Biographical Sketches of the Leading Men in Chicago, Photographically Illustrated by John Carbutt, 1868, Pages 418-422
The quiet perseverance of honest industry has more exponents than chroniclers. Where the short sharp struggle, or the masterly movement challenge admiration and demand a record, the not less heroic and more truly noble conflict with the world, in which one man, at a great personal disadvantage, finds the hand of every one raised against him, and by dint of unwearied attention to the one great object gradually threads his way through and between opposing obstacles, rather than beats them down, too seldom finds a place in our permanent annals. Yet these are the men who have done most for the real benefit of themselves and their race. They have not with leaping pole bridged the chasm which isolates the mountain crag, but with slow and toilsome steps they have ascended the steep, and gained the fertile plateau whose plenty makes glad the hearts of a community. Their success is not based on the injury of others, nor achieved by subterfuge or knavery, but, as the legitimate fruit of unwearying application, is so much added to the world’s wealth, and so much of an augmentation to its concrete happiness. It is the presence of these men, so largely numerous among us, that has given to Chicago its proud prominence among the cities of the West, stamping her as the mistress of the Mississippi Valley in all that pertains to commercial enterprise and legitimate business growth. It is the presence of this clement which enables her to reach out and beyond her former rivals into that which once was regarded as their exclusive domain, and, like the sun among the planets, forcing not only them, but their satellites, to revolve in obedience to the influence of its own superior attraction.
One of these conquerors of adverse circumstances is Mr. Charles Tobey, the well-known furniture manufacturer and dealer, whose skill and enterprise have done so much to beautify and render comfortable our Western homes and places of business, and whose integrity has been so largely instrumental in redeeming the character of Western work from the low estimation in which it was at one time held. Commencing at the lowest starting point, he worked his way up, slowly but surely, to his present position, which is not only one of profit, but of reflex honor to the community. The products of his manufactory have achieved for him an enviable reputation, which, though but carved in wood, is as durable as if graved in marble.
Charles Tobey was born in 1831, in Dennis, Barnstable County, Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and is the son of Jonathan H. Tobey, who owned and worked a farm which had been occupied by his family through a line of six generations, covering a period of about two hundred years. His ancestry is traced back directly to Wales, Great Britain, through a genealogical record of eight generations.
The early years of Charles were spent on the parental farm, which, when old enough, he helped to till, working nine months in the year, and devoting the other three to obtaining an education in the common district schools of that day. His opportunities were very limited, and even those poor privileges were far from seeming to be fully improved. He was not regarded as a very promising scholar, being, as his father recently remarked, “more devoted to trading jack-knives than to conjugating verbs.” At the age of sixteen, he made several attempts to follow the sea, his great ambition being to go out in, and own, a boat, but he finally came to the conclusion that it was what the sailors call a “dog’s life,” as well as unprofitable. The last consideration decided him, for he had early become impressed with the importance of prospering in the world, and determined to spare no pains to earn a competency. He was never afraid of work, but willing to put his hand to anything that turned up, and remarkably dexterous in his adaptability to everything but dry, book studies. By the time he had attained the age of twenty years, he gave promise of being an excellent farmer, but the occupation did not suit him.He wanted something with more “dash,” more opportunity for getting along, and mingling with the great social throng, than was possible in handling the plow, and he determined to learn a mercantile business. With carpet-bag in hand, he took passage for Boston in a packet, and there sought a situation. The search was a long though diligent one, for situations were far from being plenty. He was well-nigh disheartened, when a friend stepped in and procured him a place as porter in a furniture store. He labored there faithfully for four months, receiving five dollars per week as compensation for his services. During this time he found it very difficult to live on his income, but manfully refused proffered assistance from his friends, determining to be independent, and looking forward hopefully to the time ‘when he would be promoted to a better position. The end of four months brought an increase, and several steps upward were made in the course of the next two years. Then he succeeded in obtaining a position as salesman in a large new furniture house. He thus passed about two years, gaining golden opinions from every one, and being generally looked on as a young man who would make a broad mark in the world. His prospects in Boston were good, even in the face of the strong competition which obtained there, but he could not stay. He had heard the glowing accounts which reached that staid city of the wonderful place called Chicago, then on the very circumference of the civilized wheel of which Boston has been called “the hub.” He fought for awhile, but having caught the genuine fever, he was obliged to break out—West. Without a single friend or
acquaintance between Boston and the regions of the setting sun, or even a letter to any one, he started, in the autumn of 1855, and came to Chicago. His first impressions of the place were favorable; it was then a scene of intense activity, and he was eager to plunge and mingle with the busy throng. He found it difficult, as so many others have done, to push his way into the bustling crowd, but at last succeeded in obtaining a situation as clerk in a furniture store, where he remained about six months.
The southwest corner of State and Randolph Streets in 1857. Taken from a daguerreotype. Charles Tobey and Brother were here at 72 State Street from 1857 to 1862. Advertisement from Chicago Tribune, June 18, 1860.
Mr. Tobey was soon satisfied that he could do much better than working for a salary. He saw in this busy metropolis a fine field for enterprise, and determined to cultivate it. He accepted the offer of a loan of five hundred dollars from the Hon. Francis Bassett, a distinguished lawyer and capitalist of Boston, who was a distant relative and had always shown himself a warm friend. With this little capital, the young man commenced business in the spring of 1856, at No. 296 State street, and succeeded beyond his most sanguine expectations. A subsequent loan of like amount, voluntarily made by the same gentleman, after satisfying himself relative to the business capacity of our young merchant, gave a new impetus to the trade already established. Although Mr. Tobey offered to cancel this indebtedness at various times, yet Mr. Bassett refused to accept it, allowing it to remain in his hands for a number of years, when Mr. Tobey insisted upon paying it, as it was the only note held against him. It would be proper to remark here, that Mr. Tobey holds in great respect this gentleman, and looks upon him as a benefactor to whom he is indebted for all that he now possesses.
How often is it the case that a friendly hand, extended at the proper time to one who is struggling for success in life, will inspire him with zeal and make an impression on the mind which lasts until death. The lesson thus learned by Mr. Tobey in the instance referred to has not been forgotten, as the many opportunities for assisting others which he has improved will abundantly testify. Thousands of dollars have thus been invested, as we might say, in deeds of charity, seeing that much of it can never be repaid, except in hearts filled with thankfulness.
In 1858, he took his brother, Francis B. Tobey, into partnership, and the next year moved to the corner of State and Randolph streets. The firm remained there two years, and then moved to No. 82 Lake street. The ensuing four years was a season of extraordinary success. The firm did a large and profitable business, and was able to command the erection of the large and commodious buildings Nos. 87 and 89 State street, in which the business is at present conducted. They advanced ten thousand dollars—half the cost of the building—on the five years’ lease.
An incident in this connection is worthy of mention. Meeting daily with many of the most prominent business men of our city, he found that all who expressed themselves were unanimous in their opinion that he had made a fatal mistake in transferring his business location to State street, some of them predicting ruin at no distant day. As a proof that Mr. Tobey’s far-reaching vision was not defective, Me may add that the first year’s business in his new location exceeded by one hundred thousand dollars that of any previous year. Having such ample accommodations for years to come, at about one-third the rental which could be obtained for the establishment to-day, it does not require much discernment to enable any one to see that he has an advantage in the sale of his goods which must enable him to defy competition. Having given the location a fair test, we are not surprised to know that he has taken a lease of twenty feet more, immediately adjoining his present store. The building to be erected upon it will be occupied chiefly by himself, his increasing business demanding it. Located next to one of the most magnificent blocks on the continent, now being erected by Potter Palmer, Esq., we may reasonably expect that the large and fashionable trade which Mr. Tobey has commanded for years past will speedily be increased to more than double its present amount.
In reference to the peculiarities of character possessed by Mr. Tobey, we think every one personally acquainted with him will bear us out in the following delineation. He is a man of business promptness, efficiency, positiveness, and enterprise. Indomitable perseverance is his predominant quality, and unusually developed. His history thus far demonstrates the fact that he is peculiarly well adapted to do a successful business, having a certain versatility of talent which will succeed in almost anything in which he might engage. He systematizes everything he touches, thus enabling him to do a large business comparatively easy. He seems to be more annoyed by disarrangement than by anything else. He has the very highest sense of business honor and honesty, and would, on no account, compromise his reputation or break faith. We believe he would rather not live than live in disgrace. He is exceedingly particular about his promises, and will not bear any imputations on his honor. He evidently is possessed of that thrift, harmony, industry, sense, talent, efficiency and manner, as well as interest, which will build up slowly and surely. He is well known as a very modest, unassuming man, and his success in life is not due to obtrusiveness. It has been the necessary result of faithful attention to his business.
Mr. Tobey’s versatility of talent, to which we have already alluded, has enabled him to engage in many different branches at the same time. This accounts, in some measure, for the uniform success which has attended his investments outside of his legitimate business. There is, no doubt, a great difference in men in this respect. Whilst some men lose in nearly everything they touch, aside from the beaten track which they have been accustomed to for years, others are successful. Among the latter class Mr. Tobey must be placed. We shall not, out of deference to his known modesty, go into details on this point. It is sufficient to say that he is one of the largest stockholders of the Fourth National Bank, of which he is a Director, and that he is classed among those public spirited and enterprising Chicagoans who accumulate wealth, “not,” as Burns says, “for to hide it in a hedge, nor for a train attendant,” but to so invest it as to increase the public as well as his own personal prosperity. To those unacquainted with his private interests, it might appear that his accumulation of good fortune affords evidence of exorbitant profits from his business, but, whilst he realizes, no doubt, a fair remuneration upon the capital thus invested, yet he is indebted for his wealth as much, or more, to the success which has attended the investments alluded to, as to his legitimate business.
In the dull times preceding the war, the Tobey Brothers had always enough to do, and were able to command living prices. Mr. Tobey, who is again alone in the business, has a large capital employed in it, as must be evident to any one on seeing the immense and costly array of goods on exhibition at his salesrooms.
The prosperity which has attended him thus far, we have reason to believe, will continue, inasmuch as he is young and full of the fire of energy. A more striking example for the imitation of those who are about to push out into the sea of life we could not present, seeing that his success has been rapidly attained and is solely due to personal qualities.
Mr. Tobey has, until quite recently, been what a quaint old writer calls “an I-by-myself-I.” But on the 17th of February, 1868, this bachelor became a benedick. The lady whom he led to the altar was Miss Fannie Van Arman, daughter of Colonel Van Arman, of this city. To speak of the bride in befitting terms is no easy task; for what a stranger might think fulsome flattery would, in the judgment of those who know her, fall far short of the truth. We will only say that she is not only a most radiant and accomplished member of the elite of Chicago, but a person of such strength and beauty of character that none who know her can name her but to praise her.
Charles Tobey passed away on September 26, 1888, in New York City.