New York’s Early Publishers: The Harper Brothers through a Vincentian Lens

Authored by Cara Vincente

A page from Robert Ray’s Book of Deeds 1845-1848, showing the purchase of plot deeds at Green-Wood Cemetery by the Harper Brothers.

In an old, dilapidated book, found among a trove of yet-to-be processed archival material at Green-Wood Cemetery, the inevitable resting place of four famous brothers is revealed. James, John, Joseph Wesley and Fletcher Harper, the founders of the eponymous publishing house, Harper & Brothers, purchased four adjacent 300 sq. ft. burial plots in Green-Wood Cemetery in May of 1845.

By the account of their cousin, J.H Harper (1912) in The House of Harper, the four boys grew up close together, “and so inseparably were they connected through life that the history of one is, to a great extent, that of the others” (Harper 1912, 6). It is understandable, then, that they naturally formed a business together and that they should also want to remain close in death. The eldest, James and John formed the initial iteration of the publishing house, J. & J. Harper Publishers in 1817 and it wasn’t until the two younger brothers joined in 1833 that it became Harper & Brothers (Brittanica editors, n.d.).

The four Harper brothers were raised in a strict Methodist household, but with a mother who was delightful and buoyant, “love was her ruling spirit” (Harper 1912, 4) and a father who, though stern and severe, had a tender heart and never inflicted any pain on his sons as punishment (Harper 1912, 4). J.H. Harper describes the brothers as raised to be truthful, and honest at all times (Harper 1912, 6) and that their good natured spirits were a product of a well-rounded upbringing. Though the boys hardly went to school, they did work hard on their farm and when the time came for the oldest, James, to begin to work, he chose to apprentice in printing, having been inspired by Ben Franklin (Harper 1912, 10).

In a Vincentian way of life one operates under the guiding principles of a core set of values. These values are truth, love and respect which concomitantly give way to opportunity, excellence and service (Angel, n.d., 2). Thus, it can be said that while ostensibly not of the Catholic faith, the Harper Brothers in their personal and professional lives, exemplified the core tenets of a Vincentian way of life in their truthfulness and honesty, instilled in them by their father (Harper 1912, 8); their excellence proven by an insatiable work ethic (Harper 1912, 16); respect in how they handled adversity and taunting from their peers, with grace and integrity (Harper 1912, 17); opportunity in their tenacity for creating a successful business, and service to the people through providing publications of nearly every subject, religious and secular.

A quick look at the Harper & Brothers’ List of Publications (1855) shows just how vast the subject matter of their printing truly was. Everything from history, religion, architecture and agriculture, fiction, biographies, textbooks for schools, story books for children, art, astronomy, geography, poetry, essays, etc.—all were printed by Harper & Brothers in their efforts to provide as much information to the public as they possibly could (Harper & Brothers 1855).

Even though the Harper family’s involvement in the publishing house ended in 1900 (Britanica editors, n.d.), the Harper name lives on today as HarperCollins and through Harper’s Magazine, an evolution of an original Harper & Brothers publication (Milliot 2017).

References

Angel, Christine M. n.d. “Information Representation through the Vincentian Lens of Transparency: Providing the Under and Misrepresented with a Voice within Our Cultural Heritage Records.” Evolution of Teaching Philosophy: 1-7. https://docs.google.com/document/d/1VkY3xbRv1Ikuny5LApVmVWmSiZ81OTtUyJ6aSl_I3xo/.

The Editors of Encyclopaedia, n.d. “Harper Brothers.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. Accessed October 20, 2019. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Harper-brothers.

Harper, J. Henry. 1912. The House of Harper. New York, NY: Harper & Brothers. Retrieved from:  https://ia800907.us.archive.org/5/items/houseofharpercen00harp/houseofharpercen00harp.pdf

Harper & Brothers. 1855. List of Publications. New York, NY: Harper & Brothers. Retrieved from: https://ia802205.us.archive.org/16/items/harperbrothersli00harprich/harperbrothersli00harprich.pdf

Milliot, Jim. 2017. “HarperCollins Marks Its 200th Anniversary” Publishers Weekly, March 3, 2017. https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/publisher-news/article/72957-harpercollins-marks-its-200th-anniversary.html

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