Biographical Sketches of the Leading Men in Chicago, Photographically Illustrated by John Carbutt, 1868, Pages 299-306, No Photograph
Among business men, the successful book merchant deserves special mention. No other branch of trade tests more thoroughly business capacity and skill; nor is there any, when prosecuted upon right principles, that influences society and individual character to greater advantage. A publishing and book-selling house, managed in its affairs by conscientious, intelligent men, should be valued in any community as the schools of learning are valued; and often it is entitled to rank, as respects the breadth, power, and effect of its influence, with the highest and best of such schools. For, while students and scholars are comparatively few in number, and must necessarily be so, readers are counted by thousands and millions; and proportionately with the number of good books that a man becomes the means of distributing, will be the number of teachers set to work. By these instruments he forms not alone taste, but character; supplies not alone entertainment, but instruction, and puts in operation causes and tendencies which shape destiny itself. In the particulars here alluded to, the gentleman whose name stands above has been fortunate beyond most, even in his own sphere of business life. The fact is, in his case, of the more significance, as it is with him not a happy contingency, or a subordinate incident of his career, but the successful working out of a purpose, early formed and held to throughout life, with singular tenacity and consistency.
Samuel C. Griggs is a native of Tolland County, Connecticut. His father was the most extensive farmer in the county where he resided; a man of strict integrity, and so highly esteemed in that regard that his word was always deemed equivalent to the most stringent legal attestation. He was also a man of generous spirit, and ultimately lost his entire fortune by indorsing the paper of friends, and otherwise helping them in difficulty. To his mother, especially, as is so often the case, Mr. Griggs acknowledges a large indebtedness. She was a woman of great refinement of feeling, nervous and energetic in temperament, and with aims always high and pure. Upon her side, the family traces its descent from some of the highest branches of English nobility, and in the line are reckoned not a few who were as eminent for their moral worth as their honored lineage.
It was the chief aim of this good mother, in the training of her son, to instil thoroughly the principles of true manhood, as well as of a true Christianity. Almost daily, during the period, especially, from his fifth to his tenth year, she took him with her alone to her room, and there, in her own beautiful language, the tender eyes often filling with tears, would picture to him the different courses of life which the bad and the good pursue. Illustrating with anecdotes and examples, more particularly of those who had become eminent in the world for true greatness, she sought thus to instil into his young mind a thorough aversion to anything low, ignoble, or unworthy, and to excite the laudable ambitions of virtue and the desire for excellence. The impression thus received, even before the tenth year of life had been reached, proved lasting, and, as Mr. Griggs believes, has been a more abiding and more beneficent influence than all that has been felt in the years succeeding. A good mother, faithful to her trust, seldom fails to make of her son a good man. The plastic character of the child yields to her forming hand, and, when manhood has come, the outline she gave it, filled out and rounded, and hardened into firmness, is still there.
The parents had intended that their son should be thoroughly educated, and he himself, as he advanced in life, had fixed upon a literary career as his choice. Until the age of fourteen, his advantages were such as the ~New England boy usually enjoys, in the district and Sunday schools; in his own case, enlarged through the instructions of his mother at home. From fourteen to nineteen, he was most of the time at school in various academies and seminaries, and at the time of finally abandoning his course of study, in consequence of a failure of health, was prepared for the third year in college. In his school relations he showed that same ambition and resolute purpose which has characterized his later career. A prize offered to his class, whether for superiority in the classics, or in any of the more public school exercises, was a temptation which he could never resist. He was always a competitor, and always successful. The intense application induced by this constant and consuming desire for excellence in scholarship, and by his interest in study for its own sake, at length so affected his health that it was found impossible for him to proceed. Midway in his course he was checked and turned aside. A new plan of life had to be formed, a new choice made.
It is characteristic of Mr. Griggs that, in selecting a business calling, instead of the literary one he at first had in view, he kept still in mind his original purpose, and, though compelled to find a different road, never lost sight of the end. The change itself was at the cost of many a bitter regret. It was a consolation to feel that there were parallel courses to that which he had been compelled to abandon, and that into the new pursuit he could carry the purpose with which his early teachings had inspired him, and which had strengthened with the lapse of years—that whatever his calling, it must at least be one which, while realizing personal aims, should be a sphere of usefulness, and enable him to influence for good, both morally and intellectually, all whom he could reach. Actuated by these views, and guided by a good Providence, he, in the twentieth year of his age, began in the book trade at Hamilton, New York, the seat of what is now Madison University. The small country book store in which his first venture was made, he purchased upon credit. He had never been for a single day in any mercantile house, as clerk or otherwise, and had no experience in business, whatever. It seems, as one looks back upon it, like a somewhat hazardous scheme for a youth not yet twenty years old. But it was a man in his right place; admirable faculty finding suitable sphere and scope. It was a small beginning, but a good and sound one, and had in it the augury of success from the start.
At Hamilton, Mr. Griggs remained some six years. In that time he had established a business character highly appreciated, not only there, but in the commercial centres of the land. A leading New York publisher, Mr. Mark H. Newman, had especially noticed him. Perceiving in him talent and enterprise that must soon demand a wider sphere, Mr. Newman proposed to him a partnership. He first offered to associate him with himself in New York, upon equal terms, Mr. Griggs to give his notes for his share of the common capital. Mr.Griggs, however, declining to involve himself in this way, he then offered to furnish the entire capital, and proposed a business which, with its centre at New York, should have a branch at New Orleans. He offered to bind himself, in writing, that his partner should receive four thousand dollars a year, whether his share of the profits amounted to this or not, and that he should be expected to remain in New Orleans only nine months in each year. Those were the days of slavery, and Mr.Griggs found it impossible to reconcile himself to the idea of such a close personal contact with that bad institution, and the social system born of it, as a residence in a city like New Orleans must involve. This offer, therefore, was also declined. Mr. Newman then wrote that Mr. Griggs could not, of course, expect to remain in Hamilton. It was a field much too narrow. To seek a wider sphere was a manifest duty, and in his judgment the change should be made without delay. As New Orleans had been declined, Mr. Newman proposed Chicago, saying of it, with singular forecast, considering that his words were written more than twenty years ago, that it was a place destined one day to be second only to New York. To this proposal Mr. Griggs agreed, and accordingly, in 1848, came to Chicago and opened business as a partner of Mr. Newman.
It is a highly pleasing indication of the character which Mr. Griggs had established in Hamilton, both as a business man and a cultivated Christian gentleman, that not only the citizens of that place, but the faculty of the University, used every means to retain him there. The Professors held a special meeting upon the subject, prompted by a con- viction of the very great importance to a literary institution of a well-managed book-trade in its vicinity, and appointed one of their number to express to him their strong desire that he should remain, pledging themselves that all books issued by them should be given to him for publication, if desired. This incident shows what pleasant relations had already come to exist between Mr. Griggs, the citizens of Hamilton, the students and faculty of the University. Neither was the place without its attractions, social and literary. But the young merchant had wider views. That spirit was moving in him which has pushed abroad into the newer portions of this great country the men who have there built up mighty communities and flourishing cities. It was in his heart and in his destiny to share in that work. The purpose of his life demanded the broad field it found, and in that field has never neglected to seize and use the opportunities it sought.
In the year 1848, then, Mr. Griggs became a citizen of Chicago, commencing here that business career which has since so steadily progressed. We cannot undertake to sketch its history in these pages. Much may be inferred from the fact that while in the first year his sales amounted to only $23,000, at present the amount of his yearly trade is not far from a million. Much will be suggested also to those who may have had occasion, fifteen or twenty years ago, to visit his small store at 111 Lake street, and who might now go to see him at the magnificent establishment at 39 and 41 of the same street, the most extensive, with two or three exceptions, in the United States, and worthy to rank with any upon either continent. Other suggestions will be gained by even a cursory survey of the present stock in trade. Even a stranger, both to him and his history, would infer from what the shelves and counters must disclose, that the controlling spirit there is not one of money-getting alone, or chiefly; but that the proper aim of the book merchant has been clearly seen and energetically adopted. The book is there evidently looked upon not merely as an article of barter, nor does one discover signs that those books are held of chief account which will sell most quickly and with the largest profit. One perceives that there is a purpose, not to feed a depraved public taste and grow rich faster by the means, but to cultivate a pure and correct taste, by offering the kind of literature which readers ought to prefer and to seek. The literature of the age is, indeed, represented in all its branches, while that of the older ages survives in works which are the choice legacy of centuries past to our own; but just because it is so complete, the collection there found becomes in itself a means to suggest and educate right ideas of literature and of books.
It is unusual to find in a general book store so many rare and expensive works as are found in that of which we speak. In a recent visit to Europe, Mr. Griggs enriched his stock greatly by purchases of this kind, especially in London, Edinburgh and Brussels. Art and literature alike, and in their choicest specimens, are represented in these masterpieces of the older authors and artists, as well as the later ones, furnished in forms the most attractive. Many of these works must of necessity be comparatively slow of sale; many of them are very costly. They, like much else which one finds here, were not meant as a speculation, but to render more complete the outfit of an establishment the whole aim of which is to combine the personal ends of business with the higher ends of a public service. It is proper to add that, in the particulars to which we here allude, Mr. Griggs has in his partners, Messrs. E. L. Jansen, D. B. Cooke, A. C. McClurg, and F. B. Smith, gentlemen like-minded with himself. Mr. Jansen has been a member of the firm for more than eleven years. His admirable business talents have contributed largely toward the development of this wide and prosperous trade. The others named have become partners more recently. Mr. Griggs has a right to feel, in reviewing his business career in the past, and in contemplating the advantages of his position in the present, that the noble ambition of his youth has by no means been disappointed. Turned aside from pursuing it in one direction, he has found another, and is permitted to know that in this, also, literary distinction and the rich rewards of wide and lasting usefulness are gained.
In his personal relations, Mr. Griggs is a liberal citizen, a Christian who believes that God is served in business no less than in the church, a steadfast, generous friend, a gentleman made welcome in every circle. He has a wide acquaintance with the literature which he offers to the public, and of the merit of good books can speak from personal knowledge. In business, he is remarkable for sagacity, readiness and decision. He can venture largely, but seldom ventures unwisely. He looks at business in its broadest relations, and is able to both plan and work successfully upon a great scale. His own literary taste is exceedingly delicate and accurate, and his talent for original composition such as would have justified him in expecting success in a literary career, had his early purpose to that effect not been defeated. Some of his friends have been allowed access to a series of letters written home by him during a tour of four or five months in Europe, in the year 1866. They evince a rare power of both seeing and describing, and should the importunity of his friends prevail upon him to publish, there would be another added to the very small number of books of travel that are worth reading. During the visit to Europe of which mention has just been made, Mr. Griggs formed many valuable acquaintances among leading publishers in Great Britain and on the Continent. From Mr. Henry G. Bohn, of London, he received numerous polite attentions, as also from the veteran publisher, Mr. John Murray, Trubner & Co., Longman & Green, and Routledge, Bell & Daldy, of the same city, and from Messrs. Blackwood & Sons, of Edinburgh.
In this connection we may be permitted to copy a passage from the “American Literary Gazette and Publishers’ Circular,” recognized as the leading publication of its class in this country:
- Mr.Griggs, the senior member of this great Northwestern book house, is one of those gentlemen of whom the whole trade is proud. His intelligence, enterprise, integrity, and many estimable personal qualities, have acquired for him a popularity not derived from any factitious circumstances, but a permanent and spontaneous tribute to his merit. In his recent visit to the East, the hearty and respectful welcome which he every where received should teach the younger members of the trade that the best road to prosperity and honor is in the path of fair dealing, energy and uprightness.
Mr. Griggs has always been a hard-working business man, and that in spite of a frailness of constitution that has partly resulted from the injudicious application to study, in youth, of which we have spoken. He is slender in form, and impresses the observer as a man by no means robust; yet his resolute purpose, and his power of dispatch, carry him through a vast amount of work. He is now in the meridian of his life, and his friends cherish for him the hope of yet many more years, to be crowned, as the past have been, with prosperity and usefulness.
Samuel C. Grigg’s resided at Michigan Terrace, where ten other prominent men resided before the Fire. Mr. Griggs passed away on April 5, 1897. He has the distinction of having published Ford’s History of Illinois, the first book published in Chicago (1854) that wasn’t a directory.
Michigan Terrace , Michigan Avenue looking towards Central Depot by E. Whitefield
Owned & occupied by: 1. J. Y. Scammon, 2. J. L. Clark, 3. B. F. Sherman, 4. H. T. Dickey, 5. Tuthill King, 6. S. C. Griggs, 7. P. F. M. Peck, 8. W. Bross, 9. Chas. Walker, 10. P. L. Yoe, 11. Denton Gurney.