Humans have been chewing gum for thousands of years.  Examples of early antecedents of gum include birch-bark tar at a Neolithic site in Germany and an ancient Greek’s mastic.  However, the first examples of gum that have affected the gum industry today were from early Mexico.  Chicle was first chewed by the natives from ancient South America, such as the Aztecs and Mayans. 2.  It was developed from the tree sap of the Malinkara zapota, or sapodilla, tree, native to jungles in southern Mexico and Central America. 3.  Among the Aztecs, unmarried women and young children were allowed to chew gum in public, but among men, it was seen as effeminate.   Old women chewed gum in private to cure rheumatism or bad breath.  Aztec prostitutes, however, were identifiable by their perfume and the sound of chewing. 4.  Chewing chicle, in the world of the Aztecs, was a symbol of gender and sexual status—marriage status, sexuality, promiscuity.

“The chicleros cut zigzag patterns, opposite left, in the sapodilla tree which allows the latex (sap) to run down the trunk.” sapodilla

An Aztec chewing chicle in the 1590s, taken from a Florentine painting. Aztec

The next development was something known as “spruce gum.”  While the resin from spruce trees had been chewed by American Indians and European settlers for decades, it took John B. Curtis of Maine to change spruce gum into a commerical product rather than a natural one. 5.  Curtis was originally a “swamper,” someone who cleared trees from roads for a living.  He changed his line of work, and at age twenty-one in 1848, manufactured an early prototype of chewing gum. 6.   Curtis and his father boiled the resin from spruce trees, scraped off tree debris, cut it into strips, and marketed the product.  The first storekeeper to stock Curtis’s “spruce gum” quickly sold out, and “State of Maine Pure Spruce Gum” became a huge success. 7.  Curtis made $5,000 in his first year in business, and within the first four years, a factory was built in Portland. 8.  The number of companies that sold a variation of the spruce gum increased, and the product’s popularity reached national levels.  Curtis also developed the paraffin gum, which is popularly known today for the big red gum lips.  However, with the increased demand for wood pulp for newspapers and the foul taste of aftertaste of thegum, the market soon dwindled, and by the 1920s, only Harry David, the “Spruce Gum King,” was left in business. 9.

John B. Curtis

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