Chopping and chewing: Q&A with Jennifer Mathews

The author of Chicle: The Chewing Gum of the Americas, from the Ancient Maya to William Wrigley answers questions about gum use over the ages and the magnates who built fortunes upon it

IN YOUR introduction you say that Chicle is an 11,000-year overview of chewing gum. How did you tackle such a comprehensive project? What got you interested?

JM – As an archaeologist, I’m drawn to stories that span an extensive amount of time. I first became interested in chicle when I was studying the ancient Maya roads that crisscross the jungles of Yucatán. What we realized when we were mapping these old roads was that the chicle industry placed their miniature railroads (known as Decauville railroads – think “large-scale train set”) on top of the ancient road beds, and used them to haul bricks of raw chicle and valuable hardwoods like mahogany between their jungle camps. I started mapping these rail systems and would frequently run into some of the older men still living in the area that had worked in chicle up to the 1970s. They were curious that anyone would be interested in their stories, but were happy to share them. I soon realized that there was a really colorful history to tell. I started with a book chapter on the railroads and before I knew it, I was writing a book on a history of chewing gum that goes back even further than the Aztec and Maya.

Many people think that rules about gumchewing have a basis in contemporary society. How did the Aztecs view chicle?

JM – The Aztecs had very strict social norms, which thankfully are documented in an amazing resource known as the Florentine Codex. This is a series of 12 books that was written under the supervision of Spanish friar known as Bernadino de Sahagún starting in 1540. In it, he noted what “good” and “bad” people did in society. “Bad” people included men and married women that chewed gum in public – only children and old women were allowed to get away with this shameful behavior. The book even notes that prostitutes could be identified by their heavy perfume and the sound of “clacking” their gum like castanets. Men and women who failed to follow these social norms were socially ostracized as “whores” or “sodomites” in an attempt to discourage this behavior. Four hundred years later, Emily Post was saying much the same thing – proper young ladies, for example, should never chew gum in public because “. . . watching someone chew gum is, as older generations say, ‘like watching a cow chew its cud.” Yet, it was still sold in the public marketplace because the Aztecs knew it served a practical purpose of cleaning teeth and freshening breath – they just didn’t want people to actually use it in front of anyone.

Can you tell us about chewing gum and manners? Emily Post refused to mention it in her etiquette books for nearly 25 years . . . any interesting anecdotes you discovered while doing your research?

JM – Yes, I found out that gum chewing has been viewed as a terrible habit that Americans were imposing around the world for more than a hundred years. For example, in 1898 a British newspaper reported that health officials were issuing warnings against “American chewing gum,” which was considered even more dangerous than Italian ice cream. Leon Trotsky, the Bolshevik revolutionary, commented that chewing gum was a way for capitalism to keep the working man from thinking too much – “With an automatic movement of the hand the people extract from these automats pieces of sweetish gum, and they grind it with the automatic chewing of their jaws . . . It looks like a religious rite, like some silent prayer to God-Capital.” Additionally, in 1950s movies in the United States, gum was regularly used as a prop to identify lowly characters such as carhops, gangsters, and prostitutes, while the lead characters were never seen chewing it.

What is chicle latex, where does it come from?

JM – In general, latex is produced by plants to form a protective seal when they are cut or bitten into. Chicle latex comes from the sapodilla or chicozapote tree (Manilkara sapota), and is a milky white emulsion.

Where does the sapodilla tree grow? Chicle is in the bark, right? Can it be extracted from the leaves too?

JM – The sapodilla is a slow-growing evergreen native to the forests of Mesoamerica, including the Mexican states of Veracruz, Oaxaca, Chiapas, Quintana Roo, and Campeche, the Alta Verapaz and Petén regions of Guatemala, northern Belize, and the Atlantic coastal forests of Nicaragua.

Chicle is collected from the tree by cutting into the bark, much like rubber, which causes the tree to secrete it and it runs down the trunk. And yes, it can also be extracted from the leaves. When plucked from a branch, the leaves will produce a small amount of latex as a way of protecting the tree from damage by insects or herbivores. This characteristic encouraged the chicle industry to make a minor attempt to increase yields in the 1930s by extracting latex from the leaves, but they produced so little that the experiment was abandoned.

Older sapodilla trees are recognizable from the zig-zag marks that were made to extract chicle – does the bark grow back eventually or are the scars permanent? How many times can you extract latex from one particular tree?

JM – The scars are permanent to the tree. Chicleros, or the extractors, generally mark trees with their own unique symbol so that they can keep track of when a tree was last tapped. Preferably, the trees were left untouched for five years between cuttings to ensure that they would continue to produce latex.

Was spruce gum the original chewing gum in North America? It had a bitter aftertaste, correct? When did spruce gum disappear and why?

JM – Yes, in North America, Native American Indians and Inuit have used gum from the spruce tree to waterproof canoes as well as for chewing. When European settlers came to New England, they adopted the indigenous custom of chewing on spruce tree resin. A New Englander by the name of John Curtis capitalized on the popularity of chewing resin and in 1848 invented the first commercial spruce tree gum called the State of Maine Pure Spruce Gum. Other imitators soon followed, which in addition to the increased demand for spruce wood pulp needed for making newspapers, caused the resin reserves to shrink. Another disadvantage to spruce gum was that although it was aromatic, the resin had a bitter aftertaste and became brittle after being chewed. By the 1920s there was only one producer of spruce gum left – Harry Davis, the self-proclaimed “Spruce Gum King”, who catered to older customers who wanted to chew their childhood gum. In the place of spruce gum, other small-scale producers prepared gums from ingredients such as beeswax, paraffin, and saps from the cherry and tamarack trees – and of course chicle, which came about in the 1870s through an inadvertent connection between a New York family by the name of Adams and the exiled former president of Mexico, Antonio López de Santa Anna.

The chewing gum industry has created “several US millionaires and thousands of jobs across the Americas . . .” Really? All for gum? Can you talk about some of the major players in the industry over the years? Who will we get to meet in Chicle?

JM – The inventor of chicle-based chewing gum was Thomas Adams. Thomas Adams Sr. was born in New York City in 1818 and lived in the region until he died in 1905. After his career as a Civil War photographer, he tried his hand as an inventor, creating a new kind of horse feed bag and a burner for kerosene lamps. Eventually he opened a successful store in Staten Island as a glass merchant. Accounts indicate that he continued working on inventions in his spare time and that starting in 1866 his sons John, Thomas Jr., and Horatio assisted him in early experiments with using chicle as a new kind of rubber substitute. All scholars seem to agree that the first chicle resin they used was obtained from the ex-president of Mexico, Antonio Lopéz de Santa Ana. When Santa Anna arrived to New York he found out that he thought he had arrived to help organize an expedition against the Napoleon III-backed leader Maximilian, then emperor of Mexico. However, in reality, he had been duped into a ploy to cover the costs of a 40,000-peso boat trip to the United States and was broke. By chance, Santa Ana’s personal secretary and interpreter had befriended Thomas Adams Sr. and after learning that he was an amateur inventor showed him a piece of chicle that his boss had given him. Santa Anna gave Adams a supply of chicle that had brought this with him from Mexico, in the hopes that he would be able to develop chicle as an alternative to rubber. If successful, it would have brought Adams and Santa Anna great riches and funded Santa Anna’s return to power in Mexico. However, after several unsuccessful attempts, Santa Anna lost interest, and he returned to Mexico impoverished, and unaware that the chicle latex he had left behind would change US history.

The best known figure in the chewing gum industry is of course William Wrigley Jr. (1861–1932). The oldest of nine children and the son of a soap salesman, he ran away at age of 11 from his home in Philadelphia to sell newspapers in New York City for two years. After being expelled from school when he returned home, he convinced his father to allow him to become a traveling soap salesman. Eventually, he moved to Chicago to open up a new branch of his father’s soap company where he came up with the innovative idea to provide “premiums” to vendors with the purchase of certain amounts of soap. When he started giving away spruce and paraffin chewing gum with soap purchases, he quickly realized that the gum was more popular than the soap itself. He decided to go into the chewing gum business and produced gums such as Wrigley’s Spearmint, and Juicy Fruit. He founded the fledgling William Wrigley Jr. Company in 1898 and decided that advertisements were the key to keeping his business afloat. Apparently it worked when he sent a package of four sticks of spearmint chewing gum to all of the 1.5 million people listed in the US phone book, and created a chain of 117 billboards in the shape of gum wrappers that ran for a half mile along the Trenton-Atlantic City railway in New Jersey. His personal estate was valued at $150 million and included large mansions across the United States, ownership of most of Catalina Island off the southern coast of California, as well as controlling interest of the Chicago Cubs baseball team. When he died he was one of the most influential and affluent men in the United States.

The natural gum industry was pushed aside for the production of synthetic chewing gum – when did this happen? Why? Would you say that natural gum is making a comeback? How?

JM – Chicle supplies became strained as the popularity of chewing gum spread during World War II. The military had been including chewing gum in the rations and soldiers since World War I, consequently spreading the habit around the world. By the 1940s, extractors were over-tapping the sapodilla trees to meet the increased demand, and trees were dying off. This was compounded by the fact that the US had greatly increased import taxes for bring in raw chicle latex from Latin America and US companies began looking for lower-cost synthetics.

I would say that natural chewing gum is making a minor comeback. Currently there are two companies making chicle – one is a US based company known as Verve, Inc, the maker of Glee Gum, and the other is Chicza, a Mexican based company that is exporting primarily to Europe and Asia. Both are “boutique” companies that are selling to a small audience that seeks out natural products that pay workers a living wage.

Historically chicle was chewed naturally – no sugar, additives, etc – when did this change? Was the change responsible for increased sales?

JM – When Thomas Adams invented the first chicle-based chewing gum in 1859, it was sold in the form of small gray hand-rolled balls with no added flavor. They later created mold-based gum with added sugar and flavoring, and their sales increased dramatically. William J. White, the inventor of “Yucatan” gum was the first to add peppermint-flavoring and William Wrigley added spearmint flavor, and all three became “chewing gum kings” of the industry.

How did the production of gum in North America impact chicle producing countries, including Belize, Mexico, and Guatemala?

JM – Chicle was a blessing and a curse for countries like Belize, Mexico and Guatemala. While it became a major employer for these countries for about a 100-year period, workers in the chicle industry Mexico became highly dependent on North American corporations buying their product, and fluctuations in the prices and rate of purchases had a huge impact on their country’s economies. Over the years, local Maya peoples were displaced when Mexico gave foreign chewing gum companies land grants, and laborers were relatively low-paid for dangerous work. The chicleros often lived within a system of debt servitude because the chicle extraction companies purchased all of their food, clothing and equipment and rarely made enough money to cover these costs. The nature of the industry also produced smugglers who snuck the raw latex across borders, as well as pirates who were raiding chicle from camps that were preparing to send the cargo to the United States. When the bottom fell out of the industry in the 1940s and 50s, it left a hole in the economies of these countries.

Most people think of baseball cards and gum . . . what about WWII and gum?

JM – Card collecting actually started in the 1870s when cigarette manufacturers included pictures of Civil War generals, flags, and ships, and then in 1886, baseball cards. During the 1930s, Bowman Gum issued the first chewing gum cards, which included a war series. During World War II the Topps Chewing Gum corporation released a number of card series, including plane spotter cards (to teach civilians how to identify enemy planes), the “Freedoms Wars,” world leaders and events, and flags of the United Nations. It wasn’t until 1952, that Topps issued baseball cards with its chewing gum.

Is it true that the gum sector is worth $19 billion annually?

JM – Yes, that’s true. The chewing gum industry has produced great fortunes. When William Wrigley III died in 1999, his estate was worth over $3 billion. Today, William Wrigley IV, great-grandson of the Wrigley chewing gum company founder, is consistently in the top fifty on the Forbes 400 list of richest Americans. Since 2006, the gum sector has grown 7 per cent over three years.

Tell us about the chicleros . . . the legends, the lives? Are chicleros respected, feared? What role do they play in history, archaeology?

JM – I think the chiclero has been greatly misunderstood. Most of the legends focus on a kind of wild and lawless life, much like the legends of the North American cowboy. Much of the chiclero workforce, particularly in Mexico, was made up of a mishmash of local Maya, former henequen workers including Koreans who had been sold off by an English slave trader, as well as migrants from Veracruz, the Caribbean islands, and Central America. They worked long days that started before dawn and lived in isolated camps in the jungle for months a time. They were frequently bit by snakes and disease-carrying insects, and frequently suffered from malaria and a disease known as chiclero’s ulcer, which when untreated, was something like leprosy and ate away at their skin. They experienced machete accidents and falls from trees, and the companies provided no medical care while they were out in the bush. The overall combination of poor working and living conditions frustrated chicleros, who had little recourse for negotiating with their employers other than through uprisings.

The chicle camps could be violent places, and there are numerous stories of chicleros engaging in machete fights and bodies being found outside of bars during the off season. Although many of the accounts of their behavior have likely been exaggerated, these fears were not totally unfounded. Before starting a tapping season, and after receiving pay advances, chicleros often went on drinking binges and spent much of their pay on drinks for themselves and their companions. Similarly, after long periods of remote living in the forest and conducting months of solitary, dangerous, and dulling work, chicleros might arrive in local towns with pockets full of money and a need to blow off steam. Public drunkenness and other disruptive behavior colored public opinion of chicleros, and they were seen as people to be avoided. However, many chicleros brought their wives and children, avoided trouble, and simply made their living in the solitude of the forest.

Chicleros were also naturalists, advisors, and guides to archaeologists. In general, they have an excellent working knowledge of forest plants and usually know names and the habits of wildlife, and can pinpoint water sources and other natural features such as caves. During their daily explorations for untapped sapodilla trees, chicleros came across numerous archaeological sites under the cover of the jungle. Archaeologists have taken advantage of this knowledge of the locations of ancient settlements and have hired them as guides for nearly a century. Some of the most important sites in the Maya world, including Bonampak with its famous murals, and Calakmul, which has more carved monuments than any other Maya site, were found with the aid of chicleros. Many archaeologists still use chiclero guides to help them search for sites in the jungle today.

What’s your all-time favorite gum?

JM – When I was a kid, I loved that super sweet Fruit Stripe gum – and of course blew endless bubbles with Dubble Bubble. Bob, the guy that ran the corner store in my neighborhood used to give us a free piece of Dubble Bubble whenever my best friend and I went in to buy candy, so I have fond memories of that. After writing this book, I’ve become a gum snob and I only chew “Glee Gum” – the only chicle-based chewing gum made in the US, although I still chew Wrigley’s spearmint in a pinch.

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