Thomas Adams and the History of Chewing Gum

From General Santa Anna to a Little Girl at the Corner Drug Store

Adams Chiclet Company
Underwood Archives / Contributor/Getty Images

In 1871, Thomas Adams patented a machine to produce chewing gum from chicle. Learn the story of how he developed it and went on to great success in the industry. 

Turning Chicle into Chewing Gum

Thomas Adams tried numerous trades before becoming a photographer during the 1860s. During that time, General Antonio de Santa Anna went into exile from Mexico and boarded with Thomas Adams in his Staten Island home.

It Santa Anna who suggested that the unsuccessful but inventive photographer experiment with chicle from Mexico. Santa Anna felt that chicle could be used to make a synthetic rubber tire. Santa Anna had friends in Mexico who would be able to supply the product cheaply to Adams.

Before turning to making chewing gum, Thomas Adams first tried to change chicle into synthetic rubber products. Adams attempted to make toys, masks, rain boots, and bicycle tires out of the chicle from Mexican sapodilla trees, but every experiment failed.

In 1869, he was inspired to turn his surplus stock into chewing gum, adding flavoring to the chicle. Shortly after, he opened the world's first chewing gum factory. In February 1871, Adams New York Gum went on sale in drug stores for a penny apiece.

According to The Encyclopedia of New York City, Adams sold the gum with the slogan "Adams' New York Gum No. 1 -- Snapping and Stretching." In 1888, Thomas Adams' chewing gum called Tutti-Frutti became the first gum to be sold in a vending machine. The machines were located in a New York City subway station. The company soon dominated the chewing gum market and debuted Black Jack in 1884 and Chiclets in 1899, named after chicle.

Adams merged his company with other gum manufacturers from the United States and Canada in 1899 to form the American Chicle Company, of which he was the first chairman. Other companies that merged into it included W.J. White and Son, Beeman Chemical Company, Kisme Gum, and S.T. Briton. Adams died in 1905.

How Thomas Adams Turned Chicle into Chewing Gum

The following is the story told in a 1944 speech given by Thomas Jr.'s son Horatio at a manager's banquet for the American Chicle Company. Disheartened by the failure to use chicle as a rubber substitute, he noticed a girl buying White Mountain paraffin wax chewing gum for a penny at the corner drugstore. He recalled that chicle was used as chewing gum in Mexico and thought this would be a way to use his surplus chicle.

"When Mr. Thomas Adams arrived home that night, he spoke to his son, Tom Jr., my father, about his idea. Junior was very much impressed and suggested that they make up a few boxes of chicle chewing gum and give it a name and a label. He offered to take it out on one of his trips (he was a salesman in wholesale tailors' trimmings and traveled as far west as the Mississippi).

"They decided on the name of Adams New York No. 1. It was made of pure chicle gum without any flavor. It was made in little penny sticks and wrapped in various colored tissue papers. The retail value of the box, I believe, was one dollar. On the cover of the box was a picture of City Hall, New York, in color."