CHAPTER XXIV. ROBERT BONNER.
ROBERT BONNER was born in the north of Ireland, near the town of Londonderry, about the year 1824. He came to this country when a mere child, and was brought up in the State of Connecticut, where he received a good common-school education.
Manifesting a decided liking for the printer's trade, he was placed at an early age in the office of the "Hartford Courant," where he took his first lessons in the art of setting type. He entered upon the business with the determination to learn it thoroughly, and when he had mastered his trade soon acquired the reputation of being the best workman in Hartford. As a compositor, he was not only neat and thorough, but was remarkably rapid as well. On one occasion, when the "Courant" was endeavoring to publish the "President's Message" in advance of all its competitors, Mr. Bonner is said to have worked at the rate of seventeen hundred ems an hour—a feat absolutely unparalleled.
In 1844, he removed to New York and engaged in the office of a new journal, called the "American Republican," then lately established as the organ of the American party in that city, upon which he worked steadily during its brief career. His wages were small, and it was only by practicing the most rigid economy that he could live upon them.
When the "Republican" suspended publication, Mr. Bonner was employed in the office of the "Evening Mirror," published by Morris, Willis & Fuller. Here he made himself so useful, that the business of getting up or displaying advertisements attractively was soon left entirely to him. His taste in this department was almost faultless, and the advertisements of the "Mirror" soon became noted for their neat and handsome appearance.
At this time there was published in New York a small, struggling paper, exclusively mercantile in its character, called the "Merchants' Ledger." This paper was almost entirely dependent upon its advertising patronage, and the attention of its proprietor was called to Mr. Bonner's skill, as exhibited in the "Mirror," in displaying advertisements to the greatest advantage. The result was that Mr. Bonner received an offer, which he accepted, to take charge of this paper. This was the origin of his connection with the journal which he has since rendered famous.
Being fond of composition, he made frequent contributions to the editorial columns of the paper, which were well received by the general public, but which seem to have aroused the petty jealousy of the proprietor of the "Ledger."
Soon after forming his connection with the "Ledger," Mr. Bonner purchased it. From his boyhood up, it had been his ambition to become the proprietor of a journal which should be carried out upon his own ideas, and he believed that the "Ledger" offered him the best means of doing this. It was generally doubted at that time that a literary paper could flourish in New York—Boston and Philadelphia having apparently monopolized such enterprises. Mr. Bonner, however, had a clearer view of the matter, and was convinced from the first that the great center of American industry was the very best place for such an undertaking. He proceeded very cautiously at first, however, changing the character of his paper very gradually, from a commercial to a literary journal.
At this time Fanny Fern was the great literary sensation of the day. She had just published her "Ruth Hall," which had attracted universal attention, and had given rise to a sharp discussion in the public press as to whether she was the sister of N.P. Willis or not. Mr. Bonner resolved to profit by her sudden notoriety, and requested her to write a story for the "Ledger," for which he offered to pay her twenty-five dollars per column. She declined the proposition. He then offered her fifty dollars a column, and, upon a second refusal, increased his offer to seventy-five dollars a column. She was pleased with the energy exhibited by Mr. Bonner, and flattered by his eagerness to secure her services, but declared that she would write no more for the newspapers. A little later Mr. Bonner was offered a story from her, about ten columns long. He at once accepted her proposition, and upon the receipt of the manuscript sent her a check for one thousand dollars.
With this story began that wonderful career of the "Ledger" which seems more like a dream than hard reality. The story was double-leaded, and made to fill twenty columns of the paper. The "Ledger" itself was changed from its old style to its present form, and made a purely literary journal. The price paid for the story was unparalleled in the history of American journalism, and Mr. Bonner spread the announcement far and wide that he was publishing a serial for which he had given one hundred dollars a column. His advertisements were to be seen in almost every newspaper of respectable circulation throughout the Union. In form they were different from any that had preceded them. "Fanny Fern writes for the 'Ledger.'" "Buy the 'New York Ledger,'" etc., appeared, dozens of times repeated, until men were absolutely tired of seeing the announcement. Nothing had ever been brought to the public notice so prominently before. For awhile people were astonished at the audacious boldness of "the 'Ledger' man." Then they began to buy the paper. Since then the demand for it has steadily increased.
The venture was successful. Fanny Fern's reputation and Mr. Bonner's energy and boldness made a demand for the "Ledger," at once, and out of the profits of the story for which he had paid such an unheard-of price Mr. Bonner purchased a handsome residence in New York City.
There was as much originality as boldness in the peculiar style in which Mr. Bonner advertised his paper. As before stated, nothing of the kind had ever been seen before, and the novelty of the announcements at once attracted attention. It was seen that they were expensive also, and people naturally felt some curiosity to see for themselves the paper for which a man was willing to assume such risk and expense. These announcements sometimes covered a whole page of a daily paper; sometimes the page would be almost entirely blank, with only a few lines in each column containing the announcement. Again the advertisement would be the opening chapters of a story, which would be sure to excite the curiosity of the reader, and induce him to purchase the remaining chapters in the "Ledger" itself. It is to the credit of the "Ledger" that it rarely loses a subscriber. It has become a family paper.
A recent writer thus refers to Mr. Bonner's early experience advertising:—
"His mode of advertising was new, and it excited both astonishment and ridicule. His ruin was predicted over and over again. But as he paid as he went along, he alone would be the sufferer. He was assailed in various ways. Men sneered at his writers, as well as at the method in which he made them known. He had no competition. Just then it was announced that the Harpers were to put a first-class weekly into the field. The announcement was hailed with delight by many classes. Men who had been predicting Bonner's ruin from the start were anxious to see it accomplished. He had agents in all the leading cities in the land. These held a monopoly of the 'Ledger.' The book men and newspaper men, who were left out, were quite willing to have the 'Ledger' go under. The respectability and wealth of the house, its enterprise, with the class of writers it could secure, made the new paper a dangerous rival. Mr. Bonner concluded to make the first issue serviceable to himself. His paragraph advertising was considered sensational, and smacking of the charlatan. He resolved to make it respectable. He wrote half a column in sensational style: 'Buy Harper's Weekly!'—'Buy Harper's Weekly!'—'Buy Harper's Weekly!'—'Buy Harper's Weekly!'—and so on through the half column. Through his advertising agent he sent this advertisement to the 'Herald,' 'Tribune,' and 'Times,' and paid for its insertion. Among the astonished readers of this 'Ledger' style of advertising were the quiet gentlemen who do business on Franklin Square. The community were astonished. 'The Harpers are waking up!' 'This is the Bonner style!' 'This is the way the Ledger man does it!' were heard on all sides. The young Harpers were congratulated by the book men every-where on the enterprise with which they were pushing the new publication. They said nothing, and took the joke in good part. But it settled the respectability of the 'Ledger' style of advertising. It is now imitated by the leading publishers, insurance men, and most eminent dry goods men in the country. The sums spent by Mr. Bonner in advertising are perfectly marvelous. He never advertises unless he has something new to present to the public. He pays from five to twenty-five thousand dollars a week when he advertises."
Mr. Bonner well knew that all his advertising would be worth nothing in the end unless he made the "Ledger" worthy of the public patronage, and he exerted himself from the first to secure the services of a corps of able and popular writers. In his arrangements with his contributors, he inaugurated a system of liberality and justness which might well put his rivals to shame.
When Mr. Everett was engaged in his noble effort to assist the ladies of the Mount Vernon Association in purchasing the home and tomb of Washington, Mr. Bonner proposed to him to write a series of papers for the "Ledger," for which he offered him ten thousand dollars, the money to be appropriated to the purchase of Mount Vernon. Mr. Everett accepted the offer, and the celebrated Mount Vernon Papers were the result. This was a far-sighted move on the part of Robert Bonner. Under ordinary circumstances Mr. Everett would probably have declined to "write for the 'Ledger;'" but in a cause so worthy he could not refuse. The association of his name with the journal was of incalculable service to it, and the Mount Vernon Papers were to its proprietor his very best advertisement. (We are viewing the matter commercially.) The sale of the paper was wonderfully increased, and a golden harvest was reaped.
This connection of Mr. Everett with the "Ledger" led to a warm personal friendship between himself and its proprietor, which was broken only by the statesman's death—a circumstance which speaks volumes for the private worth of the younger man. Mr. Everett continued to write for the paper after his Mount Vernon articles were finished, and is said to have earned over fifty thousand dollars by his able contributions to it.
Soon after the completion of the Mount Vernon Papers, Mr. Bonner secured the services of George Bancroft, the historian, who contributed a series of admirable articles. Mr. Everett's connection with the "Ledger" had settled the question that it was not beneath the dignity of the most eminent literateur in the land to write for it. Fanny Fern's husband, Mr. James Parton, Alice and Phoebe Carey, Mrs. Southworth, and a host of others have helped, and still help, to fill its columns.
But perhaps its most profitable contributor, next to Mr. Everett, is Henry Ward Beecher. That wonderful gift of the great preacher which enables him to touch so constantly upon subjects nearest to the hearts of most men, would make him invaluable to any paper. Mr. Bonner was struck with this after hearing him preach several times, and resolved to secure his services for the "Ledger." He proposed, to the parson's utter astonishment, that Mr. Beecher should write a story for the paper, and coupled it with the offer of a sum which many persons would consider a fortune. The field was utterly new to Mr. Beecher. Novel-writing was something he had never even thought of; but after some hesitation he accepted the offer. Soon after this, the publication of "Norwood" was begun in the columns of the "Ledger." The story was longer than was at first agreed upon, and Mr. Bonner paid its author a handsome sum in addition to the amount originally offered. The reward was princely, but not out of proportion to the service rendered by Mr. Beecher, who has won thousands of readers for the paper. Mr. Beecher still writes for the "Ledger," and there is no present prospect of his genial and useful contributions coming to a close.
Mr. Bonner has made his paper useful to young people as well as those of maturer years. Each number contains articles, briefly and pointedly written, upon some popular and useful topic, so that thousands find not only amusement, but valuable hints and profitable instruction in the "Ledger."
It was for a long time the custom of the newspaper press to indulge in sneers at the "Ledger," and, at the least, to treat it with a species of mild contempt. In order to stop this, its proprietor secured and published a series of articles from James Gordon Bennett of "The Herald," Henry J. Raymond of "The Times," and Horace Greeley of "The Tribune." By thus identifying the leading journalists of the country with his enterprise, he effectually silenced the scoffers, and with them the "lesser lights" of the press.
It was said by some over-careful persons that the "Ledger" was not a proper paper for young persons to read. Mr. Bonner at once secured the services of the Presidents of the twelve principal colleges of the Union, and articles from each of these gentlemen appeared in his paper. After this it was not to be presumed that a journal which had among its contributors twelve such distinguished guides of youth could be unfit for any one to read.
In order to make still less room for doubt on this subject, a series of articles by twelve distinguished clergymen soon after appeared in the "Ledger."
Indeed, the greatest care is exercised to exclude from the columns of the paper any thing savoring in the least of impurity. It is the proprietor's aim to make it a help as well as an amusement to its readers, and his object is to elevate, not to degrade them.
The "Ledger" now circulates over three hundred thousand copies per week, and is growing in the public favor. From the profits of his business Mr. Bonner has built a splendid marble publishing-house at the corner of William and Spruce Streets, in New York, from which the "Ledger" is now issued. It is one of the most complete establishments in the world, and is fitted up with every convenience necessary to the performance of the work upon the paper in the most perfect and expeditious manner. Mr. Bonner has created all this by his own energy and business talent, and richly deserves the success he enjoys. He resides in an elegant mansion in New York, and has also a handsome country seat at Morrisania, in Westchester County. He is married, and has a family.
Mr. Bonner's great wealth has enabled him to achieve a distinction of another kind. He is famous as the owner of the finest horses in America. His stables are located in Twenty-seventh Street, and are the most perfect of their kind in this country. They contain every thing needed for the comfort and care of the horses, and the men employed in them are thoroughly skilled in their business. The horses are seven in number. First on the list is "Dexter," who has made his mile in the unprecedented time of 2:17-1/4 in harness, and 2:18 under the saddle. He is the fastest horse in the world. "Lantern," a splendid bay, fifteen and a half hands high, has made his mile in 2:20. "Pocahontas," the most perfectly formed horse in existence, has made her mile in 2:23; while "Peerless," a fine gray mare, has followed close on to her in 2:23-1/4. "Lady Palmer" has made two miles with a three hundred and fifty pound wagon and driver in 4:59, while her companion, "Flatbush Mare," has made a two-mile heat to a road wagon in 5:01-1/4. The "Auburn Horse," a large sorrel, sixteen and a half hands high, with four white feet and a white face, was declared by Hiram Woodruff to be the fastest horse he ever drove. These horses cost their owner over two hundred thousand dollars, and he would not part with them for double that sum. He does not race them for money, but drives them for his own use, and holds the reins himself.