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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,535

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Down this private corridor but slightly out of this terrible picture (I was bending over the rope, did the best I could!) is the grave of William Wrigley.

Born in 1861 in Philadelphia, Wrigley more or less grew up middle class. He became a businessman and sold various things in his home town. He moved to Chicago in 1891 to start a new business, selling soap. The soap was of whatever quality evidently, and reading about soap in the past makes you realize that this stuff could be pretty gross. But in order to incentivize people buying the soap, Wrigley threw in some other stuff he was working on, including baking powder. As it turned out, the baking powder was the better product and people told him so. So then he gave up the soap and went with the baking powder. He continued his practice of throwing in new things into his products and that included chewing gum. Again, the gum was more popular than the baking powder.

You know where this is going. An empire was soon born. He made a ton of money on the gum. I personally find the chewing of gum kinda gross and we all know the legacies of Wrigley to the underside of school desks. But whatever, he got incredibly rich, as this fancy private grave demonstrates. Wrigley sourced his gum from Guatemalan cliche. To say the least, the working conditions for the peasants who made that gum were horrific. Wrigley didn’t care and probably didn’t even know. It was all supply chain stuff anyway and the point of supply chains is to protect the company from having to know or care. This is after Wrigley’s death, but when Jacobo Arbenz became president and started improving conditions for the Guatemalan peasant class, Wrigley totally just pulled out of the country in 1952 to avoid having to pay labor.

Among the early brands of gum that Wrigley introduced was Juicy Fruit and Spearmint in 1893 and then Doublemint in 1914. He actually continued with his playing around with new products to sell with his gum, but as it turned out, no one was particularly interested in his coffee grinders or his fishing tackle.

Wrigley really pushed modern advertising with his gum. Very image oriented, versus the text heavy advertising of the 19th century. Here’s a 1920 Wrigley ad, which is a good entrypoint into the transformation of modern advertising.

It’s still a bit texty–but take a look at the advertisements from the 1880s as an example of just how forward looking this stuff is. When I teach the U.S. history survey course, I use the book Discovering the American Past as a reader. Unlike every other primary source reader designed for the survey which is a poorly thought out adjunct for the goddamn textbooks, which are themselves useless and which I don’t assign, much to the chagrin of the publishers’ promoters, these actually focus around a very specific question per chapter, versus the normal “here’s a bunch of random documents from the 1910s that make no sense together.” In one of the previous editions, there was an astounding chapter just on advertising between 1880 and 1920 that really drove this home. Wrigley wasn’t a part of the chapter, but, again, this was using modern images to promote what was pretty much a meaningless product like chewing gum. In fact, Wrigley became one of the nation’s largest advertisers.

By 1908, Wrigley’s Spearmint was bringing in over $1 million a year on its own. He didn’t completely own the gum company until 1911, but then he bought out his partners and became the sole owner. By the time he handed over the daily run of the company to his son in 1925, he had opened factories in Canada and Australia too.

As he got insanely rich, Wrigley learned to enjoy spending the money. He became a founder of the community of Santa Catalina Island, California in 1919, when he bought the controlling interest in the company to develop it. He put a lot of money into, created public utilities, built hotels, planted fancy gardens, and tried to employ locals to work it all. He even started his own tile plant out there, both to build his hotels and such, but then to make other money too. He wanted the island to remain relatively pristine as well and this explains that island today.

Wrigley also bought a chunk the Chicago Cubs in 1916 and then became the primary owner by 1918, which is why Wrigley Field is named for him, even though he did not build it. It was in fact named for him in 1926. Whether he is responsible for their history of futility, well, I will allow you to speculate on this. In truth, the best things about the Cubs finally winning the World Series is so their goddamn fans would shut up in their embrace of losing. At least Red Sox fans really wanted to win when they finally did so. Cubs fans actually embracing sucking, making them the most annoying fans in baseball. I know that’s a high bar in the world of Cardinals and Yankees fans, but there’s a case to be made at least.

Wrigley died in 1932, at the age of 70. It seemed to be a heart attack but also a bunch of other stuff too. I guess his body just gave out. At the time he was worth $20 million, which is about $433 million today.

I used to know someone who is a descendant of the Wrigley fortune. Totally unprepossessing guy who never actually talked about it; in fact, it was his partner who finally told me about it. But to say the least, there’s still a lot of money there. At least he had the class to be a normal person.

The company remained independent until 2008, when it became part of the Mars empire, speaking of families made up of completely evil lunatics.

William Wrigley is buried down this private corridor in Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale, California. I reached over as far as I could. You do what you can. This is not his original burial site. He was first buried on Santa Catalina Island, but they wanted to move him in order to make the gardens at his fancy home out there open to the public. I’m not completely sure why exactly these things couldn’t work together, but in any case, that’s what happened. He was moved to Glendale in 1947.

If you would like this series to visit other baseball owners of the early 20th century, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Charles Somers, who owned the Indians, is naturally enough in Cleveland. Yankees owner Jacob Ruppers is in Valhalla, New York. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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