Wilderness Underfoot: The natural history of chewing gum

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-112127271630923.jpg’, ”, ‘Gum in its modern form – The packaging wouldn’t be recognized by ancient peoples, who chewed gum for the same reasons we chew it today. In the past, gum was imbued with flavors, scents, herbs and medicinal ingredients, much as it is in modern times.’);

Chewing gum is a pleasure that was first discovered by our ancestors

The chewing gum habit goes back to the ancient Greeks on one side of the world, and the North and South American Indians on the other. In fact, the habit of chewing precedes early humans and goes deep into our prehistoric past. Whether it was the thick skin of a fruit, a blade of grass, a wad of gristle, or a bone, our human and animal ancestors probably gnawed on it just for the pleasure of chewing.

Ancient Greeks used the resin of the shrub-like mastic tree, Pistacia lentiscus, as a chewing gum. Known as “mastiche,” the resin was often flavored, and chewing it helped to freshen breath and clean teeth.

When the Europeans arrived in North America, Native Americans introduced them to the habit of chewing the sap of spruce trees. This sap had a strong balsam flavor that was hard to mask. Spruce sap was later used to create commercial versions of chewing gum, first sold in 1848 by John B. Curtis. It was called State of Maine Pure Spruce Gum. Later, he substituted paraffin waxes; they were easily flavored, but they didn’t have the best texture.

For centuries, the Mayans had been chewing the latex of the sapodilla tree, Manilkara zapota. They called the gum “chicle.” This gum didn’t suffer from a harsh flavor, and it had a much better texture than sap or paraffin. The latex gum first arrived in the U.S. in the 1850s, when the exiled president of Mexico, General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, met with a New York photographer and entrepreneur, Thomas Adams, and suggested chicle as a possible replacement for latex rubber.

Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna was the Mexican general whose army had won in the fight for the Alamo. Apparently interested in a whole different career, he had pitched the latex idea to Adams in hopes of selling a load of it. Adams bought thousands of pounds, but his experiments to make rubber tires, toys and other objects with the material failed. He was ready to dump the whole load of latex in the East River, when he happened upon a young girl in a store making a one-penny purchase of chewing gum. He knew that the Mayans had chewed the chicle – he, himself had done so while trying to invent a use for it.

Together with his son, Adams developed a plain, flavorless gum recipe and produced 25 boxes. With time and salesmanship, the gum began to gain popularity. Adams and other inventors later added flavors. In 1888, Adams’ new Tutti-Frutti gum became the first to be sold in vending machines. Then, in 1906, entrepreneur Frank Henry Fleer invented the first bubble gum. He called it Blibber-Blubber.

From the July 13-19, 2005, issue

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