Why Some Succeed While Others Fail: James Harper

In a treatise on the Harpers, their life and character, the history of James is the history of the firm. This firm consisted of James, John, Joseph, Wesley and Fletcher; James, as the eldest, laying the foundation of that powerful concern, Harper Brothers, which is the largest and wealthiest publishing house in America.

James Harper was born April 11, 1795. Like many other poor boys who have become wealthy he was the son of a farmer. He early determined to become a printer and, in 1810, was apprenticed to Messrs. Paul & Thomas of the city of New York. He left home to assume this position, the prayers of his parents following him. The last words of his mother bade him remember that there was good blood in him. The printer boy in those days was made a sort of lackey to be ordered about by all hands. Among other duties he had to clean the rollers when they became clogged with ink. The ink would get on his hands and apron, and thence it would reach his face—thus the printer boy with his blackened face earned the sobriquet of ‘printer’s devil.’ James Harper became the ‘devil’ in this office. There is little doubt but that he often felt discouraged and disposed to give up, but he regarded this position as only a stepping stone to something higher and pleasanter. It was soon observed that such was the case; that James Harper fully expected to one day rise to be himself proprietor; even the street Arabs recognizing that he aspired to higher things. One day as he was passing along the street an audacious newsboy came up to him and gave him a push, while another sneeringly asked him for his card. Seizing the latter by the shoulder he fairly kicked the astonished ruffian half across the square. “There,” said he, “is my card, keep it and when you want work come to me, present that card, and I will give you work.” This ended all further molestation from this source.

His brother John came to New York in the course of a little more than a year and entered another office, arranging his apprenticeship so that it might end about the same time as did that of his brother James. In time James became one of the leading pressmen in the city, and John was one of the best compositors and proof readers in the country. All through their long apprenticeship they had worked evenings; the surplus thus acquired and not one cent of their day earnings ever went for drink, as was so common in those days. To be temperate in Harper’s day required far more exertion than it would at present, as nearly everyone drank then. So while others spent their evenings in saloons drinking, playing pool and billiards, and ‘having fun,’ these young Harpers were either hard at work putting in extra time, or at home, thus if they did not earn more they saved what they had already earned.

When their time was out they each had a few hundred dollars, and they began business for themselves under the firm-style of J. & J. Harper. They felt their way, at first publishing books only for others. They were industrious, no hand in their employ working harder than the proprietors. Not only were they workers, but they were enterprising. When it was found that the stereotyping consumed much of their profit, they resolved to learn that art and add it to their business. This was no small undertaking; those already in the business were not anxious to set up a rival, as they felt these young men sure to become, but after much trial and vexation the Harpers learned the art, and were therefore better able to carry on their rapidly increasing business. When they had fully become established they ventured out upon a publication of their own. They put out but five hundred for the first edition, taking orders in advance from the booksellers about town. The two other brothers were apprenticed to the firm of J. & J. Harper and, as soon as their time was out, were taken into the firm.

In 1825 the firm-style was changed to Harper & Brothers. One of their business maxims was, “Mutual confidence, industry and application to business.” This made the four one man. They ranked as equals in all things, and the history of James Harper is the history of Harper & Brothers. James being the eldest was once asked, “Which is Harper and which the brothers?” He answered, “Either is Harper, the others are the brothers.” This was precisely the relation they bore toward each other. In 1853 a workman threw a lighted paper into a tank of benzine which he mistook for water, and property valued at $1,000,000 was destroyed; as their insurance amounted to only about $250,000 their loss was great. This was a terrible blow, but the next day they hired temporary quarters, and the debris was hardly cleared away ere they had bought the ground on which to erect the splendid building they have since occupied. It is a most imposing structure, and is probably the most commodious, and finest building in which to carry on a general book business, in all its branches, in the world; every operation required to produce and publish a book being carried on under one roof. The building is absolutely fire-proof, and is seven stories high. Underneath are long vaults in which their plates are stored.

In 1844 James was elected Mayor of the great city of New York. Mr. Harper was a man of unusual ability, this was recognized by his friends and towns people, but he was at the head of the largest publishing business in the country, and was loth to leave it, therefore he refused to be a candidate for Governor. He was always full of mirth and running over with good humor, but he was business, morning, noon and night. He remained actively engaged in business until he was nearly seventy-five years of age, in fact he was still in business and enjoying good health when he met an untimely death, caused by his horses running away in Central Park, throwing him to the ground and injuring him so badly that he died within forty-eight hours.

He was a devout Methodist, and a class-leader, but used some of the Episcopal forms. He was a worthy example for our youth to imitate in business or religious matters.