I can still remember my first chew of spruce gum. Like so many other children from Maine, my dad gave me that first amber nugget. I was five, and we were skiing in back of our house in Stillwater. You can’t forget how the gum first crumbles, releasing a powerful taste of the spruce forest, then comes back together and settles down (after you spit out the impurities) into a nice, long lasting, lavender colored chew.
Spruce gum is spruce sap that’s hardened into resin. You can collect it from all species of spruce, though traditionally most has come from red and black spruce. It flows slowly from wounds and is finally ready to chew when it’s hard and breaks cleanly – usually after two to four years, depending on the size of the resin flow.
In the 1800s, an entire industry developed around the product. Maine was the largest producer of gum in the Northeast and had about 20 companies between 1848 and 1910.
Traditionally, the folks who harvested spruce gum were woodsmen: lumbermen, trappers, hermits, and a few professionals know as “gummers.” They used a pole with a chisel to pry the nuggets from the tree and a can or canvas pouch to catch the gum. Sometimes they would even climb the tree with leg irons. Prices paid to pickers ranged from 10 cents to a dollar a pound, depending on quality, and a picker’s daily earnings often exceeded what a lumberman made in a day.
The market was broader than simple chewing gum. Spruce gum was traditionally used by Native Americans in a salve for skin irritations and sores, and it wasn’t long before European settlers began to appreciate its medicinal qualities. A number of Maine companies made spruce gum cough syrup, and cardboard packages advised chewing spruce gum as an aid to digestion. Just recently, spruce gum was tested in Finland as a possible cure for bedsores.
Spruce gum boxes, also known as gum books, were a lumberman’s art form, often carved deep in the woods for a loved one at home. Many of these gum boxes became family heirlooms. They were made from a solid piece of wood, commonly had a sliding top and bottom, and were filled with gum. Gum boxes were small, averaging about two by three by five inches. Some had intricate carvings, often with hearts, while others consisted of simple geometric designs with chip carving around the edge. The heyday of gum boxes was from the mid 1800s until about 1920, after which time lumbermen were able to return home, rather than spend the entire winter in the woods pining for their sweethearts.
So what happened to spruce gum? By the 1860s, other gums such as chicle and paraffin came onto the market. These gums could be flavored and sweetened and they found a ready audience. Additionally, the paper industry’s rapid growth demanded huge quantities of spruce pulp, diminishing the availability of readily accessible gum in some areas. Today, only one Maine company, located in Stratton, deals in spruce gum.
There’s still plenty of gum out there in the woods, and although the average spruce gum chewer is getting along in years, you’re bound to get a story if you ever mention spruce gum to a long-time fan of the resinous chew. Who knows, with the current interest in all things local, spruce gum might be poised for a comeback.