The Curtis Gum Company

One of the forgotten industries of Maine’s past is the Spruce Gum business, once upon a time providing employment to hundreds of Mainers. Hearty souls would tromp the backwoods of this state with long poles, scraping the oozing sap from the trunks of the mighty spruce for sale to the gum companies. It was a good business and a solid line of trade in the 1800s, with many businesses sprouting up in the industry. Of course, if you ask anyone today if they have any spruce gum, they’ll look sideways at you as if you had some kind of a problem.

Oh well, time changes everything but God, as they say.

I came across an article in the January, 1904 issue of the Board of Trade Journal that detailed some of one gum companies history and status, that being the Curtis Gum Co located at 289 Fore street and 9 Deer Street, next to where today’s Hub Furniture building sits. Today, the location is a parking garage. I have placed a Google maps picture of that building today to the left, as well as an early photo from Portland, Past and Present showing the South Portland factory, the first factory in America built for the purpose of gum manufacturing.

Curtis Gum Co.

The origin of the Curtis & Son Company, 9 Deer and 289 Fore streets, dates back to 1850, when John B. Curtis, who had aided his father in making spruce gum over the kitchen stove, started a small factory, and created a public taste for his gum until the demand outgrew his most sanguine expectations. Of the three different factories erected by Mr. Curtis, for the manufacture of chewing gum, the last, finished in 1866, was the first brick structure ever built in this country for such a purpose. To this building extensive enlargements have been found necessary to keep pace with the growth of the business.

On January 1, 1898, after the death of Mr. Curtis, the concern was made a close corporation with Adam P. Leighton as president and Silas B. Adams as secretary and treasurer. The building on Fore street, which is five stories high, containing three floors, 45 by 135 feet and two floors 45 by 90 feet, is devoted wholly to the manufacture of pepsin chewing gum, of which chickle is the chief ingredient.

The company employs 16 men and 80 to 100 girls, with a daily product of 5,000 pounds of chewing gum, representing a retail value of $2,500.

The branch factory in South Portland is manufactures spruce and paraffin, substances which enter largely into the composition of the different gums. About 30 persons are employed in this establishment, whose daily output will average 1,200 pounds.

The company also maintains a branch factory at St. John, N. B. The factories are supplied with self-acting wrapping machines, capable of doing the work of five girls. The company today manufactures over 40 different brands of chewing gum, not reckoning private brands made to fill special orders. Seven traveling men, are covering territory from St. Johns, Newfoundland, to the Hawaiian Islands, and from Owen’s Sound, Ontario, to the City of Mexico, are kept constantly on the road. Mr. Leighton has represented Ward Seven in the Board of Aldermen, and is vice president of Chapman National bank, and a director of the Mercantile Trust Co.

In a resume of this enterprise, credit must necessarily be paid Mr. Adams for his successful management of the business. Mr. Adams is thoroughly experienced in the manufacture of gum, and was connected with the old concern previous to the present organization. Mr. Adams is also treasurer of the Casco Paper Box Company.

The following is the excerpt from Gillespie’s Portland, Past and Present with a few additional details of this historic Maine company.

Curtis & Son Company

Through the above concern Portland is noted for the manufacture of chewing gum, as the history of the entire business of the world dates back to the start made by John B. Curtis, in 1850. Spruce chewing gum was made by his father with the use of a kitchen stove, and rudely put up in comparison with the marvels of artistic creations of the present day. Mr. Curtis started out with his novel product, and, undaunted by the unpromising reception at first, finally succeeded in educating the dealer, and through him the public, until the demand outgrew his wildest hopes.

Three different factories were built by him, for the making of chewing gum, the last in 1866, is shown in the accompanying illustration. This is the first brick building ever built for the manufacture of chewing gum, to which notable enlargements have been made necessary, from time to time, to keep pace with the growth of the business. After the use of spruce gum had become firmly fixed in the public favor, it was discovered that paraffin was a material which could be made use of in the manufacture of chewing gums, and to this day these white gums are popular with a large portion of the public.

In about 1871, gum chicle, which had been brought to New York for purposes of experimenting, and as a hoped-for substitute for gutta percha, was found to be a very acceptable substance, and perfectly adapted to the making of chewing gum; since that time the use of this material has increased enormously, and with a very large part of the public, has supplanted the use of spruce and paraffine. The output of this historic factory is over 1,000 boxes daily. Shipments are now made covering the entire territory from St. Johns. New Foundland, to Honolulu, and from Owen’s Sound, Ontario, to the City of Mexico.

The business in this city requires from 65 to 85 hands the year round, and the factory is equipped with all the labor saving devices in the way of modern machinery. There is used at the factory 200,000 pounds of sugar, 75,000 pounds of gum chicle, 25 tons of spruce, and 20 tons of paraffine annually. This concern, the pioneer in the chewing gum business in the United States, and in fact, the world, for many years enjoying and meriting a monopoly, was, until his decease, carried on under the firm name of Curtis & Son, by the late John B. Curtis, a well known citizen of Portland. On January 1, 1898, the business was merged into the present close corporation, of which Adam P. Leighton is president, and S. B. Adams, treasurer, both of whom are well known in business and financial circles.

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Categories: history, Maine, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , | 3 Comments

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3 thoughts on “The Curtis Gum Company

  1. M

    The Hub Furniture Building and the Curtis Gum Building look one in the same to me. It seems that over time two extra stories were added to the building.

    • That is my feeling as well. However, I need to do some deep digging before deciding this is actually so. Hub Furniture is listed as being at 290 Fore Street, while the Curtis Gum Co was at 289. Iam guessing that at some time the buildings on the street were probably renumbered, and the two buildings are actually one and the same. An additional impediment is that the latter article suggests that the three story building was the South Portland factory. The description of the original factory on Fore Street also fits with the description of the Hub Furniture building before the back portion of the bulding was added to.(5 floors in the front, 3 in the back for the orig. Curtis building.) One of these days I’ll have time to do the research, and I’ll update this post if I find out for sure we are right.

  2. bill mccue

    Nice story, John Curtis was born in Bradford Maine where he made his first batches of gum. He then moved to Portland where his business grew.
    The John B Curtis library in Bradford was built with money that he willed the town.

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