The Chewing Gum of the Americas, From the Ancient Maya to William Wrigley
Jennifer P. Mathews


Although chewing gum has been a part of North American popular culture for over a century, few consumers know the history of this product: neither its use by pre-Columbian cultures such as the Aztec and Maya, nor its extraction for mass consumption by global markets. This volume is an 11,000-year overview of chewing gum. In particular, it focuses on chicle (the resin used in chewing gum), from its earliest uses among pre-contact peoples to the boom and bust extraction industry of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and its small-scale use today. This research has been done through the use of historical documents and photographs, anthropological, archaeological, botanical, and cultural ecological literature, ethnographic interviews with contemporary chicleros (chicle extractors), and on-the-ground archaeology. I would like to emphasize that although this volume is a discussion of chicle in the "Americas," it is almost entirely focused on the United States, Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize, as this is where the overwhelming majority of the chicle extraction and industry has been located. Finally, extensive notes are provided for those who are looking for the citation information, or for additional resources related to the discussions in the main text.

Chapter 1 examines the broader use of the sapodilla tree (from which we extract chicle) through time in the Americas. Some tropical tree barks secrete resins, like chicle, within specialized ducts, and extractors harvest them by cutting into the flesh of the tree and allowing it to run down the trunk. The ancient Aztecs of Mexico chewed this natural gum, but held strict social norms about its use. While they recognized that it freshened breath, it was also a social marker of whores and "effeminates," and "respectable" adults were forbidden to chew it in public. Although the ancient Maya also chewed it as gum, they used the sapodilla in its entirety. They exploited the wood for everything from firewood and as building materials for the houses of commoners, to the carved lintels on temples. The sweet sapodilla fruits were a favored food that the Spanish prized highly after contact. Some researchers believe that Maya elites controlled the access to the trees by growing them in their city centers. Chicle latex also shares qualities with other important plant exudates such as copal resin (used primarily as incense) and rubber latex. These physical similarities, which gave each of these natural products an infinite number of utilitarian uses, likely extended to their ritual purposes as well.

Chapter 2, written in conjunction with botanist Gillian P. Schultz, presents the sapodilla tree through the lens of botany, with much of the information coming from the botanical studies that the chicle industry commissioned in the 1930s. The chapter explains the complicated nomenclature and subsequent taxonomic confusion of the species, starting with Carolus Linnaeus's first published description in 1753. The sapodilla tree, which is native only to Mesoamerica and the Caribbean, is a slow-growing but highly adaptive species. It can withstand a variety of environmental obstacles such as drought and poor drainage, and is primarily limited by colder temperatures. This adaptability has allowed for its introduction throughout the tropics of the Old World, where farmers have propagated it for its fruit since the Spanish introduced it at contact. Native peoples also use the tree products for medicinal purposes, and the fruit contains tannins (an antioxidant) and the entire plant produces saponins, which act as an antimicrobial. In the wild, sapodilla reproduction occurs primarily through bat pollination, and its distribution is dependent on animals eating the fruits and dispersing the seeds through their scat. For the sapodilla seedlings to grow, they must battle with other forest species for sunlight and nutrients. Reaching up to one hundred feet in height, these trees are highly resistant to disturbances such as hurricanes. Visitors to the forests of southern Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize can recognize the trees by the zigzagging scars left in the gray bark by chicleros in their attempt to extract the white latex resin.

Chapter 3 focuses on the development of chicle as an industry in the Americas, concentrating in particular on the relationship between the industry in the United States and Mexico. It tells the story of the American invention of chewing gum and the growth of an industry dominated for much of the twentieth century by such companies as Adams, Wrigley, Fleer, and the American Chicle Company. Many of the major players in the industry lived colorful lives, such as Thomas Adams Sr., the inventor of chicle-based chewing gum who first came across natural chicle resin through none other than the exiled president of Mexico, Antonio López de Santa Anna. William Wrigley Jr. left home at the age of thirteen to become a traveling soap salesman and ended up a millionaire chewing gum magnate.

Mexican and Central American officials encouraged these industrialists to extract chicle during the first half of the twentieth century through land grants and cheap labor, resulting in chicle becoming one of the largest and most important exports. The popularity of gum continued to spread with the incorporation of it into the rations of soldiers during World War I and II, hurtling annual sales to over a billion dollars. With these demands, overtapping of sapodillas became a consistent problem, and corporations began seeking out synthetic substitutes. The natural gum industry boom became a bust during the 1950s and 1960s and was nearly abandoned in the 1970s and 1980s. Today, chicle production has become a boutique industry that caters to consumers interested in natural products.

Chapter 4 focuses on the culture of chicleros and examines the stereotypes of the lone chiclero in the "wild west" of Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize, the day-to-day working conditions, and the process of chicle collecting. As the lifestyle allowed for unsupervised work in the jungles, it did attract individuals running from the law, or those shunned by their indigenous villages, although this was not the case for the majority of workers. Wages were relatively low, the workdays were long, conditions were dangerous, and chicleros often lived in debt to the company stores that provided their equipment and food at inflated prices. Outsiders often feared the chicleros when they came into town because they knew them for their excessive drinking, promiscuity, gambling, and violence. Foreign corporations afforded them little sympathy for their poor working conditions and saw them as primitive and backward. This combination of factors resulted in chiclero uprisings, further damaging their reputations. However, chicleros have also had a significant role in archaeology, as they have been responsible for the discovery of some of the most important sites in the Maya area. For over a century, archaeologists have used them as guides and workers, and if it were not for their explorations in the forest, many important sites might still be unknown. This relationship has also led to the unwitting outcome of chicleros looting many of the same sites that they discovered.

The history of the use of chicle, its subsequent botanical studies intertwined with the development of the chewing gum industry, and the life of chicleros in the Yucatán Peninsula have garnered relatively little attention in the academic literature. This volume is an attempt to provide an in-depth look at this vivid and significant history, and perhaps to shed light on the role the industry played in the working conditions of chicleros and impacts it has had on local indigenous communities.

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