Category Archives: tree resin

The Guy Who Invented Chewing Gum – A Life of Many Firsts

John B. Curtis (1827-1897)

John B. Curtis (1827-1897)

John Bacon Curtis was the one who started it all – he ushered in the world of chewing gum, bringing the nation a new pastime and treat. In the process, he ignited many other firsts, most so commonplace we forget anyone could be first to do them.

Curtis was born in Hampden Maine in 1827. He went to common school for a few years then left to help bring in money for his family. He worked as a farmhand and later a “swamper,” clearing the underbrush and forests to make way for roads. At that time, the Native Americans of Maine used the  spruce tree resin to clean their teeth, exercise their jaws, and even heal  skin irritations and sores. They also used the sticky sap to repair their canoes.

Spruce Tree with Sap

Spruce Tree with Sap

It was either Curtis’ time as a swamper, his familiarity with the Native American’s use of spruce resin, or both that gave Curtis, then 21 years old, an idea-why not make a gum that would appeal to a more general market. He, with help from his reluctant father, tested numerous possibilities, boiling the spruce on the kitchen stove, cleaning it, cutting it into strips, wrapping it, and, finally, sealing the deal with their own label. They named the creation “State of Maine Pure Spruce Gum.”

According to a bio of Curtis written in 1909, he went from store to store trying to sell the stuff for two days but didn’t have any takers. On the third day he found a shop willing to carry it. The gum didn’t sell well at first, but eventually had a limited following – not enough money to support the family in style but, evidently, enough to give them hope. In 1850, Curtis took the gum, patent medicines and other goods on the road as a wholesale “peddler.”

Although the peddler game was competitive, Curtis was aggressive and did well at it. The 1909 account quotes him as saying: “When the other fellows thought I was in bed, I was on the road. By driving nights I got in ahead many times, and had the trade all to myself.” He also claimed to have the best horses available for his buggy – and within a year had traveled throughout New England, raising $6,000.

That amount may have been enough – or possibly not quite enough – to encourage Curtis to expand his time on the road while his father oversaw gum production at home. They got their resin from a new subclass of workers known as “pickers.” An 1889 New York Times article, retold in the Adirondack Almanac (2010), described the position this way:

“…Very few people know how extensive [spruce gum picking] is, or how many people depend on it to help out a scanty living…Most of the Adirondack gum pickers are gum pickers from necessity, not from choice. They are a nondescript class… They are found among farmers, mechanics, lumbermen, guides, and even some of the young and robust maidens who dwell on the borders of the woods.”

To get the sap, the pickers scored – or wounded – the tree. The sap would bubble up to heal and fill the wound which, months later, the pickers would gather with an ax, a long pole with a scraper at the end, or a bucket with a sharp edge. The pickers, as well as other lumbermen and forest workers, might spend days, or even months, in the woods. During that time, they made little boxes with sliding tops, often etched with a design called “gum books.” They filled the interior with chunks of spruce gum which they later gave their sweethearts at home.

"Gum Book" made by the Naturalist today

“Gum Book” made by the Naturalist today

Curtis, meanwhile, broadened his territory, breaking ground as the first Easterner to set up commercial relationships in the Wild West and as one of the first – if not, the first – sales reps in the nation. When you imagine a salesman, you likely think of train rides, circa the Music Man, with crafty salesmen huddled together in coach class, saloons with beds one floor up for the weary (and intoxicated) traveler, and skeptical townspeople who eventually became won over by the sales guy’s quick talk.

But for the first chewing gum salesman, the narrative is entirely different. First his travels predated the railroad, or, as Curtis stated: “In those early days Chicago had but one railroad and nothing but wooden sidewalks, through the cracks of which when the ground was wet the water was projected upward in streams that copiously sprinkled the passer-by.”

This usually meant he traveled by water – rivers, canals, and lakes – and by stagecoach. Here’s what Curtis was quoted as saying about the matter:

“I have passed hundreds of nights camping out on long trips, with only a blanket for a covering and the ground for a bed. We, who drummed the trade in the West then in behalf of Eastern houses, did not mind that, but we did object to the rattlesnakes sometimes. It didn’t pay to have them get too familiar. We were happy when we could travel by canal-boat or by steamboat, but the dreadful Western stages were what tried our patience. Time and again, but for the fact that my samples and baggage had to be carried, I should have preferred to walk, and would have beaten the stages under ordinary circumstances. Many times I did walk, but it was beside the stage, with a rail on my shoulder, ready to help pry the stage itself out of the mud.”

Curtis & Son Factory

Curtis & Son Company  Factory in Portland Maine

Regardless of the harsh travel conditions or, for that matter, the year it took to get paid by customers, Curtis was a stunning success. To keep up with demand, he invented a gum-making machine that enabled them to produce the gum faster and easier than by hand. In 1852, the Curtis & Son Company opened the nation’s first chewing gum factory with 200 employees producing 1800 boxes of gum a day, and the chewing gum industry was born!

Why Curtis stopped making chewing gum isn’t clear. Before he did, he experimented with flavors, such as licorice, and ingredients, including the popular paraffin wax, the parent to the wax lips kids still use today. Competitors bubbled up throughout Maine and beyond but Curtis remained king. One reason could be that Curtis’ father died in 1869, changing the nature of the business. Another could be that spruce resin, in spite of the boiling and flavoring, still had a strong taste and bitter aftertaste – with new and fanciful flavors appearing with the industrialization of food, spruce just couldn’t compete.

It’s also possible that Curtis, who went into dredging, ship-building, mining and, finally farming, was a true entrepreneurial spirit who loved the adventure of breaking ground but had no interest in staying there. And he was good at it – his many endeavors made him a very rich man and he died that way at the age of 70 in 1897.

Regardless, his legacy lived on. The machinery Curtis invented, but never patented, was used for decades afterwards. The chewing gum industry he started blossomed, and his spruce resin continued to play a part. In 1892, a baking powder salesman decided to offer spruce gum as a free gift to encourage people to buy his product. It turns out the customers were more interested in the spruce gum than the powder and the salesman switched careers. His name was William Wrigley and he went on to become the most powerful player in the gum industry anywhere.

So Much Resin, So Much Time: The First Chewing Gums Ever

Throughout history, people have chewed tree resins: they were the first and longest-standing chewing gum, appreciated for their flavor and medicinal and health value. Amazingly, the shift from gum as a natural resin to a popular industrial wonder spanned a mere 75 years – a fraction of a hiccup in time. Here are some of the originals:

Birch: The oldest chewing gum in the world was found by British archeology students on a volunteer dig in Finland. There, they discovered a clump of birch-bark tar, complete with teeth marks. Finish archeologist Sami Viljamaa says the chunk is between 5,500 and 6,000 years old and that Neanderthals used it to treat sore gums and stomach distress. Modern science proves they were right: the bark, which they boiled to make the tar, contains antiseptic compounds called “phenols.” It also contains xylitol, the natural sweetener you see advertised on gum packages today, which fights tooth decay.

5,000 Year Old Birch Gum

5,000 Year Old Birch Gum

Mastic: Largely from the Greek island of Chios, the mastic resin is a favorite of mine – it’s the first in written history and one we carry at the shop. It comes from the shrubby mastic tree which looks like an overgrown bonsai: the pearls are the stuff of jewelry – yellow beads with a subtle glistening quality. The resin is also called “Chios Tears” because it seems to “weep” from the tree and makes a crying sound when you step on the branches. Some scholars believe the “bakha ,” in Psalm 84 of the bible,  which comes from the Hebrew word for weeping, refers to the mastic tree.

First century botanist and physician Dioscorides recorded the mastic’s medicinal  value in his treatise, “De Materia Medica.” The ancient Greeks chewed the resin to clean their teeth and relieve stomach troubles, as did countless others since then. Modern studies at such a places as the Universities of Nottingham, Thessaloniki and Meikai found mastic contains antibacterial and anti-fungal properties, can cut over 40% of bacterial plaque in the mouth and heal peptic ulcers, among other advantages.

The Beautiful Mastic Resin

The Beautiful Mastic Resin

 Spruce: The hard amber nuggets from the spruce tree are closely tied to U.S. history. Native Americans of the Northeast originally chewed them, taking pieces on long hauls when fishing, hunting or exploring. It moistened their mouths, cleaned their teeth, and likely had other medicinal qualities. In 1847, John Curtis, a European American in Maine, packaged the resin as “State of Maine Pure Spruce Gum,”  making it the first commercial chewing gum in U.S. history.

The spruce was so successful, Curtis built a factory to manufacture resin sticks. Curtis’ father managed the factory as Curtis hit the road, selling spruce gum throughout the country. Other companies joined in, including American Flag, Yankee Spruce, 200 Lump Spruce, and Kennebec and spruce resin became an American success. Around this time, another entrepreneurial spirit came on the spruce scene. The son of a soap salesman, he was selling baking powder when a marketing lightning bolt struck: why not give free spruce gum with the baking powder? It turned out that people preferred the gum to the powder and he ended up making and selling chewing gum, instead. His name: William Wrigley.

Amber gems

Amber gems

 Sapodilla: No tree has influenced American’s chewing habits quite the same as the sapodilla tree. Its resin probably sounds familiar: it’s the chicle and the native peoples of Mesoamerica have been chewing it for thousands of years. Like other tree resins and gums, they used it to clean their teeth and freshen their breath.

A bit like today, the Aztecs had rules of decorum for chewing gum – women who chewed gum in public were considered harlots and men, effeminate.  In her book, “Chicle: The Chewing Gum of the Americas, from the Ancient Maya to William Wrigley,” author Jennifer Mathew quotes 16th-century Spanish missionary Bernardino de Sahagún as saying: “All the women who unmarried chew chicle in public. One’s wife also chews chicle, but not in public…with it they dispel the bad odor of their mouths, or the bad smell of their teeth. Thus they chew chicle in order not to be detested.”

The chicle reached the U.S. via the deposed president of Mexico, General Antonio Lopéz de Santa Ana who hooked up with former Civil War photographer, glass-maker, and inventor Thomas Adams. After failing to use the resin to make rubber for tires, dolls and other items, which would make them both rich, Adams turned to chewing gum, instead. The result was the first soft chewing gum in the U.S., “Adams’ New York Gum No. 1 — Snapping and Stretching.” Adams became incredibly wealthy as a result –Santa Anna lost interest and returned to Mexico broke.

As for the Maya in Mesoamerica – the story is more bitter than sweet. The sapodilla forest was depleted, owing to the European and European-American taste for gum. American companies  employed locals, but exploited them in numerous ways,  leading to what some call the second fall of the Mayan Empire.

 

The General, Lithograph, 1852

The General, Lithograph, 1852

Thomas Adams

Thomas Adams

 

                                                                                  Gums Today

The chewing gum industry’s reliance on natural resins ended only during World War II when manufacturers sending gum to the soldiers realized the natural stuff wouldn’t meet the demand. Today, the majority of gum is synthetic. Still, some gums promise to give the same value as the ancient resins.  Experts say these claims have some merit, especially about sugar-free gum – it causes you to salivate which cleans the teeth.

                                                                         Pitch? Gum? Resin

In this piece, I have used the term “resin” to describe the early chewing gums. But there is a difference between the stuff that flows from the tree, depending on where it comes from in three and how you treat it. The USDA Forest Service explains the distinction at http://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/ethnobotany/resins.shtml.