James Harper (1795-1869) established a printing firm in New York City that grew to become one of the largest and most influential American publishing houses of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As it expanded under the guidance of its founder and his three brothers, the firm published the works of such influential American authors as Washington Irving and Herman Melville. During his tenure, magazines were launched that have survived into the twenty-first century as Harper's Bazaar and Harper's.
Harper was born on April 13, 1795. He was the eldest of Joseph and Elizabeth Kolyer Harper's four sons. Harper had emigrated from England to the New York area before the American Revolution. By the time of the future publisher's birth, the family had settled in Newtown, Long Island, a distinctly rural area at the time. The Harper boys were raised in a disciplined and pious Methodist household, and farm duties prevented the eldest son from attending school more than a few months out of every year. As a youth, however, he read the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, one of the most admired Americans of the eighteenth century, and decided that he, too, would like to become a printer, as Franklin had been. Thus Harper was sent to the home of a family friend, Abraham Paul, who was the partner in a New York City printing shop, when he was 16. He learned the trade at Paul and Thomas as an apprentice, and lived with the Paul family, as was the custom.
Harper's next youngest brother, John, also entered the printing profession as an apprentice. In 1817, they established themselves in New York City as J. and J. Harper, in a shop at the corner of Dover and Front streets. Harper was 22 years old, his brother only 20. Their father loaned them the initial sum with which they purchased some printing presses and typesetting equipment. They also borrowed a horse from the family farm, since the presses literally ran on horsepower at the time: the yoked animal trod in a circle to power the machinery. The Harpers had researched the book market in New York City, and saw a business opportunity— a strategy that would be repeated throughout the nineteenth century inside their headquarters and make the firm an unparalleled success. There were 33 booksellers in New York City at the time, and some were publishers as well. The Harpers thought that they could contract directly with booksellers to publish various titles; in return the booksellers would receive title page credit.
Firm Grew Rapidly
The first order that Harper and his brother filled was from a seller named Evert Duycinck, who ordered 2,000 copies of Seneca's Morals. By this time the remaining Harper brothers were helping in the venture—Wesley was 16 and serving as a "printer's devil," while Fletcher, just 11 years old, assisted during his school holidays at the shop. In 1818, the brothers decided to publish something of their own and sell it. Essay on the Human Understanding, an influential work by English philosopher John Locke originally published in 1690, became the first title in the Harper catalog. Their business acumen and reputation for printing quality books and pamphlets soon made them the largest printer/publisher in the city. Rapid expansion forced them to move several times. By 1825 they were established in a series of buildings at 82 Cliff Street.
In the early 1820s, both Wesley and Fletcher had joined the business with partnership shares bought for $500 each. The name was officially changed to Harper and Brothers in 1833. When asked once who was the Harper and who were the brothers, James was said to have replied, "Any one is Mr. Harper, and the rest are brothers." Each fulfilled various duties in the operation: James served as the press operator, John was a skillful compositor of type and proofreader, and literary-minded Wesley often made the final decision on their list and wrote many prefaces to the early volumes.
Became Industry Leaders
The same year that the name change took place, the Harpers issued their first catalog, which listed 234 titles. Many of their first successes came from reprinting novels whose popularity had already been established in England. These they did so quickly that the firm was able to have a book finished less than 24 hours after its proofs had been delivered by ship. The novels of Sir Walter Scott were one example of the success that the firm enjoyed by giving eager American readers works of popular fiction. However, competition in the U.S. market for such titles was fierce, since there were no international copyright laws at the time. Over the years, the Harpers were instrumental in establishing some trade courtesies that served as a self-regularity effort in the industry. What became known as the "Harper Rule" specified that an American publisher could enjoy exclusivity for a planned title if the proofs were purchased from the English publisher or author first, and then an announcement placed in a local American newspaper heralding the forthcoming title from the firm.
A Fair-Minded Boss
As the business grew, Harper no longer ran the presses, but busied himself with the management of the physical plant. He was known to spend a good part of the workday on the floor, and was a well-liked boss. He cautioned his supervisors to treat all employees fairly. "Don't try to drive men too roughly. It is so much easier to draw than push," a company history, The House of Harper, quoted the founder as saying. The company became one of the first to use steam-run presses in the 1830s, and were finally able to retire the hardworking family horse; company legend asserts that when it returned to the Long Island family farm, it continued to walk in a circle for the remainder of its days around a tree, stopping and starting according to a twice-daily factory whistle from a nearby establishment.
Harper and his brothers expanded their business through several innovative practices. They launched the "Harper's Family Library" of travel, history, and biography titles, which concluded in 1845 with 187 volumes. Its titles included Washington Irving's Life of Oliver Goldsmith and Richard Henry Dana's Two Years Before the Mast, an 1840 account of Dana's years as a common sailor aboard one of the last wind-powered ocean-going vessels of the era. The Dana title was a huge success, and the Harper firm was said to have earned a small fortune from it. They held the copyright until 1868, for which they had originally paid just $250.
Lobbied in Albany
The Harper's Family Library series was famously popular—John Quincy Adams once recommended it as a worthy addition to American households—but it did have one well known detractor. Henry David Thoreau complained in his Walden that one family's taste should not have dictating power over the reading public. Other series followed that helped win the Harper firm more market share, such as the "Boy's and Girl's Library" for young readers. Harper himself traveled to Europe to collect fairy tales for one of its volumes, the best-selling Fairy Book. The founder's friendship with Thurlow Weed, who had apprenticed at the Paul firm with him years before and became the editor of the Albany Evening Journal, yielded introductions to state politicians. The result was an 1838 state law mandating that all New York school districts of a certain size must possess a library. Harper and Brothers filled the new demand with their "Harper's School District Library," which contained 50 volumes for just $20. Five years later, they offered many of the same titles in a pine cabinet called the New England School Library; each were tremendous sellers and earned the firm healthy profits.
Savvy business practices were the hallmark of the Harper firm. Early on, James and his brothers realized the potential of favorable mentions in newspapers for their titles, and urged editors to review their books. They also hired literary advisors who read manuscript and made recommendations, another first in the industry. They began to hire "readers" to help them sort through the numerous submissions they received. In the 1840s the Harper firm had a number of literary successes. They published an abridged edition of Webster's Dictionary, Charles Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle in 1845, and the classic Charlotte Bronte novels Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. Other authors in their roster included William Makepeace Thackeray, Charles Dickens, and George Eliot. By 1849 the Harper firm was printing two million volumes a year on 19 presses; they employed 350 in seven five-story buildings. In sheer numbers, the firm was the largest publishing company in the world.
Success with Magazine Publishing
James Harper provided the idea for a new venture, which was launched in 1850 as Harper's New Monthly Magazine. It came under the control of Fletcher, the youngest of the brothers. The following year it excerpted part of a new novel by Herman Melville that failed to arouse much attention. The finished work, Moby Dick, did not achieve fame until decades later. In 1857, the firm launched Harper's Weekly, also under the direction of Fletcher. In its day, the magazine enjoyed a healthy circulation and several historic firsts: political cartoonist Thomas Nast created the first image of Santa Claus for an 1863 cover, depicting the bearded figure distributing presents to Union Army soldiers. The magazine also featured the first images of two enduring American political symbols: the Republican Party elephant and the its Democratic Party counterpart, the donkey. In 1867, the Harpers launched Harper's Bazar, a weekly fashion magazine; it was acquired in 1913 by publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, who added an "a" to the title.
At several points in its history, the Harpers weathered some difficult financial straits. A disastrous 1853 fire destroyed much of their plant and caused losses of one million dollars. By the end of the terrible day, however, the brothers had decided to rebuild and carry on—though each was by then quite well-off and could have retired. Each had sons and hoped to pass on their firm to a new generation.
First Reform Mayor of New York
Harper became active in New York political circles in mid-life. In 1844, he successfully ran for mayor on a platform that promised municipal reform after reports of widespread corruption had incensed citizens. Harper did manage to implement several internal reform measures during his tenure, but the political machine known as Tammany Hall regained control the following year. His name was even mentioned for the governorship of the state of New York, but the publisher was reportedly uninterested in running for higher office. He was married to Maria Arcularius, with whom he had one son. His wife died in 1847. Julia Thorne became his second wife. The family grew to include another son and two daughters. When his son Philip's wife died in 1856, Philip wed Julia's sister Augusta, which made the father and son brothers-in-law.
Harper's one passion, outside of his business, was driving his horses. He was enjoying his daily ride on the afternoon of Good Friday in 1869 when an accident caused the pole of the carriage to split. The horses became frightened and bolted. Both Harper and his daughter were ejected from the carriage, but his injuries were more serious than hers. He was taken to Knickerbocker Hospital, and died two days later, on March 27, 1869 in New York City. The City Hall flag flew at half-mast in his honor, and the New York papers ran lengthy obituaries.
Dictionary of American Biography Base Set, American Council of Learned Societies, 1928-1936.
Exman, Eugene, The House of Harper: One Hundred and Fifty Years of Publishing, Harper and Row, 1967.