Spruce Gum Boxes
Odds and Ends From The MUSEUM!
By Trudy Wyman, Curator, Millinocket Society Museum
Did you ever chew spruce gum? I did. Like many rural Maine boys and girls, a walk in the woods often led to the discovery of a lump of spruce sap that had hardened into resin. Some patience and the careful softening of the lump eventually allows for the chewing of this “spruce gum.” Spruce gum has a rather strong taste that many might say is an acquired taste.
Spruce gum was a rather large industry in Maine in the 1800’s when lumbermen, trappers and a few professional “gummers” collected the dried resin. Ranging in price from ten cents to a dollar a pound, depending on quality, some lumbermen’s picking earnings was more than they earned lumbering (maybe $3.00 to $5.00 a day back then). Some of the gum was sold to companies who marketed the gum or sold it for its medicinal qualities (cough syrup or digestion aid).
The Millinocket Historical Society museum has several spruce gum boxes or gum books as they were often called. Not the boxes the companies sold the gum in, rather the hand carved wooden boxes or books the lumbermen carved in their free time. These boxes were the lumberman’s art form as scrimshaw was the sailor’s art form. Made from a solid piece of wood and commonly with a sliding top or bottom or both, these became storage boxes for the pieces of spruce gum. They easily fit into a pocket. Usually about two inches by five inches, many had intricate carvings while some were of a simpler design. Some were made by the lumbermen as gifts for loved ones.
These gum boxes were most popular from the mid1800’s to the 1920’s. As other gums, flavored and sweeter, came into popularity, the demand for spruce gum lessened. Also, as the paper industry grew, the demand was for large quantities of spruce pulp making less gum available
The museum is pleased to display several spruce gum boxes and some pieces of gum in the Logging Room display. Also on display are several “crooked knives” that were used by loggers and lumbermen to carve the spruce gum boxes and other small items. The gum boxes on display and many of the “crooked knives” in the museum collection were donated several years ago by the late Dana Brown, who was a long-time friend of the museum!