the Mexicans. (His ancestry was proudly 100 percent Spanish, making him part of the upper crust.) He acted as president of a newly freed Mexico, but gave that up in order to return to a more military lifestyle—it was during this period in his life that he fought his legendary battle against the Alamo.

He was far from an unconditional Mexican favorite, though, and when he was finally captured by the American troops led by Sam Houston, he bartered for his own freedom by agreeing to tell his troops to back off. He signed away Texas in 1837, and enjoyed something of a complicated standing as he returned to Mexico, then eventually moved to—and through—Jamaica, Cuba, Colombia, and the West Indies.

It was in the West Indies that he was swindled into thinking that his presence had been requested in New York City, and that the Americans wanted him to help organize yet another Mexican revolution. It was only when he had already moved to New York, bought a house, hired staff, and spent most of his money that he realized that wasn’t the case at all.

So, he needed to find a way to keep himself on his feet and recoup all the losses he’d suffered.

He saw a way to do that in a man named Thomas Adams Sr. Adams was a part-time inventor and full-time shop owner, who was always on the lookout for the invention that would provide him with his great fortune and claim to fame.

They started to discuss a product that Santa Anna had brought with him, a rubber-like substance called chicle. A product of the sapodilla tree, chicle is a white milk that forms in the trunk of the tree and turns to a pink or brown rubbery substance after it’s extracted.

Originally, they planned on using it as a rubber substitute, but attempts to make products like tires and toys failed miserably. Santa Anna partnered with the American inventor, but soon grew disillusioned with his failed attempts and gave up on the whole endeavor. He ultimately returned to Mexico, where he died in poverty.

Adams, however, wasn’t about to give up. Instead of trying to manufacture something new out of it, he turned to using it as the natives of the Yucatan had done for centuries: He cut it into bite-sized pieces, wrapped it, and sold it as a candy. By 1871, he was able to mass-produce his candy, adding flavor to it in 1884. Other manufacturers—like Wrigley—soon jumped on board, cementing the commercial production of what had already been an unofficial fad for centuries.

Show Me The Proof

Encyclopedia Britannica: chicle (gum)
Chicle: The Chewing Gum of the Americas, by Jennifer P. Mathews
Encyclopedia of Junk Food and Fast Food, by Andrew F. Smith