How an exiled Mexican president accidentally invented chewing gum

Of all modern conveniences, we might think of chewing gum – a variety of which can be found at the checkout of any pharmacy – among the most mundane. But while chews have a timeless place in history, our modern perception of gum dates back to a strange meeting of minds on Staten Island between a glassmaker and a Mexican president in desperate exile.

General Antonio López de Santa Anna had quite a colorful biography before becoming the father of modern chewing gum. He fought the Spaniards and led the Mexican army in the fight for the country’s independence. He lost a leg in the Baking War with France (the amputated limb was buried with full military honors), but not before leading his country’s troops to capture the Alamo garrison and bayonet all prisoners survivors thereafter. (This brutality led to the battle cry “Remember the Alamo!”, which inspired the colonialist militia to finally win territory from Texas to Mexico.) A historically controversial figure, Santa Anna served as the eighth president of Mexico , returning to power. 11 times, more often as a dictator than as a democratically elected leader. And then, through a strange series of events involving a Colombian con man, he found himself in exile on Staten Island, where he helped invent the modern version of chewing gum.

At this week’s episode of Gastropod, Hosts Cynthia Graber and Nicola Twilley explore this sticky final chapter in the former Mexican leader’s life, recounting how Santa Anna’s ambition to create a new rubber empire actually brought chicle, a tree resin long chewed by the Mayans of Mexico, to the masses.

Antonio López de Santa Anna had not planned to end up in Staten Island. But after being overthrown in the Ayutla Revolution in the mid-1850s, he was forced into exile. Then, a Colombian revolutionary convinced Santa Anna that the support he needed to return to power was just a trip to New York and a few tens of thousands of pesos away. When it turned out to be nothing more than a scam, Santa Anna found herself penniless on Staten Island.

One thing Santa Anna put in her suitcase? A supply of chicle: the tasteless, rubbery sapodilla sapod, which, like many in Mexico, Santa Anna liked to chew. As part of a plan to raise funds for a return to Mexico and power, Santa Anna dreamed of turning this chicle into a new form of latex, in order to take advantage of the great rubber boom of the time. He enlisted Thomas Adams, a local inventor working as a glassmaker, and persuaded him to attempt to make chicle the next big thing in bicycle tires and airships.

For over a year Adams tried, but the chicle refused to vulcanize or harden enough to be useful as a rubber substitute. But, just when he was about to give up, Adams saw a little girl in a candy store ordering paraffin gum, one of the not particularly pleasant chew choices at the time. (The other option was spruce gum which as you will hear in the Gastropod episode, Cynthia and Nicky found quite repulsive.) Adams was inspired to create a better replacement. His first batch of flavorless chicle balls, released for sale in 1859, sold out quickly enough to persuade Adams that his future lay in gum.

Adams would go on to found the American Chicle Company, which would operate the largest chewing gum factory in the world at the time. The American Chicle Company is now owned by Cadbury, but some of the gummies that came out of it – like Dentyne and Chiclets – are still on the shelves today. And the chicle became the basis of a multi-billion dollar industry, at least until overexploitation led to the creation of the artificial gum bases we chew today. For more on this story and the surprising details about what we put between our teeth, as well as what happened to Santa Anna, what Emily Post had to say about chewing gum etiquette and why cities are spending millions of dollars cleaning sticky messes off city streets, listen to the latest episode.

Edward K. Thompson