By all accounts, William Wrigley (1861-1932) is the "father of chewing gum." He transformed a small business selling soap into the top chewing gum manufacturer in the world. Although he did not invent chewing gum, it was his company that brought it to the world.
William Wrigley Jr. was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on September 30, 1861. His parents, William and Mary A. Ladley were second generation Americans. The Wrigley family traced its roots back to Saddleworth, a manufacturing town north of Yorkshire in England. The boy's great-grandfather, Edmund, was a woolen manufacturer in the "City of Brotherly Love," while his father went on to greater success as a soapmaker. In 1870, William Sr. founded and served as president of the Wrigley Manufacturing Company. The main product was Wrigley's Scouring Soap.
The younger Wrigley took an immediate interest in his father's soap business, which opened as the public began viewing soap as a consumer good. A year after the plant opened, the boy went out into the streets of Philadelphia and sold soap from a basket. Catching the sales bug, Wrigley and a friend ran away to New York a year later. Wrigley supported himself by doing a number of odd jobs and selling newspapers.
In the late 19th century rough and tumble New York City was no place for small little boys. The two returned home a few weeks later. Constantly in trouble at school, Wrigley left permanently (by some reports he was expelled) and went to work in his father's factory. He stirred a vat of liquid soap for $1.50 a week. As he learned the business, he moved into a regional sales job, either traveling by train throughout the Eastern states or selling soap from a bright red wagon with four horses and bells.
Go West Young Man
Wrigley again tried to establish himself away from his father's business at the age of 18. He went West, but lost his railroad ticket in Kansas City. Eventually, he made it back to Philadelphia and William Sr.'s factory. He continued in the business for more than a decade before leaving again.
In 1891, after working in the soap business for 20 years, Wrigley moved to Chicago at the age of 29 with his wife, Ada, and young daughter, Dorothy, to go into business for himself. He planned to sell soap in Chicago for his father's company and offer baking powder as a premium. For the rest of his business life, Wrigley advocated giving a bonus with each purchase. "Everybody likes something extra, for nothing," he often said.
Although Wrigley arrived in Chicago with only $32 dollars in his pocket, he secured a $5,000 loan from an uncle on the condition that his cousin become Wrigley's business partner. When he realized that customers were more interested in getting the baking powder than soap, Wrigley and his partner quickly switched to the baking powder business. Looking for another premium to offer, Wrigley turned to chewing gum. This product had become popular in the 1860s after New York inventor, Thomas Adams, introduced chicle to the United States after a visit with the former Mexican dictator Santa Anna, who chewed the stuff while they spoke.
Chewing Gum for the World
Wrigley gave away two packages of chewing gum with each baking soda purchase until he once again grasped that the premium was more popular than the product. In 1892, Wrigley Chewing Gum offered its first two brands: Lotta Gum and Vassar. Gradually, he phased out baking powder and soap and concentrated on chewing gum.
The chewing gum business was highly competitive in the late 1800s. There were at least a dozen companies pushing their wares. In 1899, the six largest companies merged to form "the chewing gum trust." Although a newcomer to the industry, Wrigley was offered a place in the trust, but he refused. Under relentless competition, Wrigley teetered on the verge of bankruptcy several times, but plowed ahead nonetheless.
A natural promoter, Wrigley realized the power of advertising. Much of his company's budget focused on selling the product through advertisements and gimmicks. Wrigley himself did much of the selling in the early days and had a knack for understanding the customers' needs. He expanded his premium offers, giving away items ranging from lamps and razors to cookbooks and fishing tackle. The premium system worked so well that Wrigley even published premium catalogs to help customers choose what they wanted.
Wrigley used every form of advertising at his disposal. In his company's ads, Wrigley repeatedly told people about the benefits of the product. He bought space in newspapers, magazines, and even outdoor posters. His motto was "tell em quick and tell em often."
In 1893 and 1894, Wrigley introduced the flavors that would make the company eternal: Juicy Fruit and Wrigley's Spearmint. The enterprising Wrigley even designed the logo on the Spearmint package. He decided the company would concentrate on popularizing Spearmint, which no company had been able to achieve. The general public did not accept Spearmint at first. However, Wrigley believed in it and pushed it relentlessly. In 1907, a depression year, Wrigley spent $284,000 in advertising, mostly on Spearmint and with that much was able to buy over $1.5 million worth of advertising in cash-strapped New York. The gamble paid off when sales jumped dramatically. Company revenue topped $1.3 million in 1909 and a year later, Wrigley's Spearmint was the top selling gum in the United States. He introduced Doublemint gum in 1914.
In short order, Wrigley became the biggest gum manufacturer in the world. He bought Zero Company in 1911, which had been making Wrigley's gum since 1892. From that point forward, the newly named William Wrigley Jr. Company manufactured its own products. Even as the company grew into a major corporation, Wrigley emphasized quality. He often recited his basic philosophy: "Even in a little thing like a stick of gum, quality is important."
Wrigley also moved quickly into foreign nations. He established gum companies in Canada in 1910, then followed that factory with ones in Australia (1915), Great Britain (1927), and New Zealand (1939). Still relying heavily on advertising, Wrigley sold gum in nations around the world in 30 separate languages. By the time of his death in 1932, the global sales pushed company revenues to $75 million with a profit of $12 million. Countries abroad had different tastes than in the United States, so Wrigley introduced flavors that would appeal to local customers. The most successful product outside America was a pellet-shaped gum sold under the "P.K." brand name.
Bought the Chicago Cubs
A lifelong baseball fan, Wrigley loved to watch the hometown Chicago Cubs play. He spent many afternoons at the ballpark, joking with friends, drinking beer, and even handing out cigars to Cub players. Wrigley began buying stock in the team in 1916. Five years later, he had gained a controlling interest. In 1921, he also bought the Los Angeles Baseball Club and a team in Reading, Pennsylvania.
After Wrigley bought the Cubs, the famous ballpark became known as Cubs Park. It was officially renamed Wrigley Field in 1926, in honor of its owner. Over the years, Wrigley invested more than $5 million in the team. He started renovations at "The Friendly Confines" (the ballpark's unofficial name since Wrigley took over), which permitted installation of permanent bleacher seating and expanded box seats. Wrigley also supervised the building of an upper deck.
Wrigley's money did not stop at rebuilding Wrigley Field. He brought in quality ballplayers like Hack Wilson and Rogers Hornsby. By 1929, the team won its first pennant since 1918 and the first of four they would win over the next decade. Sadly, the team did not win a World Series in those trips to the championship. The team continued its success into the 1930s. Wrigley, however, passed away in 1932 and full control of the team passed to his son Philip Knight "P.K." Wrigley.
In 1919, Wrigley bought Catalina Island, off the coast of California. He turned it into a family retreat and one of the most famous resorts in the country. Wrigley imported birds from all over the world to the island and kept them in a huge flying cage. He also mined on Catalina, finding rich reserves of silver, copper, and zinc.
Wrigley played a key role in the development of the island. With great enthusiasm and determination, he brought many improvements, including public utilities, steamships, a hotel and casino. He was also responsible for the planting of numerous trees, shrubs, and flowers. A Wrigley Memorial was built in 1933 and 1934 as a tribute to Wrigley's love for the island. His wife, Ada, came up with the idea for a massive garden on the island showcasing plants from around the world. The garden stretches for over 37 acres and is a tribute to the Wrigley's concern for conservation.
In Chicago, he built the Wrigley Building in 1924, now on the National Register of Historic Places as part of a historic district. The Wrigley Building was an instant hit in Chicago, featuring a 27-story clock tower modeled on the Giralda Tower in Seville. It is actually two buildings, connected by a sky-bridge, where Michigan Avenue intersects with the Chicago River. Wrigley's wish was to create an impressive headquarters for his company. The building symbolizes Chicago for many people and has been seen in countless movies and television shows.
In 1930, Wrigley bought the Arizona Biltmore, a winter resort outside Phoenix, inspired by the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. The Wrigley family owned the resort for over four decades before selling it in May 1973.
When Wrigley died on January 26, 1932, The New York Times reported it was "of acute indigestion, complicated by apoplexy and heart disease." He passed away in a home he built near the Arizona resort. His simple philosophy was summed up, "To be always pleasant, always patient, always on time, and never to argue." He set the tone for the company by constantly telling his son, "We are a five-cent business, and nobody in this company can ever afford to forget it."
Further Reading on William Wrigley, Jr
Cleary, David Powers, Great American Brands: The Success Formulas that Made Them Famous, Fairchild Publications, 1981.
Hambleton, Ronald, The Branding of America: From Levi Strauss to Chrysler, from Westinghouse to Gillette, the Forgotten Fathers of America's Best-Known Brand Names, Yankee Books, 1987.
New York Times, January 27, 1932; April 13, 1977; March 12, 1999.
"William Wrigley Jr. Company, Hoover's Database, 1999.
"The Story of Chewing Gum," William Wrigley Jr. Company, http://www.wrigley.com (November 1, 1999).
"Chicago Vine Line: 124 Years and Counting," Chicago Cubs, http://www.cubs.com (November 1, 1999).
"Wrigley Field Historical Information," Chicago Cubs, http://www.cubs.com (November 1, 1999).
"The Wrigley Memorial and Botanical Gardens," Catalina Island Home Page, http://www.catalina.com (November 1, 1999).
"History and Architecture," Arizona Biltmore Resort and Spa, http://www.arizonabiltmore.com (November 1, 1999).