How Did He Begin?
There can be no doubt that the captains of industry to-day,
using that term in its broadest sense, are men who began life
as poor boys.
Poverty is very terrible, and sometimes kills the very soul
within us, but it is the north wind that lashes men into
Vikings; it is the soft, luscious south wind which lulls them
to lotus dreams.
'Tis a common proof,
That lowliness is young ambition's ladder
"Fifty years ago," said Hezekiah Conant, the millionaire manufacturer
and philanthropist of Pawtucket, R. I., "I persuaded my father to let me
leave my home in Dudley, Mass., and strike out for myself. So one
morning in May, 1845, the old farm horse and wagon was hitched up, and,
dressed in our Sunday clothes, father and I started for Worcester. Our
object was to get me the situation offered by an advertisement in the
Worcester County _Gazette_ as follows:
WANTED IMMEDIATELY.--At the _Gazette_ Office, a well disposed
boy, able to do heavy rolling. Worcester, May 7.
"The financial inducements were thirty dollars the first year,
thirty-five the next, and forty dollars the third year and board in the
employer's family. These conditions were accepted, and I began work the
next day. The _Gazette_ was an ordinary four-page sheet. I soon learned
what 'heavy rolling' meant for the paper was printed on a 'Washington'
hand-press, the edition of about 2000 copies requiring two laborious
intervals of about ten hours each, every week. The printing of the
outside was generally done Friday and kept me very busy all day. The
inside went to press about three or four o'clock Tuesday afternoon, and
it was after three o'clock on Wednesday morning before I could go to
bed, tired and lame from the heavy rolling. In addition, I also had the
laborious task of carrying a quantity of water from the pump behind the
block around to the entrance in front, and then up two flights of
stairs, usually a daily job. I was at first everybody's servant. I was
abused, called all sorts of nicknames, had to sweep out the office,
build fires in winter, run errands, post bills, carry papers, wait on
the editor, in fact I led the life of a genuine printer's devil; but
when I showed them at length that I had learned to set type and run the
press, I got promoted, and another boy was hired to succeed to my task,
with all its decorations. That was my first success, and from that day
to this I have never asked anybody to get me a job or situation, and
never used a letter of recommendation; but when an important job was in
prospect the proposed employers were given all facilities to learn of my
abilities and character. If some young men are easily discouraged, I
hope they may gain encouragement and strength from my story. It is a
long, rough road at first, but, like the ship on the ocean, you must lay
your course for the place where you hope to land, and take advantage of
all favoring circumstances."
"Don't go about the town any longer in that outlandish rig. Let me give
you an order on the store. Dress up a little, Horace." Horace Greeley
looked down on his clothes as if he had never before noticed how seedy
they were, and replied: "You see, Mr. Sterrett, my father is on a new
place, and I want to help him all I can." He had spent but six dollars
for personal expenses in seven months, and was to receive one hundred
and thirty-five from Judge J. M. Sterrett of the Erie _Gazette_ for
substitute work. He retained but fifteen dollars and gave the rest to
his father, with whom he had moved from Vermont to Western Pennsylvania,
and for whom he had camped out many a night to guard the sheep from
wolves. He was nearly twenty-one; and, although tall and gawky, with
tow-colored hair, a pale face and whining voice, he resolved to seek
his fortune in New York City. Slinging his bundle of clothes on a stick
over his shoulder, he walked sixty miles through the woods to Buffalo,
rode on a canal boat to Albany, descended the Hudson in a barge, and
reached New York, just as the sun was rising, August 18, 1831.
For days Horace wandered up and down the streets, going into scores of
buildings and asking if they wanted "a hand;" but "no" was the
invariable reply. His quaint appearance led many to think he was an
escaped apprentice. One Sunday at his boarding-place he heard that
printers were wanted at "West's Printing-office." He was at the door at
five o'clock Monday morning, and asked the foreman for a job at seven.
The latter had no idea that the country greenhorn could set type for the
Polyglot Testament on which help was needed, but said: "Fix up a case
for him and we'll see if he _can_ do anything." When the proprietor came
in, he objected to the newcomer and told the foreman to let him go when
his first day's work was done. That night Horace showed a proof of the
largest and most correct day's work that had then been done. In ten
years Horace was a partner in a small printing-office. He founded the
_New Yorker_, the best weekly paper in the United States, but it was not
profitable. When Harrison was nominated for President in 1840, Greeley
started _The Log Cabin_, which reached the then fabulous circulation of
ninety thousand. But on this paper at a penny a copy, he made no money.
His next venture was the New York _Tribune_, price one cent. To start it
he borrowed a thousand dollars and printed five thousand copies of the
first number. It was difficult to give them all away. He began with six
hundred subscribers, and increased the list to eleven thousand in six
weeks. The demand for the _Tribune_ grew faster than new machinery could
be obtained to print it. It was a paper whose editor always tried to be
At the World's Fair in New York in 1853 President Pierce might have been
seen watching a young man exhibiting a patent rat trap. He was attracted
by the enthusiasm and diligence of the young man, but never dreamed that
he would become one of the richest men in the world. It seemed like
small business for Jay Gould to be exhibiting a rat trap, but he did it
well and with enthusiasm. In fact he was bound to do it as well as it
could be done. Young Gould supported himself by odd jobs at surveying,
paying his way by erecting sundials for farmers at a dollar apiece,
frequently taking his pay in board. Thus he laid the foundation for the
business career in which he became so rich.
Fred. Douglass started in life with less than nothing, for he did not
own his own body, and he was pledged before his birth to pay his
master's debts. To reach the starting-point of the poorest white boy, he
had to climb as far as the distance which the latter must ascend if he
would become President of the United States. He saw his mother but two
or three times, and then in the night, when she would walk twelve miles
to be with him an hour, returning in time to go into the field at dawn.
He had no chance to study, for he had no teacher, and the rules of the
plantation forbade slaves to learn to read and write. But somehow,
unnoticed by his master, he managed to learn the alphabet from scraps of
paper and patent medicine almanacs, and no limits could then be placed
to his career. He put to shame thousands of white boys. He fled from
slavery at twenty-one, went North and worked as a stevedore in New York
and New Bedford. At Nantucket he was given an opportunity to speak in an
anti-slavery meeting, and made so favorable an impression that he was
made agent of the Anti-Slavery Society of Massachusetts. While traveling
from place to place to lecture, he would study with all his might. He
was sent to Europe to lecture, and won the friendship of several
Englishmen, who gave him $750, with which he purchased his freedom. He
edited a paper in Rochester, N. Y., and afterward conducted the _New
Era_ in Washington. For several years he was Marshal of the District of
Columbia. He became the first colored man in the United States, the peer
of any man in the country, and died honored by all in 1895.
"What has been done can be done again," said the boy with no chance who
became Lord Beaconsfield, England's great prime minister. "I am not a
slave, I am not a captive, and by energy I can overcome greater
obstacles." Jewish blood flowed in his veins, and everything seemed
against him, but he remembered the example of Joseph, who became prime
minister of Egypt four thousand years before, and that of Daniel, who
was prime minister to the greatest despot of the world five centuries
before the birth of Christ. He pushed his way up through the lower
classes, up through the middle classes, up through the upper classes,
until he stood a master, self-poised upon the topmost round of political
and social power. Rebuffed, scorned, ridiculed, hissed down in the House
of Commons, he simply said, "The time will come when you shall hear me."
The time did come, and the boy with no chance but a determined will,
swayed the sceptre of England for a quarter of a century.
"I learned grammar when I was a private soldier on the pay of sixpence a
day," said William Cobbett. "The edge of my berth, or that of the
guard-bed, was my seat to study in; my knapsack was my bookcase; a bit
of board lying on my lap was my writing table, and the task did not
demand anything like a year of my life. I had no money to purchase
candles or oil; in winter it was rarely that I could get any evening
light but that of the fire, and only my turn, even of that. To buy a pen
or a sheet of paper I was compelled to forego some portion of my food,
though in a state of half starvation. I had no moment of time that I
could call my own, and I had to read and write amidst the talking,
laughing, singing, whistling, and bawling of at least half a score of
the most thoughtless of men, and that, too, in the hours of their
freedom from all control. Think not lightly of the _farthing_ I had to
give, now and then, for pen, ink, or paper. That farthing was, alas! a
great sum to me. I was as tall as I am now, and I had great health and
great exercise. The whole of the money not expended for us at market was
_twopence a week_ for each man. I remember, and well I may! that upon
one occasion I had, after all absolutely necessary expenses, on a
Friday, made shift to have a half-penny in reserve, which I had destined
for the purchase of a red herring in the morning, but when I pulled off
my clothes at night, so hungry then as to be hardly able to endure life,
I found that I had lost my half-penny. I buried my head under the
miserable sheet and rug, and cried like a child.
"If I, under such circumstances, could encounter and overcome this
task," he added, "is there, can there be in the world, a youth to find
any excuse for its non-performance?"
"I have talked with great men," Lincoln told his fellow-clerk and
friend, Greene, according to _McClure's Magazine_, "and I do not see how
they differ from others."
He made up his mind to put himself before the public, and talked of his
plans to his friends. In order to keep in practice in speaking he walked
seven or eight miles to debating clubs. "Practicing polemics," was what
he called the exercise.
He seems now for the first time to have begun to study subjects. Grammar
was what he chose. He sought Mentor Graham, the schoolmaster, and asked
"If you are going before the public," Mr. Graham told him, "you ought to
But where could he get a grammar? There was but one in the neighborhood,
Mr. Graham said, and that was six miles away.
Without waiting for more information the young man rose from the
breakfast-table, walked immediately to the place, borrowed this rare
copy of Kirkham's Grammar, and before night was deep in its mysteries.
From that time on for weeks he gave every moment of his leisure to
mastering the contents of the book. Frequently he asked his friend
Greene to "hold the book" while he recited, and when puzzled by a point
he would consult Mr. Graham.
Lincoln's eagerness to learn was such that the whole neighborhood became
interested. The Greenes lent him books, the schoolmaster kept him in
mind and helped him as he could, and even the village cooper let him
come into his shop and keep up a fire of shavings sufficiently bright to
read by at night. It was not long before the grammar was mastered.
"Well," Lincoln said to his fellow-clerk, Greene, "if that's what they
call science, I think I'll go at another."
He had made another discovery--that he could conquer subjects.
The poor and friendless lad, George Peabody, weary, footsore and hungry,
called at a tavern in Concord, N. H., and asked to be allowed to saw
wood for lodging and breakfast. Half a century later he called there
again, but then George Peabody was one of the greatest millionaire
bankers of the world. Bishop Fowler says: "It is one of the greatest
encouragements of our age, that ordinary men with extraordinary industry
reach the highest stations."
Greeley's father, because the boy tried to yoke the off ox on the near
side, said: "Ah! that boy will never get along in the world. He'll
never know enough to come in when it rains."
He was too poor to wear stockings. But Horace persevered, and became one
of the greatest editors of his century.
Handel's father hated music, and would not allow a musical instrument in
the house; but the boy with an aim secured a little spinet, hid it in
the attic, where he practiced every minute he could steal without
detection, until he surprised the great players and composers of Europe
by his wonderful knowledge of music. He was very practical in his work,
and studied the taste and sensitiveness of audiences until he knew
exactly what they wanted; then he would compose something to supply the
demand. He analyzed the effect of sounds and combinations of sounds upon
the senses, and wrote directly to human needs. His greatest work, "The
Messiah," was composed in Dublin for the benefit of poor debtors who
were imprisoned there. The influence of this masterpiece was tremendous.
It was said it out-preached the preacher, out-prayed prayers, reformed
the wayward, softened stony hearts, as it told the wonderful story of
redemption, in sound.
A. T. Stewart began life as a teacher in New York at $300 a year. He
soon resigned and began that career as a merchant in which he achieved a
success almost without precedent. Honesty, one price, cash on delivery,
and business on business principles were his invariable rules. Absolute
regularity and system reigned in every department. In fifty years he
made a fortune of from thirty to forty million dollars. He was nominated
as Secretary of the Treasury in 1869, but it was found that the law
forbids a merchant to occupy that position. He offered to resign, or to
give the entire profits of his business to the poor of New York as long
as he should remain in office. President Grant declined to accept such
Poor Kepler struggled with constant anxieties, and told fortunes by
astrology for a livelihood, saying that astrology as the daughter of
astronomy ought to keep her mother; but fancy a man of science wasting
precious time over horoscopes. "I supplicate you," he writes to
Moestlin, "if there is a situation vacant at Tuebingen, do what you can
to obtain it for me, and let me know the prices of bread and wine and
other necessaries of life, for my wife is not accustomed to live on
beans." He had to accept all sorts of jobs; he made almanacs, and served
anyone who would pay him.
Who could have predicted that the modest, gentle boy, Raphael, without
either riches or noted family, would have worked his way to such renown,
or that one of his pictures, but sixty-six and three-quarter inches
square (the Mother of Jesus), would be sold to the Empress of Russia,
for $66,000? His Ansedei Madonna, was bought by the National Gallery for
$350,000. Think of Michael Angelo working for six florins a month, and
eighteen years on St. Peter's for nothing!
Dr. Johnson was so afflicted with king's-evil that he lost the use of
one eye. The youth could not even engage in the pastimes of his mates,
as he could not see the gutter without bending his head down near the
street. He read and studied terribly. Finally a friend offered to send
him to Oxford, but he failed to keep his promise, and the boy had to
leave. He returned home, and soon afterward his father died insolvent.
He conquered adverse fortune and bodily infirmities with the fortitude
of a true hero.
Ichabod Washburn, a poor boy born near Plymouth Rock, was apprenticed to
a blacksmith in Worcester, Mass., and was so bashful that he scarcely
dared to eat in the presence of others; but he determined that he would
make the best wire in the world, and would contrive ways and means to
manufacture it in enormous quantities. At that time there was no good
wire made in the United States. One house in England had the monopoly of
making steel wire for pianos for more than a century. Young Washburn,
however, had grit, and was bound to succeed. His wire became the
standard everywhere. At one time he made 250,000 yards of iron wire
daily, consuming twelve tons of metal, and requiring the services of
seven hundred men. He amassed an immense fortune, of which he gave away
a large part during his life, and bequeathed the balance to charitable
John Jacob Astor left home at seventeen to acquire a fortune. His
capital consisted of two dollars, and three resolutions,--to be honest,
to be industrious and not to gamble. Two years later he reached New
York, and began work in a fur store at two dollars a week and his board.
Soon learning the details of the business, he began operations on his
own account. By giving personal attention to every purchase and sale,
roaming the woods to trade with the Indians, or crossing the Atlantic to
sell his furs at a great profit in England, he soon became the leading
fur dealer in the United States. His idea of what constitutes a fortune
expanded faster than his acquisitions. At fifty he owned millions; at
sixty his millions owned him. He invested in land, becoming in time the
richest owner of real estate in America. Generous to his family, he
seldom gave much for charity. He once subscribed fifty dollars for some
benevolent purpose, when one of the committee of solicitation said, "We
did hope for more, Mr. Astor. Your son gave us a hundred dollars." "Ah!"
chuckled the rich furrier, "William has a rich father. Mine was poor."
Elihu Burritt wrote in a diary kept at Worcester, whither he went to
enjoy its library privileges, such entries as these: "Monday, June 18,
headache, 40 pages Cuvier's 'Theory of the Earth,' 64 pages of French,
11 hours' forging. Tuesday, June 19, 60 lines Hebrew, 30 Danish, 10
lines Bohemian, 9 lines Polish, 15 names of stars, 10 hours' forging.
Wednesday, June 20, 25 lines Hebrew, 8 lines Syriac, 11 hours' forging."
He mastered eighteen languages and thirty-two dialects. He became
eminent as the "Learned Blacksmith," and for his noble work in the
service of humanity. Edward Everett said of the manner in which this boy
with no chance acquired great learning: "It is enough to make one who
has good opportunities for education hang his head in shame."
"I was born in poverty," said Vice-President Henry Wilson. "Want sat by
my cradle. I know what it is to ask a mother for bread when she has none
to give. I left my home at ten years of age, and served an
apprenticeship of eleven years, receiving a month's schooling each year,
and, at the end of eleven years of hard work, a yoke of oxen and six
sheep, which brought me eighty-four dollars. I never spent the sum of
one dollar for pleasure, counting every penny from the time I was born
till I was twenty-one years of age. I know what it is to travel weary
miles and ask my fellow-men to give me leave to toil. * * * In the
first month after I was twenty-one years of age, I went into the woods,
drove a team, and cut mill-logs. I rose in the morning before daylight
and worked hard till after dark, and received the magnificent sum of six
dollars for the month's work! Each of these dollars looked as large to
me as the moon looks to-night."
"Many a farmer's son," says Thurlow Weed, "has found the best
opportunities for mental improvement in his intervals of leisure while
tending 'sap-bush.' Such, at any rate, was my own experience. At night
you had only to feed the kettles and keep up the fires, the sap having
been gathered and the wood cut before dark. During the day we would
always lay in a good stock of 'fat-pine' by the light of which, blazing
bright before the sugar-house, in the posture the serpent was condemned
to assume, as a penalty for tempting our first grandmother, I passed
many a delightful night in reading. I remember in this way to have read
a history of the French Revolution, and to have obtained from it a
better and more enduring knowledge of its events and horrors and of the
actors in that great national tragedy, than I have received from all
subsequent reading. I remember also how happy I was in being able to
borrow the books of a Mr. Keyes after a two-mile tramp through the snow,
shoeless, my feet swaddled in remnants of rag carpet."
"That fellow will beat us all some day," said a merchant, speaking of
John Wanamaker and his close attention to his work. What a prediction to
make of a young man who started business with a little clothing in a
hand cart in the streets of Philadelphia. But this youth had _the
indomitable spirit of a conqueror in him_, and you could not keep him
down. General Grant said to George W. Childs, "Mr. Wanamaker could
command an army." His great energy, method, industry, economy, and high
moral principle, attracted President Harrison, who appointed him
Jacques Aristide Boucicault began his business life as an employe in a
dry goods house in a small provincial town in France. After a few years
he went to Paris, where he prospered so rapidly that in 1853 he became a
partner and later the sole proprietor of the Bon Marche, then only a
small shop, which became under his direction the most unique
establishment in the world. His idea was to establish a combined
philanthropic and commercial house on a large scale. Every one who
worked for him was advanced progressively, according to his length of
employment and the value of the services he rendered. He furnished free
tuition, free medical attendance, and a free library for employes; a
provident fund affording a small capital for males and a marriage
portion for females at the expiration of ten or fifteen years of
service; a free reading room for the public; and a free art gallery for
artists to exhibit their paintings or sculptures. After his sudden death
in 1877, his only son carried forward his father's projects until he,
too, died in 1879, when his widow, Marguerite Guerin, continued and
extended his business and beneficent plans until her death in 1887. So
well did this family lay the foundations of a building covering 108,000
square feet, with many accessory buildings of smaller size, and of a
business employing 3600 persons with sales amounting to nearly
$20,000,000 annually, that every department is still conducted with all
its former success in accordance with the instructions of the founders.
They are here no longer in their bodily presence, but their spirit,
their ideas, still pervade the vast establishment. Everything is still
sold at a small profit and at a price plainly marked, and any article
which may have ceased to please the purchaser can, without the slightest
difficulty, be exchanged or its value refunded.
When James Gordon Bennett was forty years old, he collected all his
property, three hundred dollars, and in a cellar with a board upon two
barrels for a desk, himself his own type setter, office boy, publisher,
newsboy, clerk, editor, proof-reader and printer's devil, he started the
New York _Herald_. In all his literary work up to this time he had
tried to imitate Franklin's style; and, as is the fate of all imitators,
he utterly failed.
He lost twenty years of his life trying to be somebody else. He first
showed the material he was made of in the "Salutatory," of the _Herald_,
viz., "Our only guide shall be good, sound and practical common-sense
applicable to the business and bosoms of men engaged in everyday life.
We shall support no party, be the organ of no faction or coterie, and
care nothing for any election or any candidate from President down to
constable. We shall endeavor to record facts upon every public and
proper subject stripped of verbiage and coloring, with comments when
suitable, just, independent, fearless and good-tempered."
Joseph Hunter was a carpenter, Robert Burns a ploughman, Keats a
druggist, Thomas Carlyle a mason, Hugh Miller a stone mason. Rubens, the
artist, was a page, Swedenborg, a mining engineer. Dante and Descartes
were soldiers. Ben Johnson was a brick layer and worked at building
Lincoln Inn in London with trowel in hand and a book in his pocket.
Jeremy Taylor was a barber. Andrew Johnson was a tailor. Cardinal Wolsey
was a butcher's son. So were Defoe and Kirke White. Michael Faraday was
the son of a blacksmith. He even excelled his teacher, Sir Humphry Davy,
who was an apprentice to an apothecary.
Virgil was the son of a porter, Homer of a farmer, Pope of a merchant,
Horace of a shopkeeper, Demosthenes of a cutler, Milton of a money
scrivener, Shakespeare of a wool stapler, and Oliver Cromwell of a
John Wanamaker's first salary was $1.25 per week. A. T. Stewart began
his business life as a school teacher. James Keene drove a milk wagon in
a California town. Joseph Pulitzer, proprietor of the New York _World_,
once acted as stoker on a Mississippi steamboat. When a young man, Cyrus
Field was a clerk in a New England store. George W. Childs was an errand
boy for a bookseller at $4 a month. Andrew Carnegie began work in a
Pittsburg telegraph office at $3 a week. C. P. Huntington sold butter
and eggs for what he could get a pound or dozen. Whitelaw Reid was once
a correspondent of a newspaper in Cincinnati at $5 per week. Adam
Forepaugh was once a butcher in Philadelphia.
Sarah Bernhardt was a dressmaker's apprentice. Adelaide Neilson began
life as a child's nurse. Miss Braddon, the novelist, was a utility
actress in the provinces. Charlotte Cushman was the daughter of poor
Mr. W. O. Stoddard, in his "Men of Business," tells a characteristic
story of the late Leland Stanford. When eighteen years of age his father
purchased a tract of woodland, but had not the means to clear it as he
wished. He told Leland that he could have all he could make from the
timber if he would leave the land clear of trees. A new market had just
then been created for cord wood, and Leland took some money that he had
saved, hired other choppers to help him, and sold over two thousand
cords of wood to the Mohawk and Hudson River Railroad at a net profit of
$2600. He used this sum to start him in his law studies, and thus, as
Mr. Stoddard says, chopped his way to the bar.
It is said that the career of Benjamin Franklin is full of inspiration
for any young man. When he left school for good he was only twelve years
of age. At first he did little but read. He soon found, however, that
reading, alone, would not make him an educated man, and he proceeded to
act upon this discovery at once. At school he had been unable to
understand arithmetic. Twice he had given it up as a hopeless puzzle,
and finally left school almost hopelessly ignorant upon the subject. But
the printer's boy soon found his ignorance of figures extremely
inconvenient. When he was about fourteen he took up for the _third time_
the "_Cocker's Arithmetic_," _which had baffled him at school_, and
_ciphered all through it with ease and pleasure_. He then mastered a
work upon navigation, which included the rudiments of geometry, and thus
tasted "the inexhaustible charm of mathematics." He pursued a similar
course, we are told, in acquiring the art of composition, in which, at
length, he excelled most of the men of his time. When he was but a boy
of sixteen, he wrote so well that the pieces which he slyly sent to his
brother's paper were thought to have been written by some of the most
learned men in the colony.
Henry Clay, the "mill-boy of the slashes," was one of seven children of
a widow too poor to send him to any but a common country school, where
he was drilled only in the "three R's." But he used every spare moment
to study without a teacher, and in after years he was a king among
The most successful man is he who has triumphed over obstacles,
disadvantages and discouragements.
It is Goodyear in his rude laboratory enduring poverty and failure until
the pasty rubber is at length hardened; it is Edison biding his time in
baggage car and in printing office until that mysterious light and power
glows and throbs at his command; it is Carey on his cobbler's bench
nourishing the great purpose that at length carried the message of love
to benighted India;--these are the cases and examples of true success.
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