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Jacob A. Riis (1849–1914). The Making of an American. 1901.


I go into Business, headlong

SOMEWHAT suddenly and quite unexpectedly, a business career opened for me that winter. Once I had tried to crowd into it uninvited, but the result was not good. It was when I had observed that, for the want of the window reflectors which were much in use in the old country, American ladies were at a disadvantage in their homes in not being able to make out undesirable company at a distance, themselves unseen, and conveniently forgetting that they were “in.” This civilizing agency I set about supplying forthwith. I made a model and took it to a Yankee business man, to whom I explained its use. He listened attentively, took the model, and said he had a good mind to have me locked up for infringing the patent laws of other lands; but because I had sinned from ignorance he would refrain. His manner was so impressive that he really made me uneasy lest I had broken some kind of a law I knew not of. From the fact that not long after window reflectors began to make their appearance in Buffalo I infer that, whatever the enactment, it did not apply to natives, or else that he was a very fearless man, willing to take the risk from which he would save me—a sort of commercial philanthropist. However, by that time I had other things to think of, being a drummer and a very energetic one.

It came about in this way: some countrymen of mine had started a coöperative furniture-factory in Jamestown, where there were water-power and cheap lumber. They had no capital, but just below was the oil country, where everybody had money, slathers of it. New wells gushed every day, and boom towns were springing up all along the Allegheny valley. Men were streaming into it from everywhere, and needed furniture. If once they got the grip on that country, reasoned the furniture-makers, they would get rich quickly with the rest. The thing was to get it. To do that they needed a man who could talk. Perhaps they remembered the creation of the world the year before. At all events, they sent up to Buffalo and asked me if I would try.

“One end of the town was burning while I was canvassing the other.”

I slammed my tool-box shut and started for Jamestown on the next train. Twenty-four hours later saw me headed for the oil country, equipped with a mighty album and a price-list. The album contained pictures of the furniture I had for sale. All the way down I studied the price-list, and when I reached Titusville I knew to a cent what it cost my employers per foot to make ash extension tables. I only wish they had know half as well.

My first customer was a grumpy old shopkeeper who needed neither tables nor bedsteads, so he said. But I had thought it all over and made up my mind that the first blow was half the battle. Therefore I knew better. I pushed my album under his nose, and it fell open at the extension tables. Cheap, I said, and rattled off the price. I saw him prick up his ears, but he only growled that probably they were no good.

What! my extension tables no good? I dared him to try them, and he gave me an order for a dozen, but made me sign an agreement that they were to be every way as represented. I would have backed my tables with an order for the whole shop, so sure was I that they could not be beaten. The idea! With the fit of righteous indignation upon me, I went out and sold every other furniture-dealer in Titusville a bill of tables; not one of them escaped. At night, when I had sent the order home, I set out for Oil City, so as to lose no valuable time.

It was just the same there. For some reason they were suspicious of the extension tables, yet they wanted nothing else. I had to give ironclad guarantees that they were as represented, which I did impatiently enough. There was a thunder-storm raging at the time. The lightning had struck a tank, and the burning oil ran down a hill and set the town on fire. One end of it was burning while I was canvassing the other, mentally calculating how many extension tables would be needed to replace those that were lost. People did not seem to have heard of any other kind of furniture in that country. Walnut bed-steads, marble-top bureaus, turned washstands—they passed them all by to fall upon the tables with shrill demand. I made out their case to suit the facts, as I swept down through that region, scattering extension tables right and left. It was the excitement, I reasoned, the inrush of population from everywhere; probably everybody kept boarders, more every day; had to extend their tables to seat them. I saw a great opportunity and resolutely grasped it. If it was tables they wanted, tables it should be. I let all the rest of the stock go and threw myself on the tables exclusively. Town after town I filled with them. Night after night the mails groaned under the heavy orders for extension tables I sent north. From Allegheny City alone an order of a thousand dollars’ worth from a single reputable dealer went home, and I figured in my note-book that night a commission of $50 for myself plus my salary.

I could know nothing of the despatches that were hot on my trail ever since my first order came from Titusville, telling me to stop, let up on the tables, come home, anything; there was a mistake in the price. They never overtook me. My pace was too hot for that. Anyhow, I doubt if I would have paid any attention to them. I had my instructions and was selling according to orders. Business was good, getting better every day. The firm wrote to my customers, but they merely sent back copies of the iron-clad contract. They had seen my instructions, and they knew it was all right. It was not until I brought up, my last penny gone, in Rochester, near the Ohio line, that the firm established communication with me at last. Their instructions were brief: to come home and sell no more tables. They sent $10, but gave me no clew to their curious decision, with things booming as they were.

Being in the field I considered that, whatever was up, I had a better command of the situation. I decided that I would not go home,—at least not until I had sold a few more extension tables while they were in such demand. I made that $10 go farther than $10 ever went before. It took me a little way into Ohio, to Youngstown, and then back to Pennsylvania, to Warren and Meadville and Corry. My previous training in going hungry for days came in handy at last. In the interests of commerce, I let my dinners go. So I was enabled to make a final dash to Erie, where I planted my last batch of tables before I went home, happy.

I got home in time to assist in the winding up of the concern. The iron-clad contracts had done the business. My customers would not listen to explanations. When told that the price of these tables was lower than the cost of working up the wood, they replied that it was none of their business. They had their contracts. The Allegheny man threatened suit, if I remember rightly, and the firm gave up. Nobody blamed me, for I had sold according to orders; but instead of $450 which I had figured out as my commission, I got seventy-five cents. It was half of what my employer had. He divided squarely, and I could not in reason complain.

I sat in the restaurant where he had explained the situation to me, and tried to telescope my ambitions down to the seventy-five-cent standard, when my eyes fell upon a copy of Harper’s Weekly that lay on the table. Absent-mindedly I read an advertisement in small type, spelling it over idly while I was trying to think what to do next.

“Wanted,” it read, “by the Myers Manufacturing Company, agents to sell a patent flat and fluting iron. Samples 75 cents.”

The address was somewhere in John Street, New York. Samples seventy-five cents! I repeated it mechanically. Why, that was just the size of my pile. And right in my line of canvassing, too! In ten minutes it was on the way to New York and I had secured a provisional customer in the cook at the restaurant for an iron that would perform what this one promised, iron the skirt and flute the flounce too. In three days the iron came and proved good. I started in canvassing Jamestown with it, and in a week had secured orders for one hundred and twenty, upon which my profit would be over $80. Something of business ways must have stuck to me, after all, from my one excursion into the realm of trade; for when it came to delivering the goods and I had no money, I went boldly to a business man whose wife was on my books, and offered, if he would send for the irons, to pay for them as I took them out of the store. He made no bones about it, but sent for the irons and handed them over to me to pay for when I could. So men are made. Commercial character, as it is rated on ’change, I had none before that; but I had after. How could I disappoint a man like that?

“I went to hear Horace Greeley address an open-air meeting.”

The confidence of the community I had not lost through my too successful trip as a drummer, at all events. Propositions came speedily to me to “travel in” pianos and pumps for local concerns. It never rains but it pours. An old schoolmate who had been ordained a clergyman wrote to me from Denmark to find him a charge among the Danish settlements out West. But neither pumps, pianos, nor parsons had power to swerve me from my chosen course. With them went bosses and orders; with the flat-iron cherished independence. When I had sold out Jamestown, I made a bee-line for Pittsburg, a city that had taken my fancy because of its brisk business ways. They were brisk indeed. Grant’s second campaign for the Presidency was in full swing. On my second night in town I went to hear Horace Greeley address an open-air meeting. I can see his noble old head yet above the crowd, and hear his opening appeal. Farther I never got. A marching band of uniformed shouters for Grant had cut right through the crowd. As it passed I felt myself suddenly seized; an oilcloth cape was thrown over my head, a campaign cap jammed after, and I found myself marching away with a torch on my shoulder to the tune of a brass band just ahead. How many others of Mr. Greeley’s hearers fared as I did I do not know. The thing seemed so ludicrous (and if I must march I really cared very little whether it was for Greeley or Grant) that I stuck it out, hoping as we went to come somewhere upon my hat, which had been lost in the sudden attack; but I never saw it again.

Speaking of parading, my old desire to roam, that kept cropping out at intervals, paid me a characteristic trick at this time. I was passing through a horse-market when I saw a fine-looking, shapely young horse put up at what seemed a ridiculously low price. Eighteen dollars was the bid, and it was about to be knocked down at that. The October sun was shining warm and bright. A sudden desire to get on the horse and ride out into the wide world, away from the city and the haunts of men, never to come back, seized me. I raised the bid to $19. Almost before I knew, the beast was knocked down to me and I had paid over the money. It left me with exactly $6 to my name.

“The wide world seemed suddenly a cold and far-off place.”

Leading the animal by the halter, I went down the street and sat on the stoop of the Robinson House to think. With every step, perplexities I hadn’t thought of sprang up. In the first place, I could not ride. I had always wanted to, but had never learned. Even if I had been able to, where was I going, and to do what? I couldn’t ride around and sell flat-irons. The wide world seemed suddenly a cold and far-off place, and $6 but small backing in an attack upon it, with a hungry horse waiting to be fed. That was only too evident. The beast was tearing the hitching-post with its teeth in a way that brooked no delay. Evidently it had a healthy appetite. The conclusion was slowly dawning upon me that I had made a fool of myself, when the man who had bid $18 came by and saw me sitting there. He stopped to ask what was the matter, and I told him frankly. He roared and gave me $18 for the beast. I was glad enough to give it up. I never owned a horse before or since, and I had that less than fifteen minutes; but it was the longest quarter of an hour since I worked in the coal-mine.

The flat-iron did not go in Pittsburg. It was too cheap. During a brief interval I peddled campaign books, but shortly found a more expensive iron, and had five counties in western Pennsylvania allotted to me as territory. There followed a winter of great business. Before it was half over I had achieved a bank account, though how I managed it is a mystery to me till this day. Simple as the reckoning of my daily trade ought to be, by no chance could I ever make it foot up as it should. I tried honestly every night, but the receipts would never square with the expenditures, do what I might. I kept them carefully apart in different pockets, but mixed they would get in spite of all. I had to call it square, however far the footing was out of the way, or sit up all night, which I would not do. I remember well the only time I came out even. I was so astonished that I would not believe it, but had to go all over the account again. That night I slept the sleep of the just. The next morning, when I was starting out on my route with a clean conscience and a clean slate, a shopkeeper rapped on his window as I went by to tell me that I had given him the previous day a twenty-dollar bill for a ten, in making change. After that I gave up trying.

I was no longer alone. From Buffalo my old chum Ronne had come, hearing that I was doing well, to join me, and from Denmark an old school-fellow, whose life at twenty-two had been wrecked by drink and who wrote begging to be allowed to come. His mother pleaded for him too, but it was not needed. He had enclosed in his letter the strongest talisman of all, a letter written by Elizabeth in the long ago when we were children together. I have it yet. He came, and I tried hard to break him of his failing. But I had undertaken a job that was too big for me. Upon my return from a Western trip I found that he had taken to drinking again, and in his cups had enlisted. His curse followed him into the army. He rose to the rank of sergeant, only to fall again and suffer degradation. The other day he shot himself at the post where he was stationed, after nearly thirty years of service. Yet in all his ups and downs he never forgot his home. While his mother lived he helped support her in far-off Denmark; and when she was gone, no month passed that he did not send home the half of his wages for the support of his crippled sister in the old town. Charles was not bad. He was a poor, helpless, unhappy boy, who came to me for help, and I had none to give, God pity him and me.

The Western trip I spoke of was my undoing. Puffed up by my success as a salesman, I yielded in an evil hour to the blandishments of my manufacturers, and accepted the general agency of the State of Illinois, with headquarters in Chicago. It sounded well, but it did not work well. Chicago had not yet got upon its feet after the great fire; and its young men were too sharp for me. In six weeks they had cleaned me out bodily, had run away with my irons and with money they borrowed of me to start them in business. I returned to Pittsburg as poor as ever, to find that the agents I had left behind in my Pennsylvania territory had dealt with me after the same fashion. The firm for which I worked had connived at the frauds. My friends had left me. The one I spoke of was in the army. Ronne had given up in discouragement, and was at work in a rolling-mill. In the utter wreck of all my hopes I was alone again.

Angry and sore, I went up the Allegheny River, with no definite purpose in mind except to get away from everybody I knew. At Franklin I fell ill with a sneaking fever. It was while I lay helpless in a lonely tavern by the riverside that the crushing blow fell. Letters from home, sent on from Pittsburg, told me that Elizabeth was to be married. A cavalry officer who was in charge of the border police, a dashing fellow and a good soldier, had won her heart. The wedding was to be in the summer. It was then the last week in April. At the thought I turned my face to the wall, and hoped that I might die.

But one does not die of love at twenty-four. The days that passed slowly saw me leave my sick-bed and limp down to the river on sunny days, to sit and watch the stream listlessly for hours, hoping nothing, grasping nothing, except that it was all over. In all my misadventures that was the one thing I had never dreamed of. If I did, I as quickly banished the thought as preposterous. That she should be another’s bride seemed so utterly impossible that, sick and feeble as I was, I laughed it to scorn even then; whereat I fell to reading the fatal letter again, and trying to grasp its meaning. It made it all only the more perplexing that I should not know who he was or what he was. I had never heard of him before, in that town where I thought I knew every living soul. That he must be a noble fellow I knew, or he could not have won her; but who—why—what—what had come over everything in such a short time, and what was this ugly dream that was setting my brain awhirl and shutting out the sunlight and the day? Presently I was in a relapse, and it was all darkness to me, and oblivion.

When at last I got well enough to travel, I set my face toward the east, and journeyed on foot through the northern coal regions of Pennsylvania by slow stages, caring little whither I went, and earning just enough by peddling flat-irons to pay my way. It was spring when I started; the autumn tints were on the leaves when I brought up in New York at last, as nearly restored as youth and the long tramp had power to do. But the restless energy that had made of me a successful salesman was gone. I thought only, if I thought at all, of finding some quiet place where I could sit and see the world go by that concerned me no longer. With a dim idea of being sent into the farthest wilds as an operator, I went to a business college on Fourth Avenue and paid $20 to learn telegraphing. It was the last money I had. I attended the school in the afternoon. In the morning I peddled flat-irons, earning money for my board, and so made out.

One day, while I was so occupied, I saw among the “want” advertisements in a newspaper one offering the position of city editor on a Long Island City weekly to a competent man. Something of my old ambition stirred within me. It did not occur to me that city editors were not usually obtained by advertising, still less that I was not competent, having only the vaguest notions of what the functions of a city editor might be. I applied for the job, and got it at once. Eight dollars a week was to be my salary; my job, to fill the local column and attend to the affairs of Hunter’s Point and Blissville generally, politics excluded. The editor attended to that. In twenty-four hours I was hard at work writing up my then most ill-favored bailiwick. It is none too fine yet, but in those days, when every nuisance crowded out of New York found refuge there, it stunk to heaven.

Certainly I had entered journalism by the back door, very far back at that, when I joined the staff of the Review. Signs of that appeared speedily, and multiplied day by day. On the third day of my employment I beheld the editor-in-chief being thrashed down the street by an irate coachman whom he had offended, and when, in a spirit of loyalty, I would have cast in my lot with him, I was held back by one of the printers with the laughing comment that that was his daily diet and that it was good for him. That was the only way any one ever got any satisfaction or anything else out of him. Judging from the goings on about the office in the two weeks I was there, he must have been extensively in debt to all sorts of people who were trying to collect. When, on my second deferred pay-day, I met him on the stairs, propelled by his washer-woman, who brought her basket down on his head with every step he took, calling upon the populace (the stairs were outside the building) to witness just punishment meted out to him for failing to pay for the washing of his shirts, I rightly concluded that the city editor’s claim stood no show. I left him owing me two weeks’ pay, but I freely forgive him. I think I got my money’s worth of experience. I did not let grass grow under my feet as “city editor.” Hunter’s Point had received for once a thorough raking over, and I my first lesson in hunting the elusive item and, when found, making a note of it.

Except for a Newfoundland pup which some one had given me, I went back over the river as poor as I had come. The dog proved rather a doubtful possession as the days went by. Its appetite was tremendous, and its preference for my society embarrassingly unrestrained. It would not be content to sleep anywhere else than in my room. If I put it out in the yard, it forthwith organized a search for me in which the entire neighborhood was compelled to take part, willy-nilly. Its manner of doing it boomed the local trade in hair-brushes and mantel bric-à-brac, but brought on complications with the landlord in the morning that usually resulted in the departure of Bob and myself for other pastures. Part with him I could not; for Bob loved me. Once I tried, when it seemed that there was no choice. I had been put out for perhaps the tenth time, and I had no more money left to provide for our keep. A Wall Street broker had advertised for a watch-dog, and I went with Bob to see him. But when he would have counted the three gold pieces he offered into my hand, I saw Bob’s honest brown eyes watching me with a look of such faithful affection that I dropped the coins as if they burned, and caught him about the neck to tell him that we would never part. Bob put his huge paws on my shoulders, licked my face, and barked such a joyous bark of challenge to the world in general that even the Wall Street man was touched.

“I guess you are too good friends to part,” he said. And so we were.

We left Wall Street and its gold behind to go out and starve together. Literally we did that in the days that followed. I had taken to peddling books, an illustrated Dickens issued by the Harpers, but I barely earned enough by it to keep life in us and a transient roof over our heads. I call it transient because it was rarely the same two nights together, for causes which I have explained. In the day Bob made out rather better than I. He could always coax a supper out of the servant at the basement gate by his curvetings and tricks, while I pleaded vainly and hungrily with the mistress at the front door. Dickens was a drug in the market. A curious fatality had given me a copy of “Hard Times” to canvass with. I think no amount of good fortune could turn my head while it stands in my bookcase. One look at it brings back too vividly that day when Bob and I had gone, desperate and breakfastless, from the last bed we might know for many days, to try to sell it and so get the means to keep us for another twenty-four hours.

It was not only breakfast we lacked. The day before we had had only a crust together. Two days without food is not good preparation for a day’s canvassing. We did the best we could. Bob stood by and wagged his tail persuasively while I did the talking; but luck was dead against us, and “Hard Times” stuck to us for all we tried. Evening came and found us down by the Cooper Institute, with never a cent. Faint with hunger, I sat down on the steps under the illuminated clock, while Bob stretched himself at my feet. He had beguiled the cook in one of the last houses we called at, and his stomach was filled. From the corner I had looked on enviously. For me there was no supper, as there had been no dinner and no breakfast. To-morrow there was another day of starvation. How long was this to last? Was it any use to keep up a struggle so hopeless? From this very spot I had gone, hungry and wrathful, three years before when the dining Frenchmen for whom I wanted to fight thrust me forth from their company. Three wasted years! Then I had one cent in my pocket, I remembered. To-day I had not even so much. I was bankrupt in hope and purpose. Nothing had gone right; nothing would ever go right; and, worse, I did not care. I drummed moodily upon my book. Wasted! Yes, that was right. My life was wasted, utterly wasted.

“Hard Times.”

A voice hailed me by name, and Bob sat up looking attentively at me for his cue as to the treatment of the owner of it. I recognized in him the principal of the telegraph school where I had gone until my money gave out. He seemed suddenly struck by something.

“Why, what are you doing here?” he asked. I told him Bob and I were just resting after a day of canvassing.

“Books!” he snorted. “I guess they won’t make you rich. Now, how would you like to be a reporter, if you have got nothing better to do? The manager of a news agency down town asked me to-day to find him a bright young fellow whom he could break in. It isn’t much—$10 a week to start with. But it is better than peddling books, I know.”

He poked over the book in my hand and read the title. “Hard Times,” he said, with a little laugh. “I guess so. What do you say? I think you will do. Better come along and let me give you a note to him now.”

As in a dream, I walked across the street with him to his office and got the letter which was to make me, half-starved and homeless, rich as Crœsus, it seemed to me. Bob went along, and before I departed from the school a better home than I could give him was found for him with my benefactor. I was to bring him the next day. I had to admit that it was best so. That night, the last which Bob and I spent together, we walked up and down Broadway, where there was quiet, thinking it over. What had happened had stirred me profoundly. For the second time I saw a hand held out to save me from wreck just when it seemed inevitable; and I knew it for His hand, to whose will I was at last beginning to bow in humility that had been a stranger to me before. It had ever been my own will, my own way, upon which I insisted. In the shadow of Grace Church I bowed my head against the granite wall of the gray tower and prayed for strength to do the work which I had so long and arduously sought and which had now come to me; the while Bob sat and looked on, saying clearly enough with his wagging tail that he did not know what was going on, but that he was sure it was all right. Then we resumed our wanderings. One thought, and only one, I had room for. I did not pursue it; it walked with me wherever I went: She was not married yet. Not yet. When the sun rose, I washed my face and hands in a dog’s drinking-trough, pulled my clothes into such shape as I could, and went with Bob to his new home. That parting over, I walked down to 23 Park Row and delivered my letter to the desk editor in the New York News Association, up on the top floor.

He looked me over a little doubtfully, but evidently impressed with the early hours I kept, told me that I might try. He waved me to a desk, bidding me wait until he had made out his morning book of assignments; and with such scant ceremony was I finally introduced to Newspaper Row, that had been to me like an enchanted land. After twenty-seven years of hard work in it, during which I have been behind the scenes of most of the plays that go to make up the sum of the life of the metropolis, it exercises the old spell over me yet. If my sympathies need quickening, my point of view adjusting, I have only to go down to Park Row at eventide, when the crowds are hurrying homeward and the City Hall clock is lighted, particularly when the snow lies on the grass in the park, and stand watching them awhile, to find all things coming right. It is Bob who stands by and watches with me then, as on that night.

The assignment that fell to my lot when the book was made out, the first against which my name was written in a New York editor’s book, was a lunch of some sort at the Astor House. I have forgotten what was the special occasion. I remember the bearskin hats of the Old Guard in it, but little else. In a kind of haze, I beheld half the savory viands of earth spread under the eyes and nostrils of a man who had not tasted food for the third day. I did not ask for any. I had reached that stage of starvation that is like the still centre of a cyclone, when no hunger is felt. But it may be that a touch of it all crept into my report; for when the editor had read it, he said briefly:—

“You will do. Take that desk, and report at ten every morning, sharp.”

That night, when I was dismissed from the office, I went up the Bowery to No. 185, where a Danish family kept a boarding-house up under the roof. I had work and wages now, and could pay. On the stairs I fell in a swoon and lay there till some one stumbled over me in the dark and carried me in. My strength had at last given out.

So began my life as a newspaper man.