This post is an excerpt from the book, The Life and Times of Warren Webster, by Warren Webster, Jr.
My grandmother’s maiden name was Sarah Holmes Thorn. She was a farmer’s daughter and both she and my grandfather were born in New Jersey. They had six children—Elwood S., A. Spencer, Laura, Warren (my father), Theodore L., and Hannah L. In 1869, when my father was six years old, the family moved across the Delaware to Woodbury, N. J. There they lived for about seven years, my father attending the public schools.
Of his childhood at Woodbury my father had many tales to recount, but the one I like best was about his earning his first money. It illustrates in a practical way the old saying that “the boy is father to the man.”
“I earned my first money,” he would say, “when I was ten or eleven years old. I had a mighty hard time doing it, too, but it was really my own fault. One day I heard a farmer-friend tell my father that he had a batch of sweet-potato vines which he wanted to plant right away, but that owing to the labor-shortage he could get no help. I asked if it were work that I could do and the farmer said it was. Accordingly, I went with him to his farm to spend the night and the next morning we went out to plant the vines. Not having much idea of the working conditions, I had worn a pair of new shoes, which I prized a good deal. I soon found that the sand and mud were playing havoc with my shoes. I accordingly took them off, placed them carefully under a bush and started working in my bare feet.
“Pretty soon the sun began to warm the sand and, as the day wore on, it became so hot that I couldn’t stand in one spot for more than a few seconds. So, there was I—moving around to keep my feet from blistering and determined to plant those vines without damaging my new shoes in doing so. I had a deuce of a time, but I stuck it out—and got 50¢, my first money, for the job.
“Soon after that I did a day’s work for another farmer, Mr. Soley, for 35¢, and he paid me off with a 25¢ and 10¢ note.”
My father kept these notes and later gave them to my mother and they have become something of a family heirloom.
It was in 1875 and Warren Webster was still living at Woodbury when he encountered his famous “bootblack story” which was to be associated with him all his life much as “Casey at the Bat” became identified with DeWoIfe Hopper. And it came about in this way. His brother Elwood returned from New York with a most unusual business-card. On this card a New York bootblack painted such a glowing picture of the pleasures and advantages of having one’s shoes shined, that his business had grown by leaps and bounds until he was then operating chairs for twenty-four persons. My father memorized the advertisement and returned the card to his brother. The only time he ever wrote down its contents was the copy he gave me, but in the years since 1875 he quoted its contents hundreds of times—at meetings, in conversations and, regularly, at the request of the employees, at every Christmas entertainment at the Webster factory. I learned it by heart, myself, when a youngster-—just from hearing my father repeat it. Concerning this story, my father said:
“I have had a lot of fun with the bootblack story. I gave it one night at a meeting at which Senator Simmons, of Buffalo, was present. Senator Simmons wanted me to write it down for him. I told him to get a stenographer so I could dictate to her—as I couldn’t stop and lose the thought. He never did get the written story.”
At another time, at an advertising assembly in Atlantic City, they called on Warren Webster, and he said:
“I don’t know of any particular thing that helps business so much as being able to advertise in such a way that people know exactly what they are going to get. Make clear the advantages of what you are going to sell. There was a bootblack in New York who made a fortune because he knew how to advertise his business. Here is what his business-card said: ‘Pedal teguments artistically illuminated and lubricated for the infinitesimal remuneration of five cents per operation. Antiquated teguments, pedal or super-pedal, executed judiciously for nominal compensation. Of the innumerable foretastes of heaven enjoyed by every patron, I would simply state that from the eventuation of the operation even to its ultimate successful completion, the patient reclines upon cushions which a sybarite might envy, in a superlatively luxurious attitude, inhaling the life-giving ozone for which my studio is far renowned and gazing enraptured upon the kaleidoscopic landscape which lies beneath. Irrefutable evidence of the veracity of the foregoing statements will be promptly proven by applying to Professor Bismarck, 143 Boreal Building, New York City. Shine, 5¢.’ “
This is the first time this story has been given in print since 1875.