The Harper Fire of 1853

The Harper offices in New York City were claimed by fire in 1853, when a plumber lit a lamp with a roll of paper and then attempted to extinguish the burning roll in a tub of water. The tub, however, contained camphine—a chemical used to clean ink from the rollers—and within seconds the building was ablaze.

When someone asked John Harper which part of the property they should try to save, he answered, “Never mind the property, save the lives!” Thanks in part to the quick action of bindery foreman Captain Rosenquest, all the employees were safely evacuated, except one woman who jumped from a window and suffered a broken leg.

Far greater was the property damage, which amounted to more than $1.1 million (approximately $32 million in today’s dollars). Luckily, many of the publisher’s stereotype printing plates were locked away in fireproof vaults. Nevertheless, many irreplaceable books and expensive presses were lost and the Harper brothers had to decide whether or not to refinance and rebuild. Dedicated Harper & Brothers employees “asked that payment of wages be deferred or reduced temporarily if such courses would enable them to refinance the business.” According to Fletcher Harper’s grandson J. Henry Harper, these offers were “deeply appreciated” but refused.

In 1855, Harper & Brothers moved into two new buildings, five stories high and covering half an acre in Franklin Square. These fireproof buildings made the first use of Peter Cooper’s wrought-iron beams, later used in the construction of Cooper Union. Before this, no fireproof building more than one story high had been built, and the New York Times wrote that the Harper brothers’ new home at Franklin Square “may be justly called the forerunner of the modern type of steel skyscraper.”