This Maine man made a fortune with chewing gum

John Bacon Curtis
Died 1897 at age 70

Greetings from Portland. Sweater weather is here. Every day this month I’m telling a story that bridges the gap between this world, and the next. I’m resurrecting the memory of Portlanders who’ve crossed over to the other side by posting one video each day, relating the tale of one, interesting “permanent Portlander.”

John Curtis was born in Hampden in 1827. He never finished school. Instead, he went to work in the woods as a swamper, clearing underbrush for loggers. It’s there, among the trees, where he had and idea that would make him rich.

Two words: spruce gum.

He didn’t invent chewing gum, but he was the first man to mass produce and market it.

John Bacon Curtis, the inventor of commercial chewing gum, as he appears on the pages of George Thomas Little’s massive tome “Genealogical and Family History of the State of Maine,” published in 1909.

John Bacon Curtis, the inventor of commercial chewing gum, as he appears on the pages of George Thomas Little’s massive tome “Genealogical and Family History of the State of Maine,” published in 1909.

He began by boiling down spruce sap on his parents wood stove in Bangor. Then he came down to Portland to try and sell it. Nobody much bit on his idea. So, in 1850, he hit the road, selling it door-to-door, from here to Pittsburgh, all the way out west and up and down the Mississippi River.

Eventually, his product took off and he built a large factory on Fore Street. It’s still there, housing Hub Furniture. At its height, his factory employed 200 people and turned out 1,800 boxes of gum a day. He once bought ten tons of raw spruce gum at once for $35,000.

Later, Curtis added paraffin and sugar to his gum, making it sweeter and selling it under names like “American Flag,” “Yankee Spruce,” and  “Licorice Lulu.”

So, the next time you step in a big wad of gum on Congress Street, you can say a silent, profanity-laced prayer for John Curtis while you try and scrape it off on the curb.

Today’s story is brought to you, in part, by Vol II of George Thomas Little’s massive tome “Genealogical and Family History of the State of Maine,” published in 1909.

Disclaimer: I’m not a historian. I owe everything I know to the dedicated research of those who have come before me. These character sketches are assembled from multiple (often antique) sources and sprinkled with my own conjecture. I’m happy to be set straight or to learn more.

Workers inside the Curtis Chewing Gum factory on Fore Street in Portland, circa 1900, pack the chewable stuff in boxes. This image comes courtesy of the Maine memory Network, item no. 9994.

Workers inside the Curtis Chewing Gum factory on Fore Street in Portland, circa 1900, pack the chewable stuff in boxes. This image comes courtesy of the Maine memory Network, item no. 9994.

 

Troy R. Bennett

About Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.