How an Exiled Mexican President Accidentally Invented Chewing Gum

Of all the modern conveniences, we might think of chewing gum — a variety of which can be found at any drugstore’s checkout counter — among the most mundane. But while chewing substances have a timeless place in history, our modern perception of gum can be traced back to a strange meeting of the minds in Staten Island between a glassmaker and an exiled Mexican president desperate for funds.

General Antonio López de Santa Anna had a pretty colorful biography before becoming the father of modern chewing gum. He fought the Spanish and led the Mexican army in the country’s fight for independence. He lost a leg in the Pastry 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 any surviving Texan prisoners of war afterwards. (That brutality led to the battle cry “Remember the Alamo!”, which inspired colonialist militia to eventually win the Texas territory from Mexico.) A historically controversial character, Santa Anna served as Mexico’s eighth president, returning to office 11 times, more often as a dictator than a democratically elected leader. And then, through a strange series of events involving a Colombian scammer, he ended up in exile on Staten Island, where he helped invent the modern version of chewing gum.

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

Antonio López de Santa Anna didn’t plan to end up on Staten Island. But after he was overthrown during the Revolution of Ayutla 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 that turned out to be nothing more than a scam, Santa Anna found himself penniless on Staten Island.

One thing Santa Anna packed in his suitcase? A supply of chicle: the flavorless, chewy sap of the sapodilla tree, which, like many in Mexico, Santa Anna was fond of chewing. As part of a plan to raise the money for a return to Mexico and to power, Santa Anna dreamed of turning that chicle into a new form of latex, in order to cash in on the era’s great rubber boom. He called on Thomas Adams, a local inventor working as a glassmaker, and persuaded him to take a shot at making chicle the next big thing in bike tires and blimps.

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 at a candy store order gum made with paraffin wax, one of the not particularly pleasant chewing choices at the time. (The other option was spruce gum, which, as you’ll 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, put on 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-making plant in the world at its time. The American Chicle Company is now owned by Cadbury, but some of the gums that came out of it — like Dentyne and Chiclets — are still on shelves today. And chicle became the base of a multi-billion dollar industry, at least until over-harvesting led to the creation of the artificial gum bases we chew on today. For more on that story and the surprising details on what we’re putting between our teeth, as well as what happened to Santa Anna, what Emily Post had to say about chewing gum etiquette, and why cities spend millions of dollars to clean sticky messes off city streets, tune in to the latest episode.

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