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date: 10 December 2022

Chicle Gum and Popular Culture in the Americaslocked

Chicle Gum and Popular Culture in the Americaslocked

  • Jennifer P. MathewsJennifer P. MathewsSociology and Anthropology, Trinity University

Summary

Chicle is a thick and odorless natural latex that comes from the Chicozapote tree (Manilkara sapota), which is indigenous in Mexico and Central America. When the sapodilla tree is cut into with a blade or infested with insects, it produces latex as a protective response. The ancient Maya and Aztec used this latex as chewing gum, a habit that Mexican president General Antonio López de Santa Anna continued in the 19th century. While in the United States, he introduced chicle to US inventor Thomas Adams, Sr., who in the 1870s produced the first mass-produced chicle chewing gum. However, it was William Wrigley, Jr. who in the 1890s entered a highly competitive gum market and innovated new marketing campaigns that appealed to a broad audience. These advertisements often proclaimed the benefits of gum chewing for digestion, dental hygiene, and the ability to improve mental focus. Wrigley used these qualities to encourage the US military to adopt chewing gum into rations starting in World War I. As military personnel shared chewing gum with children in war zones, this “American habit” spread around the world. Public officials complained about the expense of cleaning up gum-littered sidewalks, the Women’s Temperance Union even argued that chewing gum was a slippery slope that could lead to smoking, gambling, or drinking, and many cultures have strong social norms regarding gum chewing in public. Despite these challenges, William Wrigley spent millions of dollars promoting a favorable image for gum and the habit of gum chewing, and other marketers launched collectables such as baseball cards to encourage sales. Chicle-based chewing gum ultimately became a victim of its own popularity, and while researchers sought out other sources of latex, such as jelutong, balata, and gutta-percha, US manufacturers ultimately resorted to synthetic substitutes. Although the chewing gum industry of today is dominated by the use of a synthetic gum chewing base, it is worth more than $25 billion annually.

Subjects

  • History of Central America
  • Cultural History
  • Social History

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