Letters from a Self-Made Merchant to His Son/Letter 3

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No. 3
From John Graham, at the Union Stock Yards in Chicago, to his son, Pierrepont, at Harvard University.

Mr. Pierrepont finds Cambridge to his liking, and has suggested that he take a post-graduate course to fill up some gaps which he has found in his education.

III

June 1, 189—

Dear Pierrepont: No, I can't say that I think anything of your post-graduate course idea. You're not going to be a poet or a professor, but a packer, and the place to take a post-graduate course for that calling is in the packing-house. Some men learn all they know from books; others from life; both kinds are narrow. The first are all theory; the second are all practice. It's the fellow who knows enough about practice to test his theories for blow-holes that gives the world a shove ahead, and finds a fair margin of profit in shoving it.

There's a chance for everything you have learned, from Latin to poetry, in the packing business, though we don't use much poetry here except in our street-car ads., and about the only time our products are given Latin names is when the State Board of Health condemns them. So I think you'll find it safe to go short a little on the frills of education; if you want them bad enough you'll find a way to pick them up later, after business hours.

The main thing is to get a start along right lines, and that is what I sent you to college for. I didn't expect you to carry off all the education in sight—I knew you'd leave a little for the next fellow. But I wanted you to form good mental habits, just as I want you to have clean, straight physical ones. Because I was run through a threshing machine when I was a boy, and didn't begin to get the straw out of my hair till I was past thirty, I haven't any sympathy with a lot of these old fellows who go around bragging of their ignorance and saying that boys don't need to know anything except addition and the "best policy" brand of honesty.

We started in a mighty different world, and we were all ignorant together. The Lord let us in on the ground floor, gave us corner lots, and then started in to improve the adjacent property. We didn't have to know fractions to figure out our profits. Now a merchant needs astronomy to see them, and when he locates them they are out somewhere near the fifth decimal place. There are sixteen ounces to the pound still, but two of them are wrapping paper in a good many stores. And there're just as many chances for a fellow as ever, but they're a little gun shy, and you can't catch them by any such coarse method as putting salt on their tails.

Thirty years ago, you could take an old muzzle-loader and knock over plenty of ducks in the city limits, and Chicago wasn't Cook County then, either. You can get them still, but you've got to go to Kankakee and take a hammerless along. And when I started in the packing business it was all straight sailing—no frills—just turning hogs into hog meat—dry salt for the niggers down South and sugar-cured for the white folks up North. Everything else was sausage, or thrown away. But when we get through with a hog nowadays, he's scattered through a hundred different cans and packages, and he's all accounted for. What we used to throw away is our profit. It takes doctors, lawyers, engineers, poets, and I don't know what, to run the business, and I reckon that improvements which call for parsons will be creeping in next. Naturally, a young man who expects to hold his own when he is thrown in with a lot of men like these must be as clean and sharp as a hound's tooth, or some other fellow's simply going to eat him up.

The first college man I ever hired was old John Durham's son, Jim. That was a good many years ago when the house was a much smaller affair. Jim's father had a lot of money till he started out to buck the universe and corner wheat. And the boy took all the fancy courses and trimmings at college. The old man was mighty proud of Jim. Wanted him to be a literary fellow. But old Durham found out what every one learns who gets his ambitions mixed up with number two red—that there's a heap of it lying around loose in the country. The bears did quick work and kept the cash wheat coming in so lively that one settling day half a dozen of us had to get under the market to keep it from going to everlasting smash.

That day made young Jim a candidate for a job. It didn't take him long to decide that the Lord would attend to keeping up the visible supply of poetry, and that he had better turn his attention to the stocks of mess pork. Next morning he was laying for me with a letter of introduction when I got to the office, and when he found that I wouldn't have a private secretary at any price, he applied for every other position on the premises right down to office boy. I told him I was sorry, but I couldn't do anything for him then; that we were letting men go, but I'd keep him in mind, and so on. The fact was that I didn't think a fellow with Jim's training would be much good, anyhow. But Jim hung on—said he'd taken a fancy to the house, and wanted to work for it. Used to call by about twice a week to find out if anything had turned up.

Finally, after about a month of this, he wore me down so that I stopped him one day as he was passing me on the street. I thought I'd find out if he really was so red-hot to work as he pretended to be; besides, I felt that perhaps I hadn't treated the boy just right, as I had delivered quite a jag of that wheat to his father myself.

"Hello, Jim," I called; "do you still want that job?"

"Yes, sir," he answered, quick as lightning.

"Well, I tell you how it is, Jim," I said, looking up at him—he was one of those husky, lazy-moving six-footers—"I don't see any chance in the office, but I understand they can use another good, strong man in one of the loading gangs."

I thought that would settle Jim and let me out, for it's no joke lugging beef, or rolling barrels and tierces a hundred yards or so to the cars. But Jim came right back at me with, "Done. Who'll I report to?"

That sporty way of answering, as if he was closing a bet, made me surer than ever that he was not cut out for a butcher. But I told him, and off he started hot-foot to find the foreman. I sent word by another route to see that he got plenty to do.

I forgot all about Jim until about three months later, when his name was handed up to me for a new place and a raise in pay. It seemed that he had sort of abolished his job. After he had been rolling barrels a while, and the sport had ground down one of his shoulders a couple of inches lower than the other, he got to scheming around for a way to make the work easier, and he hit on an idea for a sort of overhead railroad system, by which the barrels could be swung out of the storerooms and run right along into the cars, and two or three men do the work of a gang. It was just as I thought. Jim was lazy, but he had put the house in the way of saving so much money that I couldn't fire him. So I raised his salary, and made him an assistant timekeeper and checker. Jim kept at this for three or four months, until his feet began to hurt him, I guess, and then he was out of a job again. It seems he had heard something of a new machine for registering the men, that did away with most of the timekeepers except the fellows who watched the machines, and he kept after the Superintendent until he got him to put them in. Of course he claimed a raise again for effecting such a saving, and we just had to allow it.

I was beginning to take an interest in Jim, so I brought him up into the office and set him to copying circular letters. We used to send out a raft of them to the trade. That was just before the general adoption of typewriters, when they were still in the experimental stage. But Jim hadn't been in the office plugging away at the letters for a month before he had the writer's cramp, and began nosing around again. The first thing I knew he was sicking the agents for the new typewriting machine on to me, and he kept them pounding away until they had made me give them a trial. Then it was all up with Mister Jim's job again. I raised his salary without his asking for it this time, and put him out on the road to introduce a new product that we were making—beef extract.

Jim made two trips without selling enough to keep them working overtime at the factory, and then he came into my office with a long story about how we were doing it all wrong. Said we ought to go for the consumer by advertising, and make the trade come to us, instead of chasing it up.

That was so like Jim that I just laughed at first; besides, that sort of advertising was a pretty new thing then, and I was one of the old-timers who didn't take any stock in it. But Jim just kept plugging away at me between trips, until finally I took him off the road and told him to go ahead and try it in a small way.

Jim pretty nearly scared me to death that first year. At last he had got into something that he took an interest in—spending money—and he just fairly wallowed in it. Used to lay awake nights, thinking up new ways of getting rid of the old man's profits. And he found them. Seemed as if I couldn't get away from Graham's Extract, and whenever I saw it I gagged, for I knew it was costing me money that wasn't coming back; but every time I started to draw in my horns Jim talked to me, and showed me

Letters from a Self-Made Merchant to His Son 065.jpg
"I put Jim Durham out on the road to introduce a new product."

where there was a fortune waiting for me just around the corner.

Graham's Extract started out by being something that you could make beef-tea out of—that was all. But before Jim had been fooling with it a month he had got his girl to think up a hundred different ways in which it could be used, and had advertised them all. It seemed there was nothing you could cook that didn't need a dash of it. He kept me between a chill and a sweat all the time. Sometimes, but not often, I just had to grin at his foolishness. I remember one picture he got out showing sixteen cows standing between something that looked like a letter-press, and telling how every pound or so of Graham's Extract contained the juice squeezed from a herd of steers. If an explorer started for the North Pole, Jim would send him a case of Extract, and then advertise that it was the great heat-maker for cold climates; and if some other fellow started across Africa he sent him a case, too, and advertised what a bully drink it was served up with a little ice.

He broke out in a new place every day, and every time he broke out it cost the house money. Finally, I made up my mind to swallow the loss, and Mister Jim was just about to lose his job sure enough, when the orders for Extract began to look up, and he got a reprieve; then he began to make expenses, and he got a pardon; and finally a rush came that left him high and dry in a permanent place. Jim was all right in his way, but it was a new way, and I hadn't been broad-gauged enough to see that it was a better way.

That was where I caught the connection between a college education and business. I've always made it a rule to buy brains, and I've learned now that the better trained they are the faster they find reasons for getting their salaries raised. The fellow who hasn't had the training may be just as smart, but he's apt to paw the air when he's reaching for ideas.

I suppose you're asking why, if I'm so hot for education, I'm against this postgraduate course. But habits of thought ain't the only thing a fellow picks up at college.

I see you've been elected President of your class. I'm glad the boys aren't down on you, but while the most popular man in his class isn't always a failure in business, being as popular as that takes up a heap of time. I noticed, too, when you were home Easter, that you were running to sporty clothes and cigarettes. There's nothing criminal about either, but I don't hire sporty clerks at all, and the only part of the premises on which cigarette smoking is allowed is the fertilizer factory.

I simply mention this in passing. I have every confidence in your ultimate good sense, and I guess you'll see the point without my elaborating with a meat ax my reasons for thinking that you've had enough college for the present.

Your affectionate father,

John Graham.