Know It All: What’s the Story Behind Chewing Gum?

You probably put it in your mouth everyday. But do you know where chewing gum came from? Or who even came up with the concept, in the first place?

Everybody has that moment when they realize they don’t know about something that they should probably know about. Whether it’s history, language, science, or cultural phenomena, you’ve felt the stinging personal embarrassment of a moment wherein you realize there’s some common knowledge that isn’t so common. Don’t feel bad; nobody knows everything. Nobody, that is, except me and my sidekick, The Internet!

Somewhere in the world, a confused soul begs the question…

What’s the story behind chewing gum?

When you really think about it, chewing gum is a very strange staple of our culture. It’s not food. It’s not nutritional. It delivers no great chemical sensation like chewing tobacco or peyote. Basically, it’s like a temporary, flavored exercise machine for your mouth. So: who would come up with this idea, and why?

As with most everything in our contemporary culture, we have to start with ancient Greece, where citizens routinely chewed on the resin (or sap) from the Mastic tree. This substance was dubbed “mastiche” and became prevalent in the Mediterranean culture as a flavoring for food and beverages alike. By the Middle Ages, mastiche was regarded positively for its breath-freshening qualities as well as a perceived belief that it possessed healing and cosmetic properties. The gum is still used today as a spice in cooking all over the world while also serving as a key ingredient in products like toothpaste, skin lotions, and perfume.

On the other side of the world, the Mayans are believed to have utilized the gum from the manilkara chicle evergreen tree (yes, that's the inspiration for “Chiclet”) in a similar fashion as the Greeks did, a few centuries prior. In North America, European settlers took a cue from the Natives and developed a chewing gum based on spruce tree sap and beeswax. This spruce gum, it should be noted, had little to no flavor and was akin to chewing on a piece of wood.

In 1848, an American businessman named John Bacon Curtis recognized the massive financial potential of turning spruce gum into a proper product rather than a do-it-yourself novelty of nature. Before long, his “State of Maine Pure Spruce Gum” brand was well-known throughout New England and the model of chewing gum business was born. Curtis is also credited with creating much of the machinery used in the automated process of producing chewing gum. By 1850, he had introduced different flavors like “Yankee Spruce,” “Licorice Lulu,” and “Sugar Cream” though it wouldn’t be another few decades before any chewing gum was able to retain flavor for very long.

With Curtis’ breakthrough, many eyes glimpsed the potentially massive market for chewing gum. Patents for gum and the devices used to produce it were filed in the next twenty-five years, leading to the rise of men like William Wrigley Jr. and Frank Fleer without whom the term “chewing gum industry” would seem like science fiction.

Now you know.

Justin Brown

Justin Brown is an artist and writer living in Virginia. He channels most of his enthusiasm into making things for his online art shop, Artness! by Justin Brown. You can keep up to date with him, his worldly adventures, and his dogs by following him on Instagram and on Facebook