August 5

An edition of two thousand copies of the L’Estrange translation of Seneca’s Morals was delivered on August 5, 1817 to the New York bookseller, Evert Duyckinck. At the foot of the title page of this volume was the imprint, “J. & J. Harper, printers,” representing the first use in any book of one of the famous names in American publishing.

Just seven years previously a sixteen year old Long Island farm boy named James Harper completed his reading of the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin and at once informed his parents that he wished to be a printer. Agreeing with his youthful decision, the senior Harper made arrangements with a New York printer, Abraham Paul, to take the boy as an apprentice. Thus on a wintry December day in 1810, the Harpers, father and son, climbed on the farm wagon and journeyed via the Post Road to Brooklyn Heights, at which point they were rowed across the East River to Manhattan. Here James began his notable career as printer and publisher.

New York City at that time had a population of 96,000 living in an area which stretched from Battery Park to Chambers Street, north of which were swamps and farmland. Thirty-four years later the fledgling printer was mayor of the city, which had expanded northward as far as Fourteenth Street and had grown to a city of 350,000 people. In the first years of his indentures, James Harper, fresh off the farm, was subject to a great deal of ridicule from the city-bred apprentices, his mode of dressing being a particular source of fun. Eugene Exman, the biographer of the Harper Brothers, recounts an early incident relating to Harper’s problems during his apprentice days. One of his tormentors made a sardonic remark in praise of James’s trousers and asked him for the card of his tailor. “That’s my card,” Harper replied as he implanted a flat-soled kick on the seat of the other’s pants. “Take good care of it! When I am out of my time, and set up for myself, and you need employment, as you will, come to me, bring the card, and I will give you work.” Forty-one years later a man claiming to have received this unique “card” called at the Harper establishment and asked James to redeem it, which he did, immediately.

Within the next few years, John and Wesley Harper, the younger brothers of James, also apprenticed themselves as printers. When James became a journeyman, he and John discussed starting their own business and began to save their money toward that goal. Early in 1817 they had accumulated $500. With the assistance of their father, who had mortgaged his farm, they rented the second floor of a small frame house at Front and Dover streets. Even as an apprentice James had a single-purposed ambition, which was to see his name at the foot of the title page of a book.

By 1825, a fourth brother, Fletcher, became a partner. By then the firm was employing fifty persons and was operating ten presses, making it the largest printing office in New York. By 1830 J. & J. Harper was the largest book printing establishment in the United States. In 1833 the firm became known as Harper & Brothers, a name which was retained until 1962 when a merger made it Harper & Rowe.

Leave a Reply