The Boy Who Began With Three Cents: Chapters From the Biography of an American Publisher
IT was a thrilling time in the eighteen-sixties for an American boy. The country was at war; life was punctuated with the news of battles; newspapers were filled with the decisions of Lincoln, the whereabouts of Lee, and the doings of Grant. Soldiers were being drilled in the armories, and marched to the railroad stations to go to the front. Groups of men stood on the street-corners talking over the latest war-news. Women were sewing for the soldiers. Warmeetings were crowded to the doors. Sea-raiders were busy.
It was a very important question for the people of a harbor city, such as Portland, Maine, whether its mercantile shipping could venture out with a reasonable degree of safety. And when a sea-raider became active on its coast, and exchanged his craft for a better one directly at the mouth of Portland harbor, is it any wonder that the minds of Portland boys were set on fire with the doings of the ‘rebel pirates’? It was thrilling enough to read about pirates, but to have them at one’s own door, so to speak — what could be more thrilling to an alert-minded boy! Fancy, then, the completeness of the picture, when a pirate, who had done a thriving business along the New England coast, exchanged his vessel for a better one almost at the very docks of Portland, was actually intercepted trying to steal out of the harbor with no wind, and, rather than risk capture, blew up his ship! And then, having the piratical crew actually picked out of the water, brought to shore, and marched in a solid phalanx through the streets to the city jail! Gould anything be more satisfying to a boy than to run along beside the band of pirates, — securely shackled of course, — shaking his fists at them and shouting, ‘ Pirates! Rebels!'
It was in this thrilling atmosphere, full of romantic adventure, that an eager-faced, alert-minded boy of twelve played and scampered through the streets of the chief port-city of Maine. He was all over its streets: his little legs carried him into every nook and corner; and in summer, when of the city itself there was not enough to satisfy him, he lived on its water-front, and principally in the water. He swam like the dog that was always with him; he paddled on logs when no rowboat was available; he splashed the water over more timid boys. He could swim every stroke that a boy could know; he could float on his back; he could dive; he could tread water like the dog at his side. He knew and loved the water, and the water was kindly to him, in that it never gave him a ‘cramp’ or tainted his affection for it with an accident. And so the water and he began a friendship which was to grow with the years, and last through a lifetime: such a wonderful friendship for a boy to have, and a life-saver for the man in after years!
Naturally, the Fourths of July were very busy days in those war-times; and to be busy in a boy’s way on the Fourth means that he must have pennies, which, in turn, can buy the explosives which Americans still feel, in certain parts of our country, belong to a fitting celebration of American Independence.
Now, the Fourth of July is a very long day in a boy’s calendar, for it begins early, and ends as late as he can make it last. And it follows logically that a few pennies are not likely to last any too long over such a day. It was in this predicament that this twelve-yearold Portland boy found himself on the Fourth of 1862, when, at five o’clock, he banged into his mother’s home, his mind full of evening plans, and asked for ‘a little change.’ He had evidently forgotten that his mother had already given him some change in the morning; but mothers are very likely not to have lapses of memory on such a point, and she reminded her son of the fact.
‘If you want money to spend,’ she suggested, ‘why not go and earn it?’
The boy’s topaz eyes looked fixedly at his mother’s face, reflected to him as she brushed her hair before the mirror. ‘Earn money?’ That was a new idea.
And then and there, at the age of twelve, the first dawning consciousness of the business career of Cyrus Hermann Kotzschmar Curtis broke upon him. The mother went on brushing her hair, and the boy went on thinking. Finally, he reached expression.
‘If I earn some money, can I keep it all for myself, and spend it on what I want?’ he asked.
‘You may,’ replied the mother.
The boy sauntered out, his little mind full of thoughts; and on his way to the front door he jingled in his pocket the three cents remaining of his morning’s allowance.
As he reached the street, he met a boy-friend who looked glum.
‘What’s up?’ asked Cyrus.
‘Stuck,’ replied the boy as he looked at the three copies of the Courier that he had under his arm.
Whereupon the idea of the first newspaper purchase came to the future publisher.
‘Give you three cents for ’em,’ he offered.
The papers were handed over, the bargain complete, and young Curtis went out to ‘cash in.’ But it took him four hours to sell his three papers.
Nine o’clock at night is somewhat late to begin celebrating the Fourth; his boy friends had all gone home; and so Cyrus went to his home, with his nine cents capital in his pocket.
Next day he spent these nine cents for that evening’s Courier, sold his stock, and on the second day found his capital increased to eighteen cents. But he did not find it easy going. The other newsboys on the streets had their fixed routes, or individual ‘blocks,’ and when the new recruit started to sell he found himself hooted and chased at every turn; in fact, he was sometimes beaten up. And, being undersized, the little boy was no match for the other boys, and he found it necessary, at every point, to give way. The new merchant could find no place on the streets to sell his wares. He had trouble even in buying them. When he went to the Courier’s newsboys’ room, where they bought their papers every afternoon, the boys treated the new invader into their territory roughly.
He endured this for a few days, and then, one afternoon, as he was playing at the water-front looking across to Fort Preble, an idea occurred to him. He went to see the manager of the newspaper, and laid his plan before him. The soldiers at Fort Preble were naturally keen to get the latest war-news; no newspaper service went out to the Fort; he would go, if the manager would let him have all the newspapers he could carry to the Fort, and would give him credit until he could go out and sell them. He explained that it would be a new market for the Courier, and extend its circulation by just so many copies. The manager hesitated, then agreed to trust the boy for one day’s papers.
‘That’s all I want,’ was the reply.
The newsboys, in those days, would go into a room and assemble before a large wire-screen; and as their names were called they would receive their papers. The boy who gave the largest order was called first. Little Cyrus explained to the manager that, if he took the usual course, on account of his size and the opposition of the boys to him as a newcomer, they would beat him up and take his papers away from him. He asked permission to receive his papers behind the screen, so that he could run out the back way. Owing to his large order, his name was called first; and as he was given his papers behind the screen, a howl of protest went up from the boys, and a crowd rushed out to catch him as he came out of the door, and appropriate his papers.
But going out the back way, and racing toward the water-front, instead of to the heart of the city, were unexpected moves. Cyrus got away, and running as fast as his little legs would carry him, and the huge bundle of papers would let him, he made for the sailboat ferry, and went over to Fort Preble with his stock in trade. Of course, the soldiers eagerly bought the papers. Not only that, but they gladly and voluntarily paid five cents instead of three cents per copy for the special service rendered, and within a few moments the little newsboy’s stock was completely sold out.
He went home happy. His first step of initiative had succeeded. He naturally could not know at that age that he had revealed in this act the principle underlying the success of his entire future career. What the newsboy at twelve had done — the perfectly simple and obvious thing, though no other boy had thought of it — the future publisher was to do in all his subsequent undertakings.
To-day, there are, conservatively speaking, forty to fifty thousand newsboys on the streets of the United States and all over the world, selling the publications of the little boy who scampered over to Fort Preble.
And yet there are folks who say there is no romance in business.
It was not long before the Fort Preble exploit of the young street merchant became known, and one of the persons to hear of it was the business manager of the Portland Press. Such a boy, he argued, was too good to remain on a rival paper; and so he offered Cyrus Curtis his first weekly wage of two dollars, if he would serve two established routes, selling as many papers on his own hook as he chose.
The boy liked the idea of a steady income, and he accepted the offer. But the Press was a morning paper, and this meant that the boy would have to get up each morning, summer and winter, at a quarter before four o’clock, serve his routes, sell his own papers, get back to his breakfast at seven o’clock, and go to school at nine.
‘That’s why I never grew,’ he now says: ‘I never had enough sleep, and I was always on my feet. Fancy getting home from a party at eleven or twelve o’clock, and then getting up at a quarter to four! And it was cold in Portland in winter.’
But the boy did it, and did it for four summers and four longer winters!
After he had been with the Press a while, the business manager of the other paper, the Portland Argus, soon sought him, and Cyrus once more changed employers — ‘because he offered me more,’was his reason. He was selling the Argus when he ran into the office on that fateful day in American history, and a boy yelled out to him: ‘Your President has been shot!’
The little boy had been known among his boy-friends as a most ardent little Republican; but, in spite of his grief at the thought of Lincoln’s assassination, he realized that there would be an extra demand for newspapers. And, in fact, an extra stock sold out almost as quickly as he could hand out the papers.
Selling the papers made by another was, of course, a very necessary and convenient stepping-stone to the newsboy, and for a time he argued that he could do nothing else. He never looked at the papers under his arm, however, but the thought would come to him of the exhilaration of actually owning the paper that one sold. This idea was always with him, and one day he confided his daring plan of starting a paper of his own to his chum, Walter Goold. Walter, somehow, fitted into the idea in Cyrus’s head, because, even in those days, he reasoned that there must be two persons to get out a paper: one to make it, and the other to sell it.
So it came about that the two boys agreed to go into partnership. They were to start a boy’s paper, to be called Young America. It was to be a weekly, to sell for two cents a copy. A printer was found who made a contract to print four hundred copies for five dollars.
And so it came to pass that on April 5, 1865, the first issue of Cyrus Curtis’s first paper broke upon the public. Unfortunately, however, it was not an expectant public. And as the public did n’t expect it, it had not been looking for it; and when it looked at the first issue it did not seem anxious to buy it. This was somewhat of a surprise to the boys. In fact, it was more than a surprise to Walter who, seeing that their first issue did not sell, began to wonder where the five dollars were to come from to pay the printer.
His partner did not spend so much time in wondering about the first issue as he did in planning for the second issue. But wonder with Walter grew into worry, and as the boy was going to school and had his lessons to learn his intense worry about the huge debt which hung oxer his head and that of his partner soon showed in his failure to know his lessons. This failure was soon noticed by his parents, who very promptly notified Cyrus that the partnership, so far as Walter was concerned, would have to be instantly dissolved. So, before he could get out his second number, Cyrus found himself ‘left cold’ as sole proprietor of a paper, with five dollars of debt on his shoulders.
Now, Cyrus did not like the idea of the five-dollar debt any more than Walter did. And he liked even less the idea of this same five-dollar debt recurring weekly. But, unlike Walter, he did not run away from the problem. He decided to think it out. He had faith enough in his venture; but how to get the paper out without having to pay the printer that five-dollar bill every week certainly was a question. With true Yankee thrift, he had saved most of his profits from his newspaperselling, and he decided that, with this capital, the propitious moment had come to go into business for himself and set up his own printing plant.
With the boy, as with the man, a plan once decided upon must be carried out at once. So he drew on his savings, paid the printer his five dollars, and took the first train the next morning for Boston, ‘to inspect presses.’ He has often taken press-inspection journeys since, but none that could equal this trip. It was a momentous occasion for the embryo publisher.
To a maker of hand-presses went Cyrus when he arrived in Boston, only to find that presses cost more than he had reckoned. Finally, he saw a small hand-press under the counter.
‘What is that?’ he asked.
‘ Oh, that’s an old model we don’t make or sell any more,’ was the answer.
‘ Let me see it,’ said the boy. And after looking it over he asked, ‘How much?’
‘Well, I’ll let you have that for two dollars and a half,’ said the merchant.
‘Here’s the money,’ replied Cyrus; and he bought his first press. He would be able to print only one page of his paper at a time, he figured out; but that in a way, he reckoned, would be an advantage, in that he would not have to buy so much type. He could buy just enough to set up one page, print that, distribute the type, set the second page, print that, and so print the four pages of which his paper consisted. The type he also bought. This cost him about fifteen dollars. And so, with type and press, he went home, to begin business as a publisher on his own account. He had now some twenty dollars invested in his equipment, and he realized that he would have to work hard to cover his capital and get some profit.
I cannot write of this little boy’s venture with the purchase of his first press for two dollars and a half, without turning over the leaves of this same boy’s life a few years ahead, and considering his last purchase of a press for his newspaper plant: a single press measuring one hundred and thirtyfive feet long and costing over three hundred thousand dollars, with the additional picture of the combined printing plants now owned by this boy, with a value of over eight million dollars!
One day a man asked Cyrus how much he charged for advertisements. The boy had not reached that problem in his business; but he was not going to disclose this fact to a prospective advertiser! ‘Ten cents a square,’ was his reply, showing what he meant by a square — about eight to ten lines.
‘I’ll take a column,’ replied the advertiser; and never has Cyrus Curtis received a column advertisement for any of his publications which seemed larger or longer or more profitable than that first column for Young America.
Gradually, the boy publisher sold his little paper to his friends, or to anyone who would buy a copy; but even then he saw that his printing plant was not busy all the time. So he decided to add a job-printing business, and printed some cards announcing this important fact; and after that, no friend was missed in a solicitation to print his or her visiting card for ten cents a pack of a hundred cards.
This departure brought him the very important job of printing some dancing orders for a dancing master, which order eventually grew so large as to involve a debt of six dollars to the young printer. Much to his surprise, he could not collect it. He sent bill after bill, with no response. He spoke to his father about the heavy indebtedness of this customer. His father laughed, and ventured the information that the man was known all over Portland as a ‘dead beat,’who never paid his bills.
Nothing daunted, the boy was determined to wipe off this large indebtedness from his books, and he called at the house of the dancing master.
‘I would like to collect my printing bill for six dollars,’ the boy told the man when he came to the door.
In answer, the man kicked the boy down the steps, and slammed the door behind him.
The next day, the young printer was again at the dancing master’s house, this time at five o’clock in the morning. Wild-eyed, the man came down halfdressed, and, seeing the boy before him, roundly cursed him for his untimely visit. But something in the look in the boy’s eyes told the man that the following morning would probably find him there again; and, with a mental picture of his early sleep disturbed on successive mornings, he pulled out a roll of bills, gave the boy six dollars, and once more kicked him down the front steps.
‘But I got my money,’ he told his father.
One day, when little Cyrus went to the water-front for the playtime which he always allowed himself, his busy eyes nearly popped out of his head when he saw a United States monitor at anchor in the bay. John Ericsson’s great invention was then thrilling the country, and this was the first monitor the boy had ever seen. He raced to the dock, to which he saw that a boatload of people from the monitor was coming, only to find that visitors to the monitor were not permitted except upon payment of twenty-five cents.
The boy walked along the shore, eagerly looking at the monitor and wondering how he could get on board and see it. His inevitable companion, a neighbor’s dog, — ‘which was almost mine,’ he would say, ‘because he was always with me,’ — followed at his heels.
Even in his youngest boyhood — he was twelve at this time — the resourcefulness of his active little mind never failed him, and it came to his rescue at this moment. He must see the monitor: he must go on board: it was an opportunity that perhaps never again would present itself. And with the strong desire in the boy’s soul the mind gave him the idea and the solution.
He raced along the water-front to a near-by shipyard, where a number of logs to be used for spars were ‘seasoning’ in the water. Appropriating one of the longest and widest, a log some thirty feet long and wide enough to stand up on, Cyrus helped himself also to a stick, and, straddling the log, with his dog behind him, the boy began to paddle toward the monitor. ‘Of course, I did n’t know how I would get on the monitor,’ he acknowledged, ‘even if I got to it; but I would get closer to it anyhow than if I stayed on shore.’
With this thought, he paddled. All went well, until the dog, full of life and interest in the escapade, and scampering up and down the log, attempted at one point to rush past the boy, and pushed so hard that he pushed him into the water, the dog slipping in after him. The boy was, of course, as perfectly at home in the water as on the shore, and quickly clambered up on the log. ‘ But I was so darned mad at the dog,’ was the young adventurer’s comment, ‘ that I let him make attempt after attempt to get on the log. Then I finally took compassion on him, and pulled him up.’
The incident had happened near the monitor and, all unconscious of the fact, the boy and his dog became the centre of attraction, while Ericsson’s great invention took a secondary place in the scene. The captain of the monitor ordered a boat to the rescue; and the boy and the dog, both drenching wet but perfectly happy, were taken aboard the boat to the monitor, exactly where the boy wanted to be. He was taken down to the engine-room, where his clothes were dried; then he was treated to an inspection tour all over the monitor, and sent back to shore with a boatload of visitors!
Thus Cyrus H. K. Curtis paddled on the face of Portland harbor on his first yacht, only to return, not so many years later, as time goes, and enter the same harbor on his own private yacht — one of the largest and perhaps the finest equipped of all pleasure-boats in the United States!
But this time it was built for him in a shipyard, and not appropriated!
For three years the young publisherprinter kept at his business, giving as much of his time to it as he could; for he retained his early-morning newspaper route, and, except in summertime, went to school every day. He finally worked up the circulation of his little paper to four hundred copies a week, which, at two cents a copy, gave him a weekly income of eight dollars, besides what he derived from his few advertisements, the profits from his job-printing work, and his newspaper routes. In all, he so prospered that in 1866 he had the large sum of two hundred dollars invested in his little plant. A proud publisher!
But truly ‘pride goeth before destruction. ' For, just as the Fourth of July of 1862 played an important part in the life of young Cyrus by awakening him to his earning capacity, so the Fourth of July, four years later, was to bring him to another turning-point.
In the late afternoon of that day, the fire-bells of Portland rang, and, with other boys, Cyrus ran to the fire. It was fully two miles away from his home, and when he got to the fire it had gained headway. He heard people say that the entire block where the fire started was doomed. The boy stayed as long as he could and still get home for supper, and returned to find his mother packing up. He told her that there was no possibility of the fire’s reaching their home. The mother argued, with Yankee shrewdness, that foresight was always better than hindsight; and after a light supper she started again to pack. The father was away for the night, in a neighboring city, and so the boy was told by his mother that he would be her sole reliance in saving what they could. He had a sister, five years younger; and what an eleven-year-old girl could do she did.
The fire had been steadily devouring block after block, and the boy began to see that his mother was perhaps right in at least taking precautions. Every truck and moving vehicle in the neighborhood was already commissioned by the neighbors, and the only moving facilities that the family could command were the boy’s little express wagon. This he filled to the top with the articles that it was most desirable to save; and, unaccustomed to such a load, the wagon broke down. So the three could only carry to a place of safety all that their arms would hold.
It is a deplorable fact that there are always people ready to take advantage of the helpless in time of stress. It proved so with the Curtis family. The mother had put all the most valuable belongings of the family in a sideboard, hoping to find some means of moving this one piece of furniture. While she was exploring the neighborhood for such means, she saw two men steal into the house and come out carrying the sideboard, the contents of which they had overheard the mother describe. The source of the initiative invariably present in the career of the son is found here in the mother. She saw instantly that the most valuable of the family’s possessions were in danger; but even amid all the nervous excitement of the moment, in the absence of anyone to counsel her, she quietly made up her mind to turn what looked like a family loss to her advantage. The sideboard was an old-fashioned heavy one, and the men had difficulty in carrying it. The mother walked slowly behind them at a safe distance; and when they had carried it over two miles from her house, to a point of assured safety, exactly where she had tried in vain to get someone to truck it, she accosted the men, claimed the property, and sent them running for their lives!
At midnight the fire had reached the Curtis home and laid it in ashes, and within a few hours had traveled another mile and a half, more than fulfilling the mother’s instinct and reducing the best part of the city of Portland to ruins.
The mother with her son and daughter had found a temporary home beyond the fire-zone; but there was no sleep for the active boy at such a time, and he remained up all night. In the early morning hours he ventured near his one-time home to see if anything was left of it, only to find his father standing at the foot of the street, disconsolately gazing in the direction of the spot where a few hours before he had left his family and home.
Not only was the home burned down, but the boy’s precious printing plant was entirely wiped out, with no insurance. He now faced life in all its grim actuality. He was sixteen, and had just finished his first year in high school. He decided that he must now leave school and devote all his time to earning a livelihood. The days of his boyhood were over!
This was all the education that the boy Cyrus was to get, and on his acquired knowledge, be it what it was, he was destined to make his career.
Young Curtis, at sixteen, now faced a full-time business career. He gave up his newspaper route in the early morning, because the newspaper offices were burned out and papers were few. He accepted a position as errand-boy in the dry-goods store of Leach, Bartlett and Parker, at three dollars per week, his first job being to carry a huge bundle almost as large as himself, on a blistering July day, clear to the other end of the city. His newspaper work had accustomed him to heavy bundles, his legs were sturdy, his spirit was strong, and he persevered, until his faithfulness in his errand-work promoted him to a place as salesman behind the counter, measuring out piece cotton goods by the yard. His popularity among the young people of the city helped him here — it was not an uncommon sight to see a flock of girls at the ’cottoncounter,’as it was called, being waited upon by the energetic and popular young salesman. He was an attractivelooking boy, overflowing with a sense of humor. His quick brown eyes always sparkled. He was rapid in his movements, and filled his position behind the counter so acceptably that his salary was increased until he reached the high point of eight dollars per week.
His tastes in reading led along business lines, and he devoured any business stories that came his way. A weekly paper fell into his hands, containing a story by Richard B. Kimball, then in the heyday of his writing career. Young Curtis was particularly impressed with this story. Without having an exact knowledge of business methods, of course, he felt somehow that Kimball reflected business as it might actually be in the world of affairs. He looked him up, and found that he had written several books, nearly all stories of a business nature. He bought them all, and read them over and over. The reading of Kimball’s books made an impression on the mind of the young lad that was to remain, and to influence him all through his life. It proved later to be the foundation-stone upon which he was to build the most successful weekly magazine for men ever published in the United States. ’I want business stories like Kimball’s,’ he said when he bought the Saturday Evening Post. ‘I know business men will read them.’ And thus a boy’s reading of one man’s honest work brought forth a result little dreamed of by the author.
One evening young Curtis strolled into the reading-room of the United States Hotel — then one of Portland’s leading hotels — and saw, lying on one of the tables, a copy of one of the many colored lithographed pictures which George W. Childs was then having circulated broadcast throughout the country, showing the new Public Ledger building in Philadelphia. It was the first building ever erected in the United States entirely devoted to a newspaper plant and its offices, and the young Portland boy looked at it with undisguised admiration. It seemed to picture to him the greatness that a newspaper might achieve.
Subsequently he read articles descriptive of the building, and one day, being in New York City on business, he said to himself: ‘Now is my chance to run over to Philadelphia and see the Ledger building.’ He did so, and boarded a horse-car that would take him down Chestnut Street. He remained on the back platform of the car, talking to the conductor. It was his first visit to Philadelphia, and he wanted to find out all he could about what he saw. The conductor was obliging, and the young stranger was much impressed with his courtesy. He left the car a block before his destination, and walked down Chestnut Street; and although he looked sharply where the conductor told him he would find the Ledger building, he failed to find it. He reached Third Street, and then asked a policeman who told him, ‘Why, you passed it. It is three blocks back. Here, however, is the old Ledger building, where the paper used to be.’ And the officer pointed to the building on the corner where was then published the Public Record. ‘Would you like to go in and see that?’ he asked; and, much to young Curtis’s surprise, the policeman left his beat, took him into the building, and showed him the plant. ‘No Boston policeman would do that,’ thought the visitor; and his impression of Philadelphia was most favorable.
He nowr walked back to Sixth Street, and as he approached the corner he saw a realization of the picture he had seen: the lithograph having shown the broadside view of the building on Sixth Street. He stood on the opposite corner, viewing the building with the fullest satisfaction, feeling that his trip from New York was amply repaid.
This was in 1873.
Exactly forty years thereafter, the twenty-three-year-old young man who stood, with such rapt admiration, looking at the achievement attributed to George W. Childs, was destined to become the owner of the building, the newspaper which it housed, and all the machinery in it!
‘Had you any dream or aspiration, that day when you saw the building for the first time, of ever owning it or the Ledger ?’ I asked Mr. Curtis once.
‘Not in the remotest degree. I never thought of such a thing.’
And yet, on the site of that very building and of the entire square which compasses it, he has begun the erection of what will be once again the finest and greatest newspaper plant in the United States, involving an expenditure of over ten millions of dollars!
No romance in business?
(In March, Mr. Bok’s second informal sketch of Mr. Curtis will reveal how a woman’s laugh resulted in the Ladies’ Home Journal, and how a ‘singed cat’ became the Saturday Evening Post.)