How Santa Anna's gift of chicle lead to modern chewing gum
November 9, 2019 9:20 AM   Subscribe

Antonio López de Santa Anna (Wikipedia) was a Mexican politician and general who fought to defend royalist New Spain and then fought for Mexican independence. He greatly influenced early Mexican politics and government, and he was an adept soldier and cunning politician who dominated Mexican history in the first half of the nineteenth century to such an extent that historians often refer to it as the "Age of Santa Anna" (History Mix, with a focus on Texas). He captured the Alamo, gave away Texas, and was exiled from Mexico. He ended up in a modest residence on Staten Island, where he helped invent modern chewing gum (Atlas Obscura).
Known variously as the executioner of hundreds at The Alamo, the man who lost Texas, and “His Most Serene Highness” and “The Eagle,” Santa Anna was missing a leg and had recently been conned out of tens of thousands of pesos. He spent his exile moving among high society, plotting to get rich or return to Mexico, and chewing on something called chicle.

Santa Anna hoped that his supply of chicle, a natural latex harvested from trees in the same fashion as rubber, would make him rich. He’d pitched Thomas Adams, a local inventor, on developing this foreign substance into an inexpensive replacement for rubber. It never worked.
While sap had been harvested and used to make rubber balls for ritual games, which appear to have started with Olmec culture (Ancient History Encyclopedia) circa 1400 BC (Archaeology newsbrief), the western natural rubber industry really started with Charles Macintosh in 1818 (AZO Materials) was further diversified starting in 1841 with Charles Goodyear's accidental discovery of vulcanization (Connecticut History).

Jump ahead to the decade from 1865 to 1875, when Santa Anna lived in Staten Island (This Way on Bay) and was trying to pave a path for his return to power in Mexico. As summarized in the Atlas Obsura article:
Santa Anna’s interpreter had befriended local glass merchant and inventor Thomas Adams, a Civil War photographer who had settled down to raise seven children. Sharing his chicle supply, Santa Anna implored him to develop it into a cheap alternative to the costly [vulcanized] rubber used in carriage tires. If it worked, they’d become rich.
While natural rubber latex is produced by over 2,000 plant species (Applied and Environmental Microbiology), not all rubbers are the same. Adams experimented, but failed, and Santa Anna died before his gift of chicle would change chewing gum.

Though there were other chewing gums around the world before Santa Anna met Adams, at that time, parafin wax gum was the commercial product in the U.S. ( Adams experimented with Santa Anna's supply of chicle, and soon patented a Chewing-Gum of "gum chicle" (PDF from Google APIs). From there, he was the first to make and sell a flavored gum (Chewing Gum Facts), and the first to deploy profitable and public vending machines (blog with citations).

Adams Gum is still made, though the recipe has changed a number of times. Here's a 1960s era ad for Adams Sour Gum, and classic flavors are still sold (Candy Blog), though not in the glasses or tins (Small Vintage Vending) from decades past.
posted by filthy light thief (14 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Surely the invention of chewing gum will count among his other crimes, in the eyes of history.
posted by notoriety public at 9:36 AM on November 9, 2019 [4 favorites]

As a yankee child who moved to Texas in time for the sesquicentennial and was forced to sing The Ballad of the Alamo every day, I feel vindicated, somehow.
posted by corey flood at 9:37 AM on November 9, 2019 [3 favorites]

(Forgot to add that my elementary school teachers all had a passion for gum.)
posted by corey flood at 9:38 AM on November 9, 2019 [2 favorites]

Wow, I had no idea about this. Thank you for posting it. It's always interesting to read what these giant figures get up to in the last ~twenty years of their lives after they go out of the spotlight. Because of course, you don't just go from being a big deal mover and shaker to a sit-arounder. You go somewhere and plot schemes and use your connections and try a bunch of things.

"Later that year [1865] a schooner owned by Gilbert Thompson, son-in-law of [former NY Governor and US Vice President] Daniel Tompkins, brought Santa Anna to his home in Staten Island, New York, where he tried to raise money for an army to return and take over Mexico City." ...So this is how he ended up there, with connections and money etc. The Tompkins - Thompson connection is a whole world of early NYC-area moneyed connections. I wonder exactly how Thompson got hooked up with Santa Anna in the first place.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:12 AM on November 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

Thanks for this delightfully well documented FPP, FTL! (Opens pack of gum) I have some reading to do.
posted by mosk at 10:59 AM on November 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

So... Santa Anna -> chicle gum -> "Chiclets" brand chewing gum -> chiclet keyboards?
posted by hyperbolic at 11:55 AM on November 9, 2019 [3 favorites]

Yes, that is correct etymology.
posted by bartleby at 12:00 PM on November 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

My father worked in styrene and butyl rubber plants when I was growing up, and I've always vaguely known about the role of synthetic rubber in chewing gum production (we even had product samples of SBR latex crumb kicking around the house), but I'd not spent much time thinking about the evolution of chewing gum and its production. This is really fascinating stuff. Thanks!

So... Santa Anna -> chicle gum -> "Chiclets" brand chewing gum -> chiclet keyboards?

*head explodes*

To boost his image, Santa Anna pulled propaganda stunts that included staging a state funeral for an amputated leg he’d lost in battle.

posted by mandolin conspiracy at 1:38 PM on November 9, 2019 [4 favorites]

I just saw the three Adams gums on sale at World Market. Ummm Beemans!
posted by Oyéah at 1:46 PM on November 9, 2019

Black Jack gum is the first flavored gum in the United States, starting in 1871.

Man, I don't think I've seen this since I was a kid. Since I like black licorice, it was a childhood favourite.

It was not that popular with the other kids. More for me!
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 1:50 PM on November 9, 2019 [3 favorites]

Christmas shopping for yourself? 20 packs for $20.
posted by bartleby at 1:57 PM on November 9, 2019 [2 favorites]

My great uncle was called "Chick" by his siblings because of his love of Chiclets gum growing up in Brooklyn back in the 20's and 30's. I wish he was still around for him to find out his (admittedly tenuous) connection to the Alamo.
posted by KingEdRa at 2:21 PM on November 9, 2019

So... Santa Anna -> chicle gum -> "Chiclets" brand chewing gum -> chiclet keyboards?

A small nit, but Santa Anna of course is not involved in the etymology directly. The word "chicle" is either from the Classical Nahuatl tzictli, or at any rate from some cognate term in a Nahuan language.
posted by Not A Thing at 2:23 PM on November 9, 2019 [10 favorites]

> So... Santa Anna -> chicle gum -> "Chiclets" brand chewing gum -> chiclet keyboards?

Also, "chiclet teeth," used semi-derisively for teeth that are a little too uniformly even, white, and straight (i.e. from capping/veneers.) Likewise, a criticism in drawing and painting of teeth that look fake.
posted by desuetude at 7:39 AM on November 11, 2019

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