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

his advice.

"If you are going before the public," Mr. Graham told him, "you ought to

do it."

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

an offer.

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

self-made men.

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.