Lifespan and Chiclets

A Busted Myth

Watch history documentaries and you are sure to hear about how short and brutal life was in centuries past. Well, it may have been brutal, but it was not short. At least not if you made it to adulthood. The problem is documentary makers don’t understand what “life expectancy at birth” really means.

For example, they will report that in 1850, the life expectancy at birth was only 37 years. But that does not mean 36 year-olds in 1850 expected to drop dead in 1851. What throws off the documentarians is infant and childhood mortality. Babies and kids died at horrific rates.

But if you made it to age 20, you had proved you were a hardy soul with a robust immune system. You could expect to live well into your sixties.

And even that number skews things. Young women died in childbirth. Young men died in wars, or from the nineteenth century equivalent of riding your motorcycle drunk in flip-flops and shorts.

Even two hundred years ago, if you made it to age 40, you were likely to live into your 70s. In 2016, a 40 year-old man will likely see his 78th birthday. His twin sister will live 82 years on average.

So that’s the legacy of modern medicine. We mostly survive childhood, and gain an extra 5-10 trips around the sun on the back end.

If you really dig into it, you find most of those late life gains are from better hygiene, superior nutrition, and antibiotics. So wash your hands and eat your vegetables.
Something to Chew On

It was 1869. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna had been run out of Mexico (again) and was renting a room in the home of a New York City photographer. How does a former dictator earn a living? If you’re Santa Anna you hatch money-making schemes with your landlord.

That’s where chicle comes in.

It’s the boiled down sap of a Mexican evergreen. The name means “sticky stuff” in the Nahautl language. Santa Anna convinced his landlord, Thomas Adams, that the stuff had commercial potential.

First they tried to take advantage of the post Civil War bicycle craze by making tires, but the stuff was not durable enough. Rain boots? Same problem. Toys? The kids yawned.

One day Adams was in a drug store when a little girl came in and asked for a piece of chewing gum.
“What’s this gum made from?” he asked the pharmacist
“Paraffin wax.”
“How does it sell?”
“The kids love it!”
And so the Adams Chewing Gum Company was born.

Which should make you shake your head, because that’s exactly what chicle was used for in Mexico. Adams and Santa Anna were classic over-thinkers.

Within a few years, almost all chewing gum sold in America was chicle based. The kids preferred it to chewing wax almost as much as Texans preferred freedom to Santa Anna.

Strangely enough, at the exact same time Adams was turning Santa Anna’s chicle into a chewing gum fortune, a young Galveston pharmacist was on the verge of doing the same thing.

Unfortunately for J. J. Schott, his financial backers abandoned him when his first shipment of chicle arrived, and he was forced to sell it in wholesale lots to move it quickly. To entice buyers, Schott offered his secret of sweetening the chicle and infusing it with mint flavoring.

One of Schott’s wholesale buyers was Philip K. Wrigley of Chicago, who’s resulting chewing gum empire allowed him to buy the Chicago Cubs.

Categories: Texas Culture