The Man Who Put the Chicle in Chiclets
In 1870, Thomas Adams, a photographer, glassmaker and inventor, was discussing a business proposition with his houseguest, the infamous General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. Santa Anna was the man responsible for the massacre of Texans at the Alamo 34 years earlier and the former president of Mexico. He was living in exile in the United States and trying to raise money so he could build an army to march on Mexico City and seize power.
Santa Anna had a plan to sell Mexican chicle, made from the sap of the sapodilla tree, to Americans who he thought could use it as an additive to natural rubber to reduce it’s cost. Natural rubber was very expensive and if anyone could figure out a way to reduce the cost of rubber goods they would become very wealthy. Santa Anna had brought a large quantity of chicle, and wondered if Adams would give it a try.
Adams spent over a year trying to make things like automobile tires, rain boots, toys and masks and failed with each attempt. He was just about ready to throw the entire batch of chicle into the East River when he remembered how much Santa Anna enjoyed chewing it. He decided to mix up a batch of chicle gum in his kitchen that evening and gave it a try. He quickly realized that gum made from chicle was smoother, softer and far superior in taste to the paraffin gums currently in vogue.
People have enjoyed chewing gum-like substances since ancient times. The ancient Greeks chewed mastiche, made from the resin of the mastic tree. The ancient Mayans first chewed chicle over 1,000 years ago. The Indians in North America chewed the sap from spruce trees and the American settlers picked up the habit from the Indians and began making gum from spruce sap and beeswax. In 1848, John Curtis sold the first commercial chewing gum made from spruce sap and in 1850, he began selling gum made from flavored and sweetened paraffin wax.
Adams rolled the chicle gum into balls and wrapped them in colored tissue papers. He called his product "Adams New York Snapping and Stretching Gum" and he visited drug stores in his neighborhood to ask them to take it on consignment. Within days purchase orders began to come in and he set up an operation to manufacture the gum in large quantities. It eventually became impossible for him to keep up with all the orders coming in, so he invented a chewing gum manufacturing machine and got it patented in 1871.
In 1875, he added licorice flavoring and called the new gum "Black Jack." It was the first flavored chicle gum on the market and the first gum to be offered as sticks. Black Jack was manufactured well into the 1970s, and since then small batches are still sometimes produced and sold.
In 1888, the Adams Gum Company was the first to introduce vending machines in America. They were installed at New York City Subway stations to sell Black Jack and their new Tutti-Frutti flavored gum. The Adams company became the most successful chewing gum company in the United States and in 1899, it created a monopoly by merging the six largest chewing gum manufacturers into the American Chicle Company.
One of the company’s most famous products, Chiclets was invented by a candy salesman who wrapped chicle in a hard candy shell. Chiclets became part of the American Chicle Company in 1914.
During World War II, the demand for chewing gum was so great that there wasn’t enough chicle available to satisfy it, so scientists developed new resins and synthetic gum bases as a substitute. Today, per capita consumption of chewing gum in the United States totals in excess of 195 million pounds a year. That’s 175 sticks of gum per person per year.
Santa Anna never did profit from chicle sales or raise an army as he had hoped. He was allowed to return to Mexico shortly before his death in 1876. Thomas Adams died in 1905, and his sons ran the business until the American Chicle Company was acquired by Warner Lambert in 1960.
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