In the late 19th century, a new fad swept the nation. Chewing gum was decried by newspaper editors and public pundits as “an essentially vulgar indulgence that not only shows bad breeding, but spoils a pretty countenance.” Nevertheless, the June 14, 1894 edition of the Malone Palladium commented, “No observant person can have failed to note the marked growth of the habit of chewing gum…in all parts of the country and among all classes.” The paper noted that even the “late Senator Roscoe Conkling of New York was a firm believer in spruce gum chewing.”
The gum-chewing craze began in the conifer forests of Maine and the Adirondacks. Made from the dried and crystallized sap of spruce trees, spruce gum was an important commercial crop in the Adirondack region during the 19th and early 20th centuries.
The New York Times reported in 1889 that “very few people know how extensive [spruce gum picking] is, or how many people depend on it to help out a scanty living…Most of the Adirondack gum pickers are gum pickers from necessity, not from choice. They are a nondescript class… They are found among farmers, mechanics, lumbermen, guides, and even some of the young and robust maidens who dwell on the borders of the woods.”
Gum collectors scored spruce trees with an ax. The tree filled the wound with sap, which weathered and hardened over the summer and into winter. In early spring, Adirondackers used an ax or a picker make from a tin can with a sharp edge or scraper attached on the end of a long pole. Boiled and processed, the gum was broken into bite-sized chunks. Still brittle, it took a few seconds to soften in the mouth, and retained a distinctively “sprucy” taste.
Enterprising men and women could collect hundreds, even thousands of pounds each year, to sell to manufacturers or process at home. In good years, one could sell the collected gum for as much as a dollar a pound. In 1881, the Pulaski Democrat announced, “A gentleman was in Lowville the other day, buying all the spruce gum that could be found in the market… The gum is shipped to Lowell, Mass., where it finds ready sale.” In 1916, John Kelly of Croghan collected and sold more than 3,000 pounds, “quite an achievement when taken into consideration that Mr. Kelly is well up into the sixties and did the work alone.”
In 1870, Thomas Adams of Staten Island, NY, developed chewing gum made from the sap of the Mexican Chiclezapote tree, and invented the Chiclet. Softer and sweeter, the new gum gradually outpaced the demand for brittle, unsweetened spruce gum.
By 1926, the Tupper Lake Herald reported that spruce gum had fallen out of favor, so much so that “only one man is actively engaged in having it gathered and only a dozen Indians tramp through the woods to bring in the stores.”
Nevertheless, spruce gum had its devotees, and one could still buy it in the late 1940s from a few Adirondack drug stores. It was sold by weight, and wrapped in “a neat packet sealed with olive green wax.” Old timers waxed nostalgic, recalling that it “tastes better if it’s all mixed up with resin, bark and pitch… Spruce gum is the distillation of rainbows and sunsets, of hurricanes and sunshine, of hard winter and puissant spring… Certain things do go with the Adirondacks, inalienably… When folks have been a long time absent from their homeland, their faces light up like lamps when they think about spruce gum.”
Come see the Adirondack Museum’s spruce gum picker, which was made and used in the Willsboro area in the early 20th century. It is on exhibit in “Lets Eat! Adirondack Food Traditions” which opens May 28.
Photo: Spruce Gum Picker Found in Willsboro, NY ca. 1900-1920, Adirondack Museum, Gift of Dennis Wells.