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'Chicle': A Chewy Story Of The Americas

Chewing gum may be a $19 billion industry, but it's not a universally accepted practice. As Jennifer Mathews tells Liane Hansen, chewing gum is a crime in Singapore, and, in 15th-century Meso-America, it was the mark of a prostitute.

Mathews is the author of Chicle: The Chewing Gum of the Americas, From the Ancient Maya to William Wrigley. The book takes its title from chicle, a natural latex produced by the sapodilla tree for protection against insect attacks, animal bites or even the chiclero -- a person who extract chicle from the tree much like one would tap a maple or rubber tree.

Mathews says that the story of chewing gum as we know it started when Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, the 11-time president of Mexico, met with amateur inventor Thomas Adams during his exile in Staten Island, New York.

"[Santa Ana] wanted to return to power, so he was looking for someone who could re-invent a new rubber substitute so he could fund his return to the presidency," says Mathews. "He had brought a store of chicle from Vera Cruz and basically, they worked for months trying to vulcanize it the way Charles Goodyear had with rubber and it simply didn't work."

Santa Ana returned to Mexico penniless, leaving Adams with more chicle than he knew what to do with. One day, the intentor wandered into a candy store and saw a young girl ordering paraffin wax gum. He realized that "kids loved the paraffin wax gum and that chicle was the perfect ingredient to make something along those lines," says Mathews.

Adams called his candy "Chicklets." Within a few years, candy maven William Wrigley got into the act, adding sugar and flavor to create Spearmint and Juicy Fruit.

Wrigley also began a massive advertising campaign to introduce gum to the American public: "At one point, he sent a pack of chewing gum to every resident listed in the United States phone book," says Mathews.

During World War II, Wrigley convinced the U.S. Army to include chewing gum in the rations of soldiers. Soldiers, in turn, spread the habit around the world, putting such a high demand on chicle that a synthetic substitute had to be found, making chicle-based gum a rarity.

"In the 1940s [Wrigley] basically stopped importing the chicle latex from places like Guatemala and Mexico," says Mathews.

Despite its popularity, chewing gum was not without its critics. Leon Trotsky argued that gum was a way for capitalism to keep the working man from thinking too much, and in the movies, the villains chewed gum, while the heroes smoked cigarettes.

"It was really viewed negatively around the world," says Mathews. "In fact, in many places today, it's still seen as Americans, people in the U.S., chewing their cud like cows."

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