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 institutions.
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 Postmaster-General.