CHAPTER XXI. JAMES HARPER.
Some years ago a gentleman having business with the great house of Harper & Brothers asked one of the employés of that establishment, "Which one is Harper, and which are the brothers?" He was answered, "Either one is Harper, and all the rest are the brothers." This reply fully sets forth the difficulty which must be experienced by any one attempting to write the story of the life of either member of this house. In such an undertaking it is very difficult to select "Harper," and impossible to pass by the "Brothers." The interests of each were so thoroughly in harmony with those of all the others, and there was such perfect unanimity of sentiment existing between them with regard to their private as well as their public affairs, that it is hardly possible to separate them. Since, however, it is not consistent with the design of this work to relate the history of the "house," it is the purpose of the writer to select the eldest of the brothers as the representative of the group, and to offer him to the reader as a type of the American publisher.
The grandfather of James Harper came to this country from England about the year 1740, and was one of the first of the American Methodists. His son Joseph was born in 1766. He married Elizabeth Kollyer, and settled at Newtown, on Long Island, as a farmer. It was here that James, their eldest child, was born, on the 13th of April, 1795. He grew up with a vigorous constitution, and the pure influences of his home, together with the sound religious training which he received from his parents, laid the foundation of those simple and steady habits for which he was noted through life. In the winter he attended the district school, and in the summer he worked on his father's farm. Thus his life passed away quietly and healthfully until he had completed his fifteenth year.
It now became necessary for him to make some choice of a profession in life, and when the matter was presented to him he promptly decided to become a printer. His father cheerfully seconded his wishes, and he was accordingly apprenticed to a printer in New York. On the morning of his departure from home, when the family assembled for "prayers," his mother, who was a woman of superior character, took the father's place and led the worship. With trembling tones she commended her boy to the love and protection of the Saviour, and when the moment of leave-taking came she sent him forth into the world with the tender warning never to forget his home or his religious duties, or "that he had good blood in him."
The change from his happy home to the place of "devil" in the printing office was one which tried the lad's fortitude to the utmost. His position was but little better than that of a menial, and not only was all the drudgery and disagreeable work put upon him, but he was made the sport of the workmen, some of whom used him even roughly. He bore it all good-naturedly, however, devoting himself to his trade with the determination to master it.
The printing office in which he was employed was located near Franklin Square, then occupied by the best people of the city. Often, as young Harper passed across the square to and from his work, his rough "country clothes" drew upon him the ridicule of the children of these "goodly citizens." They teazed and insulted him, and sometimes carried their cruelty to the extremity of offering him bodily violence. He bore it patiently for a time, but at length determined to put a stop to it. He was physically the superior of any of his tormentors, and had put up with their conduct merely from his sincere desire to avoid a "street fight." In accordance with his new resolution, however, when one of them approached him one day and asked for his card, he set down a bucket which he was carrying, and, seizing the fellow, kicked him across the square, saying to him: "That's my card, take good care of it. When I am out of my time, and set up for myself, and you need employment, as you will, come to me, bring the card, and I will give you work." "Forty-one years after," says the writer upon whose authority this incident is related, "when Mr. Harper's establishment was known throughout all the land, after he had borne the highest municipal honors of the city, and had become one of our wealthiest men, the person who had received the card came to Mr. James Harper's establishment and asked employment, claiming it on the ground that he had kept the card given him forty-one years before."
In a little while James was joined by his brother John, who was apprenticed to another printer in the city, and the two lads spent with each other much of their leisure time. Both worked hard. James soon became noted as the best pressman in the city, his great personal strength enabling him to work the old-fashioned hand-press with ease. It is said that if he disliked a fellow pressman and wished to be rid of him, he merely put forth his immense strength and outworked him. The man being unable to keep up with him, was obliged to retire.
"The habits of his rural home followed him to the city. In an age when every body drank ardent spirits freely, he was strictly temperate, and the cold water disciple justified his faith by his works. With the cheerful constancy of the fathers of his church he quietly resisted the temptations of the city. He opened a prayer-meeting in the house of an old colored woman in Ann Street, and joined the John Street Methodist Church. Meanwhile, to their simple and thrifty method of life, James and his brother added work out of hours, so that when their apprenticeship was ended they had a little money saved."
James' excellent habits and great skill as a workman had given entire satisfaction to his master during the whole period of his apprenticeship, and he informed the young man at the expiration of his indentures that he was willing to employ him again at fair wages. The young workman surprised him by telling him that he intended to set up for himself, and that all he wanted from him now was a certificate that he was fit to be trusted with a book. This was given, and James and his brother John took their little capital, which was increased by a loan of a few hundred dollars from their father, and renting a small room in Dover Street, set up an office on their own account, and began business under the firm name of J. & J. Harper. Their capital was small—less than the annual wages of some of their workmen to-day—but they were sustained by industry, determination, and high moral principle. When they began business, it was with a tacit agreement that each would endeavor to deserve the confidence of the other, and of their fellow-men. There was to be no evasion of principle, no sharp practice, in their house. They were resolved to make money, but to make it honestly. They would engage in no transaction which should cause a doubt of their integrity in the breast of the good mother who had sent them forth with her blessing.
More than fifty years have passed away since then, and the Harpers have prospered steadily, and so greatly, too, that for many years their house has stood at the head of the publishing interest of America. Their career is an instructive one, giving an emphatic denial to the assertion we hear so often repeated, that an "over-honest" man can not make money in New York. Shut your ears to the calumny, young man, just staring out in life. "Honesty is the best policy;" and it is only by scrupulous honesty that enduring success can be obtained. Trickery and sharp practice may earn wealth rapidly, but depend upon it they have their reward; for it is a curious fact in the history of man that wealth acquired by knavery rarely stays with its possessors for more than a generation, if so long.
In starting out, the young Harpers printed books to order, attempting nothing at their own risk. They did a part of the composition and press-work with their own hands, and were, perhaps, the hardest workers in their establishment. Their first job was two thousand copies of Seneca's Morals, and was intrusted to them by Evert Duyckinck, a famous publisher of that day. The books were delivered in August, 1817, and gave entire satisfaction.
Immediately after this, they undertook to stereotype an edition of the "Book of Common Prayer" for the Protestant Episcopal Church of New York, supposing that they would be able to make a fair profit at the rate at which they had agreed to do the work. It was their original intention to do the composition themselves, and have the stereotyping done at one of the large establishments of the city; but upon a closer investigation they found that this would cost them more than they had agreed to do the work for. In this dilemma, they resolved to learn the art of stereotyping themselves, and perform that portion of their contract on their own premises. It was a tedious undertaking; but they went through with it determinedly, and at the proper time delivered the books to the officials of the Episcopal Church. Their profit was not very large, but they had become stereotypers as well as printers, and had added a valuable department to their business. Further than this, their Prayer Book was pronounced the best piece of stereotyping that had ever been seen in the city, and won the young men congratulations on all sides. They next undertook twenty-five hundred copies of Mair's "Introduction to Latin," which they delivered in December, 1817.
In April, 1818, they put forth their first venture on their own account. This consisted of five hundred copies of Locke's "Essay upon the Human Understanding." These were readily disposed of, and their success encouraged them to further efforts. They proceeded very cautiously, and it was for a long time their custom, when contemplating the publication of a book, and especially in the case of a reprint, to send to the leading booksellers in the large cities of the Union, and ascertain how many copies each one would take. Thus they pushed their way forward, seizing upon every favorable opportunity for the publication of original and foreign works. They rarely made an unsuccessful venture, and as each worked hard, and had constantly in view, above all other subjects, the success of the house, they gradually extended their business until they secured the foremost place among the publishers of the United States.
Beginning with works of a dry, philosophic nature, the Harpers have extended their operations into every department of literature. Their catalogue of publications, issued in 1869, lies on the writer's table. It is a duodecimo volume of two hundred and ninety-six closely-printed pages, and embraces a list of several thousand volumes. In this list are histories, biographies, travels, adventures, novels, poems, educational works, works on science, art, philosophy, metaphysics—in short, books on every topic familiar to man. In the department of fiction, the success of this house has been remarkable. They have published between four and five hundred novels, in cloth and paper bindings, and the demand for their early publications of this kind is still sufficiently active to compel them to keep a stock always on hand. When they began to issue their Library of Select Novels, they did so with a distinct purpose in view. Novel-reading has always been a passion with Americans, but at the period referred to the best novels were published at such high prices that but few could afford to buy them. The masses were compelled to put up with the cheap, flashy stories which were so well known some years ago as "yellow covers." This style of fiction, now confined to the lowest class of readers, at that time found its way into almost every house, and the popular taste was at a very low ebb. The Harpers felt sure that by issuing the best, and only the best, English novels at a low price, they would not only meet a real want on the part of the public, but in great measure supersede the "yellow covers," with all their pernicious influences. The sequel proved the correctness of these views, and resulted in large profits to them.
Soon after commencing business, James and John Harper received their younger brothers, Joseph Wesley and Fletcher, into their establishment as apprentices. These young men were taught the business thoroughly, and when they had completed their apprenticeship were admitted into the firm as partners, the former entering the firm in 1823, and the latter in 1826. In 1825 the style of the firm was changed to Harper & Brothers, and the business was removed to 81 and 82 Cliff Street, on a portion of the site of the present establishment. It was then the largest printing-house in New York, employing fifty workmen and ten hand presses.
In 1850; the Harpers decided to commence the publication of a monthly periodical, and, accordingly, in the summer of that year they issued the first number of "Harper's New Monthly Magazine," which, in point of popularity, stands today, after a career of twenty years, at the head of American magazines, and boasts of a circulation of 180,000 copies. The recognition of another want of the public led, in 1857, to the establishment of an illustrated newspaper, "Harper's Weekly," which has at present a circulation of 100,000 copies. In 1869 they began the publication of a new weekly fashion paper, called "the Bazaar," which has reached a circulation of 75,000 copies.
From the first, the Harpers made their house a popular establishment. They sought public favor by legitimate means, and generally managed to retain it in the same way. From an early period in their history, their imprint on a book has been sufficient to secure its sale; and they have managed to identify themselves so thoroughly with American progress that the whole country feels an interest in their success. By studying the popular taste closely, they were enabled to publish in rapid succession works suited to it; and by fair and liberal dealings with authors they soon drew around them a corps of the best writers in the Union.
Their success was rapid, and by the year 1853 their establishment had increased in size so much that it occupied "nine large contiguous buildings, full of costly machinery of every kind, with stores of plates and books." On the 10th of December of that year, a workman in one of the upper rooms carelessly threw a piece of lighted paper into what he supposed to be a pail of water, but which proved to be camphene. In a few minutes the building was in flames; all efforts to save it were in vain. The fire spread rapidly, and in a few hours the entire establishment was in ruins. The loss was one million of dollars, of which sum only about one-fourth was covered by insurance.
It was a terrible blow, but James Harper and his brothers wasted no time in repining. Before the embers had ceased smoking they were taking active measures to reëstablish their business. From the wreck of their establishment they saved a part of the stereotype plates, which had been stored in the vaults, out of the way of the fire. They immediately rented Sheffield's paper warehouse, at the corner of Beckman and Gold Streets, and went to work with greater energy than ever. "Presses were employed in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston. Nothing was forgotten. The next monthly issue of the Magazine had been made ready, and it was reproduced at the earliest moment. One regular contributor, then in Chicago, received the first news of the fire by a brief telegram: 'Copy destroyed. Send fresh copy immediately.' Before the ruins were cleared away the plans of the new buildings were ready, and the buildings themselves were rapidly finished."
The new establishment of Harper & Brothers is one of the wonders of the great city in which it is located. The buildings are of iron and brick, and cover half an acre of ground. The establishment really consists of two buildings. The front building faces Franklin Square, and is a magnificent iron structure, painted white. Behind this is the second building, which fronts on Cliff Street. A court-yard intervenes between them, spanned by several bridges, connecting them. Each building is seven stories in height, and completely fire-proof.
There are no openings in the floors for communication, but the various floors are connected by circular stairways of iron, placed outside the building. The front building, or that which faces Franklin Square, is used for storerooms, salesrooms, and the editorial and business offices of the establishment. In the rear building the various branches of the book manufacture are carried on. The author's manuscript is received here and sent back to him a complete book. Every portion of the work is done under the same roof, and it is well done. The building is filled with the most costly and complete machinery for saving time and labor. Besides the machinery used in other departments, it contains in its press-room forty-three Adams presses for book work, and five cylinder presses for printing the "Weekly" and the "Bazaar." About 600 persons, 250 of whom are females, are employed in the establishment; and it is to the credit of both employers and employés that but few changes occur in this force. Many of the employés have been with the firm since its first entrance into business. The old man in charge of the vaults—a curiosity in his way—has been in the service of the house for fifty years, and to leave it now would, doubtless, break his heart; for none of the Harpers are as proud of their reputation as he is. The most perfect system reigns throughout every department, and every thing goes on promptly and in its proper place.
"Of course," says a writer who many years has witnessed the operations of the house, "the development and organization of such a business were due not to one brother alone, but to the cooperation of all.... The business was to James, as to the others, the great central interest, but prosperity could not relax his steady character. He did not forget his early faith, nor the counsels and the habits of his Long Island home. He remained strictly a 'temperance man,' and his marvelous physical vigor was claimed by the temperance advocates as that of a cold-water mans He was long an official member of John-Street Church, and when he left his house in Rose Street, and went to live in the upper part of the city, he joined the congregation of St. Paul's Church, in the Fourth Avenue. But with all his fidelity to his ancestral faith, he cherished the largest charity, and by much experience of the world had learned to agree with his favorite apostle, James, that pure religion and undefiled, is to visit the fatherless and widows, and keep himself unspotted from the world. Thus, with all his conviction and devotion, there was nothing hard or fanatical in his feeling or conduct, and he held pleasant personal relations with men of every faith. Few men indulged in so little harsh criticism of others, and he expressed censure or disapprobation by humorous indirection rather than by open accusation. 'We must not be too hard,' he was fond of saying, 'it is so difficult to know all the circumstances. If you should insist, for instance, that the use of tobacco is a sin, dear me! dear me!'
"Mr. Harper was a Whig during the days of that party, and a natural conservative. But in politics he showed the same moderation and toleration. 'Don't try to drive men too roughly, my dear sir; it is much easier to draw than to push.' He took no conspicuous or active part in politics, except in 1844, when he was elected Mayor of the city. He was constantly asked to serve in Congress and in other public stations, but he steadily declined, saying, with a sly smile, that he preferred to stick to the business that he understood.
"To that business his heart and life were given. Of late years its active cares had naturally fallen into the hands of his younger associates; but he never relaxed his interest and devotion. 'While I was dressing,' said a much younger neighbor, 'I used to see Mayor Harper coming out of his house to go down town, and felt ashamed of myself. Early at the office, he opened and looked over the mail, and during the hours of the morning he passed from one room to another, his shrewd eye seeing every thing, and measuring men and work, chatting and jesting as he went. But out of those shrewd eyes looked a kind and gentle heart. He knew by name the men and women and children employed in the various parts of the great buildings, interested himself in their family stories, and often won a confidence that was never betrayed. His charities, which were ample, were thus intelligent and effective, and poor men as well as women bent to kiss his calm, unchanged face as he lay in his coffin."
To the very last, James Harper retained his physical and mental vigor, and was looked up to by all the members of the house as its brightest ornament. To the last, he was one of the best known and most honored citizens of the great metropolis. His great wealth had not ruffled the serenity of his spirit, or caused the slightest variation in his conduct. To the last he was the Christian merchant, citizen, and father, offering to his children in himself a noble model by which to shape their lives.
It had been his custom at family prayers to ask of God protection from sudden death, but for some time before his death he ceased to do so. His family noticed this, and one of them asked his reason for the omission. He answered quietly, "The Lord knows best."
On the 25th of March, 1869, he was at his usual post in his office, and after business hours, as was his habit, set out with his daughter for a drive in the Central Park, As he neared the Park the pole of his carriage broke suddenly, and the horses, becoming frightened, dashed off furiously, dragging the carriage after them. Mr. Harper and his daughter were both thrown violently upon the pavement. The latter was but slightly injured, but Mr. Harper was taken up insensible, and conveyed to St. Luke's Hospital, which was close at hand. He never regained consciousness, but lingered until fifteen minutes after seven on the evening of the 27th, when he expired, surrounded by all his family, excepting his wife, who had long been an invalid. His death was regarded as a calamity to the city, and all classes of the community united to do honor to his memory.