chewing gum (precontact) North American California and Northeast; Mesoamerican, South American Tropical Forest cultures

For thousands of years Indians throughout the Americas chewed the sap or LATEX of plants for the same reasons people chew gum today — to relieve hunger and thirst and to freshen breath. Indian people also relied on chewing gum for routine dental hygiene. (See also CHEWABLE DENTRIFICES.)

aicttwcovThe Gabrielino people of Southern California boiled milkweed sap and chewed the result for gum. Other American Indians used several substances for chewing gum, such as licorice and marshmallow roots, sweet gum and hollyhock. Plantain roots were sometimes chewed to relieve thirst. American Indians taught New England colonists to chew spruce sap as a breath sweetener. The practice quickly became a fad. Spruce gum was being sold by the lump in eastern United States by the early 1800s, making it the first commercial chewing gum.

Chicle, the original basis for modern chewing gum, is the milky latex of the tropical SAPODILLA tree (Manilkara zapota van Royen) that is native to northern Brazil, Mesoamerica, and parts of Mexico. The Maya, whose culture began in Mesoamerica in about1500 B.C., discovered how to tap the sapodilla tree. The Aztec, whose empire was established in Mesoamerica in about A.D. 1100, later adopted gum chewing. Although people from cultures throughout the world chewed gum, without the introduction of chicle, the multi-million dollar U.S. chewing gum industry would not exist.

The Mexican general Santa Ana introduced chicle to the United States after being exiled from Mexico and bringing a block of it among his belongings. When he showed it to Thomas Adams, the inventor thought it would be the perfect substance from which to manufacture rubber as the Olmec had done for centuries. (Olmec culture arose in Mesoameric in about 1700 B.C.). He began importing chicle to the U.S. from the Yucatan peninsula. When that experiment failed, he shaped the chicle into small pieces he called “Adams New York Gum” and began marketing them in 1891 at a New Jersey drug store.

Although at first the gum was unflavored, it worked better than chewing paraffin which had become a popular substitute for the pine sap Indians had taught the early colonists to chew. A few years later another inventor, Henry Fleer, coated chicle squares with white candy, calling them Chiclets. He and inventor William Wrigley, Jr. added latex to the gum to make it stretch and added extracts of mint, including WINTERGREEN, another American Indian contribution, to their product.

Today the chicle in chewing gum has for the most part been replaced with synthetic polymers made from oil and latex from tropical trees.

Sources/Further Reading

Hendrickson, Robert. The Great American Chewing Gum Book. Radnor, Penn.: Chilton, 1976.

Sharp, Mike. Gabrielino Material Culture. URL: Downloaded on January 6, 1999.

Weatherford, Jack. Indian Givers: How the Indians of the Americas Transformed the World. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1988.