Letters from a Self-Made Merchant to His Son

Letters from a Self-Made Merchant to His Son
“College doesn’t make fools; it develops them. It doesn’t make bright men; it develops them. A fool will turn out a fool, whether he goes to college or not, though he’ll probably turn out a different sort of a fool.“

With wisdom and lessons seeping off every page, Letters from a Self-Made Merchant to His Son is a must read. The letters, from John Graham, Head of the House of Graham & Company, to his son Pierrepont were collected and bound by American Journalist George Horace Lorimer in the early 1900s. The Letters were quite well known in the early 20th century. I’m not sure why they are not well known today, but they should be.

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Writing to his son, Pierrepont, at Harvard University, a Freshman, Graham offers advice on the eduction he is about to receive inside and outside of the classroom.

What we’re really sending you to Harvard for is to get a little of the education that’s so good and plenty there. When it’s passed around you don’t want to be bashful, but reach right out and take a big helping every time, for I want you to get your share. You’ll find that education’s about the only thing lying around loose in this world, and that it’s about the only thing a fellow can have as much of as he’s willing to haul away. Everything else is screwed down tight and the screw-driver lost.

Some men learn the value of money by not having any and starting out to pry a few dollars loose from the odd millions that are lying around; and some learn it by having fifty thousand or so left to them and starting out to spend it as if it were fifty thousand a year. Some men learn the value of truth by having to do business with liars; and some by going to Sunday School. Some men learn the cussedness of whiskey by having a drunken father; and some by having a good mother. Some men get an education from other men and newspapers and public libraries; and some get it from professors and parchments—it doesn’t make any special difference how you get a half-nelson on the right thing, just so you get it and freeze on to it.

The first thing that any education ought to give a man is character, and the second thing is education. That is where I’m a little skittish about this college business. I’m not starting in to preach to you, because I know a young fellow with the right sort of stuff in him preaches to himself harder than any one else can, and that he’s mighty often switched off the right path by having it pointed out to him in the wrong way.

There are two parts of a college education—the part that you get in the schoolroom from the professors, and the part that you get outside of it from the boys. That’s the really important part. For the first can only make you a scholar, while the second can make you a man.

Education’s a good deal like eating—a fellow can’t always tell which particular thing did him good, but he can usually tell which one did him harm.

Does a College education pay? … You bet it pays. Anything that trains a boy to think and to think quick pays; anything that teaches a boy to get the answer before the other fellow gets through biting the pencil, pays.

College doesn’t make fools; it develops them. It doesn’t make bright men; it develops them. A fool will turn out a fool, whether he goes to college or not, though he’ll probably turn out a different sort of a fool. And a good, strong boy will turn out a bright, strong man whether he’s worn smooth in the grab-what-you-want-and-eat-standing-with-one-eye-skinned-for-the-dog school of the streets and stores, or polished up and slicked down in the give-your-order-to-the-waiter-and-get-a-sixteen-course-dinner school of the professors. But while the lack of a college education can’t keep No. 1 down, having it boosts No. 2 up.


Of course, some men are like pigs, the more you educate them, the more amusing little cusses they become, and the funnier capers they cut when they show off their tricks. Naturally, the place to send a boy of that breed is to the circus, not to college.

… it isn’t so much knowing a whole lot, as knowing a little and how to use it that counts.

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When Pierrepont—still at Harvard—submits his expense account to his father, he receives some plain-spoken advice to smarten up.

I have noticed for the last two years that your accounts have been growing heavier every month, but I haven’t seen any signs of your taking honors to justify the increased operating expenses; and that is bad business—a good deal like feeding his weight in corn to a scalawag steer that won’t fat up.

The sooner you adjust your spending to what your earning capacity will be, the easier they will find it to live together.

The only sure way that a man can get rich quick is to have it given to him or to inherit it. You are not going to get rich that way—at least, not until after you have proved your ability to hold a pretty important position with the firm; and, of course, there is just one place from which a man can start for that position with Graham & Co. It doesn’t make any difference whether he is the son of the old man or of the cellar boss—that place is the bottom. And the bottom in the office end of this business is a seat at the mailing-desk, with eight dollars every Saturday night.

I can’t hand out any ready-made success to you. It would do you no good, and it would do the house harm. There is plenty of room at the top here, but there is no elevator in the building. Starting, as you do, with a good education, you should be able to climb quicker than the fellow who hasn’t got it; but there’s going to be a time when you begin at the factory when you won’t be able to lick stamps so fast as the other boys at the desk. Yet the man who hasn’t licked stamps isn’t fit to write letters. Naturally, that is the time when knowing whether the pie comes before the ice-cream, and how to run an automobile isn’t going to be of any real use to you.

I simply mention these things because I am afraid your ideas as to the basis on which you are coming with the house have swelled up a little in the East. I can give you a start, but after that you will have to dynamite your way to the front by yourself.

You know how I began—I was started off with a kick, but that proved a kick up, and in the end every one since has lifted me a little bit higher. I got two dollars a week, and slept under the counter, and you can bet I knew just how many pennies there were in each of those dollars, and how hard the floor was. That is what you have got to learn.

The Bills ain’t all in the butcher business. I’ve got some of them right now in my office, but they will never climb over the railing that separates the clerks from the executives. Yet if they would put in half the time thinking for the house that they give up to hatching out reasons why they ought to be allowed to overdraw their salary accounts, I couldn’t keep them out of our private offices with a pole-ax, and I wouldn’t want to; for they could double their salaries and my profits in a year. But I always lay it down as a safe proposition that the fellow who has to break open the baby’s bank toward the last of the week for car-fare isn’t going to be any Russell Sage when it comes to trading with the old man’s money. He’d punch my bank account as full of holes as a carload of wild Texans would a fool stockman that they’d got in a corner.

Now I know you’ll say that I don’t understand how it is; that you’ve got to do as the other fellows do; and that things have changed since I was a boy. There’s nothing in it. Adam invented all the different ways in which a young man can make a fool of himself, and the college yell at the end of them is just a frill that doesn’t change essentials. The boy who does anything just because the other fellows do it is apt to scratch a poor man’s back all his life. He’s the chap that’s buying wheat at ninety-seven cents the day before the market breaks. They call him “the country” in the market reports, but the city’s full of him. It’s the fellow who has the spunk to think and act for himself, and sells short when prices hit the high C and the house is standing on its hind legs yelling for more, that sits in the directors’ meetings when he gets on toward forty.

There are times when it’s safest to be lonesome. Use a little common-sense, caution and conscience. You can stock a store with those three commodities, when you get enough of them. But you’ve got to begin getting them young. They ain’t catching after you toughen up a bit.

You needn’t write me if you feel yourself getting them. The symptoms will show in your expense account. Good-by; life’s too short to write letters and New York’s calling me on the wire.

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Letters from a Self-Made Merchant to His Son contains 20 letters of practical advice for parents— looking for some no nonsense advice on raising children—and wisdom seekers alike. This is one of the best books you’ve never heard about.