August 26, 2021 • History Factory
Do you have a stick of gum in your pocket right now? Is there a pack of Juicy Fruit or EXTRA Gum at the bottom of your bag? It’s unusual to find a checkout counter not adorned with Mars Wrigley gum options, which means that most of us have our favorite flavors on hand. However, you might not have given much thought into how one of the most beloved gum brands became a household staple. That’s why, for this month’s Golden Nugget, we’re taking a look at the early products sold by the man who made Wrigley one of the most prominent names in the candy industry.
William Wrigley Jr. didn’t start out in the gum game. His business was soap. William Wrigley Sr. opened the Wrigley Manufacturing Company in 1870 in Philadelphia. Peddling his father’s product would be Wrigley Jr.’s first job.
We can’t all be born salesmen, but the biggest man in gum history certainly was. Only nine years old when his father’s factory opened, Wrigley was too young for factory work but already had set his sights on the world of business. When he wasn’t in school, Wrigley Jr. would spend his time marching up and down Philly’s Market Street with a basket full of soap, pestering passersby until they caved and bought a bar.
It turned out that Wrigley Jr. enjoyed sales far more than school. He abandoned his education by eighth grade and went work in his father’s factory. It wasn’t glamorous work to start — he mixed soap by hand for a year before telling his father he was meant to be a salesman. He went on to become the face of the soap company, traveling and peddling his father’s product to shopkeepers in a brightly painted wagon.
Eventually Wrigley would open his own soap manufacturing company: Wm Wrigley Jr. Company. When the business began to stall, Wrigley began offering incentives. First, it was umbrellas: He raised the price of his soap and offered a free umbrella with the purchase of a case. When that wasn’t enough, he started a baking powder company, using cookbooks as a premium to seal the deal. The baking powder business would soon surpass the soap business.
When expenses got too high, Wrigley once again got creative. He sought out new premiums to entice customers. In the 1890s, he made a phone call to Zeno Manufacturing Company that changed everything.
Wrigley Jr. started giving out chewing gum along with his baking powder. His gum brands Lotta, Vassar and Sweet 16 were introduced in 1891; in the following years, Spearmint Pepsin and Juicy Fruit would debut in the marketplace.
There was only one hitch: Customers liked Wrigley’s free chewing gum better than the products he was selling. Proving himself a master salesman, Wrigley listened to consumers and switched gears, launching a chewing gum empire that would soon swallow the competition.
In this photo, you can see a Wrigley warehouse sign advertising the soap, chewing gum and baking powder that the company was known for at the time. It’s a physical reminder of the company’s unique history, its resilience, and a willingness to try new things when something wasn’t working.
And the company’s chewing gum has endured, along with the resilient spirit that has been on display throughout the company’s history. In WWII, for example, gum was included in care packages sent to American soldiers overseas. At the same time, the company was adapting to offer sugar-free Orbit Gum to consumers, as sugar was being rationed.
Today, in a nod to its roots, Mars Wrigley produces a variety of products, including chocolate and pet food. On top of that, it controls roughly 35% of the global chewing gum market. Over the last year-plus, the pandemic created challenges for the gum category due to travel restrictions, office closures and limited social interactions. However, as restrictions lift across the U.S, more and more consumers are getting back to gum as they venture back out into the world.
After all, however much we may have changed during COVID-19, we’re still humans who need bursts of focus and fresh breath on the go, and Wrigley chewing gum has supplied those to consumers for well over a century.
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