In Chicago, gum is practically synonymous with Wrigley, the makers of classics like Juicy Fruit and Doublemint, as well as more recent innovations like Orbit and Wrigley 5 (a personal favorite).

The history of chewing gum, however, begins way before Wrigley. 

Humans beings like to chew, and so since around 6,000 years ago, people have been chewing on stuff, not to gain nutrition but simply for the love of chewing.  Masticated tree bark has been found all over the world, but the first use of “gum” as something to hold in the mouth and chew seems to go back at least as far as the Aztec in Mexico. The Aztec used gum for chewing and as an adhesive.

There’s a connection between the chewing gum of Montezuma and the chewing gum of today. Here’s how that story evolved.

Remember the Alamo? During the historic 1836 battle in what is now San Antonio, Texas, the forces of Mexican General Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana (Santa Ana for short) defeated the Texians (now called Texans) and a group of volunteers including Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie. Later, Santa Ana was imprisoned, and to pass the time, he chewed chicle, the “gum” of the sapodilla tree.

Exiled to the United States, Santa Ana became buddies with Charles Adams who was searching for a rubber substitute for tires (natural rubber was very expensive).  Santa Ana told Adams all about the stuff he chewed back in Mexico, and he even sold a quantity of the sapodilla gum to Adams. Turns out, gum was not a good substitute for rubber, but Adams thought maybe he could use his inventory of gum to make what we now know of as chewing gum. He started by rolling the stuff in balls (the first gumballs!) and selling them to a local pharmacist. 

Later, Adams offered the public some of the earliest flavors of gum, including a licorice-flavored variety called Black Jack, which was the first gum to be sold in sticks and remains the oldest flavored gum still on the market.

Initially, parents and teachers protested that this new-fangled gum chewing would somehow injure the young. Today, many positive health benefits are associated with chewing gum, including:

•    Sustained attention and cognitive function 

•    Increased alertness and productivity 

•    Stress-reduction 

•    Improved memory

Used to be that Sears Pharmacy was an excellent source for old-timey gums like Black Jack, Beemans and Clove. On a recent visit there, almost all such confections are gone, and the pharmacist told me that “Dollar Store is undercutting us. Now all the school kids are going over there.” Alas, they didn’t have these time-honored gums at Dollar Store or at Walgreen’s, so I ordered from Amazon, the source of all things. Then word came in from Sarah Abboreno Corbin that they have all three classic gums at Pumpkin Moon…of course!

Celebrate National Chewing Gum Day on February 15. 

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David Hammond

David Hammond, a corporate communications consultant and food journalist living in Oak Park, Illinois, is a founder and moderator of LTHForum.com, the 8,500 member Chicago-based culinary chat site. David...