Jacques Aristide Boucicault began his business life as an employé 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 Marché, 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 employés; 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 brewer.
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 people.
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.