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Wacky World of Rubber: Santa Anna's tie to chewing gum

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This week's Wacky World of Rubber blog will give you a little bit of history that you may not be acquainted with. While many know that rubber is the basis for chewing gum, far fewer likely are aware of the role Santa Anna played in the formation of the chewing gum industry.

There is a good chance you know Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna—his formal name—as the long-time leader of Mexico (he served 11 terms as president). He was the general whose forces killed 189 at the Battle for the Alamo in 1836.

But this is a different story found in the later history of his life, brought to my attention by Ed Noga, my predecessor as editor of Rubber & Plastics News. Ed is a lover of history and often will pass on little tidbits to me that are related to the rubber industry or its history. He sent this missive across because last week was the anniversary of Santa Anna's death, having died June 21, 1876, at the age of 82.

As the story goes, Santa Anna lived in exile from 1855 to 1874 in Cuba, the U.S., Colombia and the then-Danish island of Saint Thomas. Now Santa Anna long had dreamed of becoming rich in business, with the hopes that he could again return to Mexico and regain leadership. In the 1850s he brought to New York his first shipment of chicle, a tree sap that would later become the base for what is now chewing gum.

Santa Anna, though, thought the chicle could be used in buggy tires, but he couldn't convince U.S. wheel manufacturers that the substance would work better than the materials they were using in tires at the time.

In 1869, Santa Anna, 74 years old by this time, was living in exile in Staten Island, New York, and again was trying to raise money for an army to return and take over Mexico City. He had traveled to New York in 1866, after receiving a letter supposedly sent to him by the U.S. government, in which he was invited to organize an effort to overthrow the monarch who ruled Mexico at the time, according to an account at the website allthatsinteresting.com

But the letter was a hoax by con men who tricked him into believing the U.S. government would aid him. Because of litigation over his travel expenses, and the amount he spent to lease an expensive house in New York, he became broke.

Santa Anna

He still held out hope, however, that he would reverse his fortunes, and that chicle was the key to his plan. While living in Staten Island, in 1869 he met an inventor named Thomas Adams, who attempted to develop the chicle supply Santa Anna had provided into a useful substitute for rubber.

But Adams and his sons weren't able to replicate Charles Goodyear's vulcanization process, which he had discovered in 1839, according to the book "History of the Chewing Gum Industry." After a number of unsuccessful attempts, Santa Anna reportedly grew tired of the effort and returned to Mexico. He died broke a few years later, never knowing what would become of the chicle latex he had supplied to Adams.

Adams spent $30,000 of his own money trying to perfect the vulcanization of chicle, but to no avail. He was ready to give up the effort until taking a trip to the drug store and overhearing a child ask for some paraffin wax gum. Adams recalled that the youth of Mexico had chewed chicle as a kind of gum, and he set out to make a chewing gum based on chicle, that later would become the basis for the Chiclets-brand of gum that still is sold to this day.

Adams and his sons formed their chewing brand company that would later be named the American Chicle Co. By the late 1880s the firm employed more than 300 workers at the largest chewing gum plant in the world, located near the Brooklyn Bridge. The facility churned out more than 5 tons of chewing gum a day, according to the "History of the Chewing Gum Industry." Flavors would come to include Tutti Frutti and Black Jack licorice.

By 1919, it built a five and a half story factory in Long Island that encompassed 550,000 square feet. The company was one of the largest chewing gum companies in the world, rivaled only by William Wrigley Jr. Co.

But none of it may have been possible if it hadn't been for Adams' meeting with Santa Anna.

Meyer is editor of Rubber & Plastics News, and he sees potential rubber-related stories nearly everywhere he goes. Follow him on Twitter @bmeyerRPN.