Today, an odd tale about chewing gum and the Alamo!
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
We've always chewed one
thing or another that has no food value: wax,
tobacco, betel nuts, but chiefly tree gums. As a
boy, I'd chew hard beads of spruce resin that I
found in the woods.
Did you know that Biblical frankincense is an
African resin? You can burn it as incense, but it's
more common to chew on it and enjoy its peculiar
aftertaste. I take odd comfort in the image of the
Wise Men offering chewing gum to the Christ Child.
The sap of the Central American sapodilla tree
makes a fine chewable gum. The ancient Mayans
harvested it and packaged it into chewable lumps.
They called the gum tsictle, from
which we get our word chickle -- the
base for modern chewing gums.
Robert Hendrickson writes about chewing gum. By
1869, he says, drug stores carried chewable waxes.
That year, a remarkable meeting took place between
General Santa Anna (who'd slaughtered occupants of
the Alamo) and an inventor named Thomas Adams.
Sam Houston spared
Santa Ana's life when he
defeated him at San Jacinto. Santa Ana went on to a
choppy political career that included a brief and
unsuccessful turn as Dictator of Mexico.
Now, in 1869, 74-year-old Santa Ana was living in
exile from Mexico and visiting, of all places,
Staten Island. He was trying to raise money for an
army so he could go back and take Mexico City.
His plan was to sell Mexican chicle to America as a
substitute for then-expensive rubber. So he invited
Adams to visit him. Adams took a chance and bought
a ton of chicle from him, but he had no luck making
it into a rubber substitute.
Then Adams's son, Horatio, realized he could make a
chewable product. He gave it a try. He gave 200
balls of the stuff to a druggist, who sold them at
two for a penny. By noon that day they were gone.
So began the Adams gum dynasty. The Adams family
made the first commercial chicle-based gum in 1871.
They went on to create Adams Clove Gum, Chiclets,
Blackjack, and more.
But chewing gum was déclassé from the
start. It was worse: it was immoral. Emily Post
wouldn't even say the word. It didn't so much have
to be sold to the American public as justified.
So justified it has been -- for 120 years. Perhaps
it promises cleaner teeth and stronger jaws.
Admiral Byrd chewed gum at the South Pole to calm
his nerves. Just the other day I read an article in
American Scientist. Chewing gum
appears to fight depression by releasing
So chewing gum came to stay. And what about Santa
Ana and Adams? Santa Ana died penniless; Adams died
rich. And commercial chewing gum has been a
uniquely American gift -- to an all too tense
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Hendrickson, R., The Great American Chewing Gum
Book, Radnor, PA: Chilton Book Co., 1976.
Jacobs, B.L., Serotonin, Motor Activity and
Depression-Related Disorders. American
Scientist, Vol. 82, No. 5, September-
October, 1994, pp. 456-463.
I am grateful to Kathryn Krause, UH Library, for
providing the Hendrickson source, and to historian
Margaret Swett Hensen for additional counsel on