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Chewing Gum: The Fortunes of Taste

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Chewing Gum: The Fortunes of Taste
By Michael Redclift. (New York & London, Routledge: 2004. Pg. vii, 197. Illustrated.) ISBN: 0-415-94418-X.

Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - August 20, 2004

The Harvesting of Chicle

"The tree from which chicle was derived, the chicozapote tree, grows in the forests of the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico and the neighboring countries of Belize and Guatemala. It is found deep in the jungle, where it grows to a height of ten to fifteen meters and is interspersed with other hardwoods such as mahogany. The diameter of the truck of the mature tree is about one to one and half meters thick, and it takes about eight to ten years to mature sufficiently to be tapped. Most of the foliage forms a canopy, with envelops the forest. The wood of the chicozapote is reddish in color, hard, and can be used to make furniture. The fruit (the sapodilla), sweet and deliciously pungent, from which the native Maya made a form of custard... "(Pg. 84.)
The history of chewing gum may seem an odd subject choice for a historian to tackle. After all, how could chewing gum have any historical significance. Surprisingly, chewing gum has played a meaningful role in history, both as an aspect of material culture and also as an instrument of change that has affected the political, ecological, and economy of the Yucatán region of Mexico and its Mayan natives. By extension, the sale of chewing gum, around the world, not only has implications for the global economy, but also for changing cultural attitudes around the world. In Chewing Gum: The Fortunes of Taste, Michael Redclift takes a compelling look at the history of chewing gum and the global impact that it has had.

Academically rigorous, yet eminently readable, Chewing Gum: The Fortunes of Taste explores not only how chicle-based chewing gum was developed, but also how its main ingredient, chicle is procured, and the plight of the chicleros who have the sticky job of extracting the chicle resin from the Chicozapote tree. Throughout, Redclift pays particular attention to the social changes that chicle wrought on the Yucatan region, including how the Mayan's became involved in the extraction of chicle, the development of workers cooperatives in the 1930's, and how the Mayan Indians used the money they received from the sale of chicle to help finance their struggle for independence form the Mexican government.

Originally, the chewing of chicle was a time-honored exercise of both the Mayan Indians and the members of the Mexican army. Interestingly, it was General Santa Ana who played a pivotal role in the development of chicle-based chewing gum when he introduced chicle to Thomas Adams, an American inventor. Santa Ana thought that chicle might be used as an inexpensive means of making rubber tires. In the early 1870's, after many fruitless experiments, Adams made the leap from using chicle to make rubber to chewing gum, and the first chicle-based chewing gum was born. Chicle-based chewing gum was an instant success, and Redclift describes how it was marketed, and how the marketing strategies used by Adams and his predecessors helped to make chewing gum a product of mass consumption, both in America and throughout Europe and Asia.

Of special interest is Redclift's account of William Wrigley's efforts to mass market chicle based chewing gum and the unique methods that he used to sell the chewing gum in China and Japan, as well as his failure to convince the residents of India to switch from chewing betel nuts to chewing gum. Redclift then follows the various uses that the military made of chewing gum, both as a morale lifter and as a thirst quencher and mouth freshener in both World War I and World War II, and even on various space missions. The history of chicle-based chewing gum starts to peter out in the late 1940's with the development of synthetic chewing gums. However, it was not until the 1960's that the chicle-based chewing gum industry more or less collapsed. However, the history of chicle-based gum did not end there. Even today there is a market for 'natural' chicle-based chewing gum, and Redclift concludes this text with an overview of the economic and ecological implications of the growing demand for natural chewing gum on the Yucatan region, where most chicle is still extracted.

Chewing Gum: The Fortunes of Taste is a relatively short, but comprehensive book on the history of chicle-based chewing gum. In writing this book Redclift has taken a multi-disciplinary approach, looking at the history of chicle-based chewing gum from the perspective of a social historian, ecologist, political scientist, economist, and scholar. This tact provides a well-rounded overview of the history of chicle-based chewing gum, and it provides unique insights into globalization and mass marketing. This book, which is illustrated and includes ample endnotes, provides a fascinating glimpse of an overlooked cultural phenomena and aspect of history that is relevant to students in a variety of fields from advertising to Mesoamerican history, as well as anyone interested in the history of chewing gum.

Related Reviews:

Jungle of the Maya, photographs by Douglas Goodell and Jerry Barrack.
This book takes readers on a breath-taking photographic journey through the Selva Maya (Forest of the Maya).

The Maya Tropical Forest: People, Parks, and Ancient Cities, by James D. Nations.
Part travelogue and part natural history guidebook; this book provides important data about the state and future of the Maya Tropical forest and the history and geography of the region.

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