Who Made the First Chewing Gum?
In many lands and from very early times, people have enjoyed chewing on gum-like substances. Some of these were chewy bits of resin and latex from certain kinds of trees. From the Indians, the American colonists learned to chew the gummy resin from spruce trees.
Later, sweetened paraffin wax began to take the place of spruce gum. Gum made of flavored chicle (the milky white latex of the tropical sapodilla tree) soon won favor over paraffin gum. The “chew” in today’s chewing gum is provided by a chewy plastic mixed with natural latexes and waxes.
People have been chewing gum, in various forms, since ancient times, there’s evidence that some northern Europeans were chewing birch bark tar 9,000 years ago, possibly for enjoyment as well as such medicinal purposes as relieving toothaches. The ancient Maya chewed chicle, as a way to quench thirst or fight hunger.
The Aztecs also used chicle and even had rules about its social acceptability. Only kids and single women were allowed to chew it in public. Married women and widows could chew it privately to freshen up their breath, while men could chew it in secret to clean their teeth.
In North America, the Indians chewed spruce tree resin, a practice that continued with the European settlers who followed. In the late 1840s, John Curtis developed the first commercial spruce tree gum by boiling resin then cutting it into strips that were coated in cornstarch to prevent them from sticking together. By the early 1850s, Curtis had constructed the world’s first chewing gum factory, in Portland, Maine.
As it turned out, though, spruce resin was less-than-ideal for producing gum because it didn’t taste great and became brittle when chewed. Curtis and others who’d jumped into the gum business after him subsequently switched to ingredients such as paraffin wax.
The next key development came when an inventor in New York, Thomas Adams, formed a company that by the late-1880s was making gum sold across the country. He imported chicle to the United States from Mexico and Central America, which served as the main ingredient in chewing gum until most manufacturers replaced it with synthetic ingredients by the mid-1900s.