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History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications
from the first submarine cable of 1850 to the worldwide fiber optic network

Cyrus W. Field - Junk Dealer

Introduction: Cyrus Field made his fortune as a paper manufacturer and wholesaler and needed a constant supply of rags as raw material. To this end he was licensed by the City of New-York and included in the Corporation's “list of the licensed keepers of junk shops”. This was, of course, only incidental to his main business, although his enemies sometimes referred to him as a “junk dealer” long after he had retired from the paper business.

This article from the New York Times of September 19, 1885, in the guise of a rebuttal to a piece in the Wall-Street Daily News, is a well-written example of what Field had to put up with.

--Bill Burns


The conduct of the Wall-Street Daily News in parading before a kindly and forgetful world the fact that our esteemed contemporary, Mr. CYRUS W. FIELD, was once a licensed junk dealer in this city deserves the severest reprobation. Mr. FIELD is a proud and sensitive man. More than thirty years have rolled away since he was a licensed junk dealer, and those years have been filled with achievements which have made him distinguished. His name is a household word in the homes of America and the palaces of Europe. He is on terms of easy social equality with the Dukes and Earls and Viscounts of England. They eat his dinners and he eats theirs. But these noble lords belong to a society which is eaten through and through with pride of birth and station. Perchance yesterday’s issue of the Wall-Street Daily News will meet the eye of these pampered aristocrats. And then if they should cease to bid Mr. FIELD to their dinners and should coldly decline when bidden to his, or should exalt their proud noses and peruse the skies when next they meet him in Piccadilly or Fifth-avenue, because, forsooth, he was once a licensed junk dealer, cannot the unfeeling editor of the News see that Mr. FIELD would suffer acutely? It is wrong to give needless pain to a fellow-being.

But if this editor, knowing that Mr. FIELD was formerly a junk dealer, and inflamed beyond the limits of self-control by hot and revengeful passions, was utterly unable to forbear the injurious publication, it was still unnecessary for him to give it the cruel conspicuousness of iteration and typographical display. Was it not enough to publish this simple historical paragraph:
“In the ‘Manual of the Corporation of the City of New-York for 1854,’ page 330, appears in a ‘list of the licensed keepers of junk shops in the City of New-York, from May, 1853, to May, 1854,’ the name of ‘CYRUS W. FIELD & CO., No. 287 Water-street;’ and on page 331, ‘CYRUS W. FIELD & Co., No. 184 Christopher-street.’

Having thus searched his victim’s innermost vitals with his baleful steel, need he give the weapon an ugly twist in the wound by parading forth this purely conjectural card:

Licensed Junk Dealer.
New York.

There is not a scintilla of evidence that Mr. FIELD ever used such a business card. And if there were, the suggestion of the editor of the News that he would not be received if he should send in this card at the house of a Prince or Duke is impertinent. Mr. CYRUS W. FIELD’S visiting card is beautifully engraved and faultlessly correct. It bears the names of his three residences—a London hotel, his house in Gramercy Park, and his house at Irvington-on-Hudson. We do not suppose Mr. FIELD ever sent in his business card to a Prince or Duke in the whole course of his life. He has learned far too much of the customs of polite society in the last thirty years to be guilty of such a solecism.

None of Mr. FIELD’S countrymen will think any the less of him after reading of his humble business beginning. It is no discredit to a citizen of the United States to have been a junk dealer, if he carried on that business under a proper license, and the “Manual of the Corporation” for 1854 settles that point. There is not a freeman among us who might not emulate the distinguished career of CYRUS W. FIELD. To have been a Water-street junk dealer; to have laid the first electric cable under the broad Atlantic; to have signed and sent a message to the Queen of Great Britain and Ireland, and to have received a reply from her Most Gracious Majesty; to have been President of the great and prosperous Wabash Railroad; to have lifted Manhattan from 13 to 100-5/8; and finally, crowning glory of an illustrious life, to have conquered the friendship and intimacy of Dukes and Marquises—this, this, Americans, constitutes a claim upon your lasting respect, a title to your affectionate regard. And no true American heart will be any the less fond of CYRUS W. FIELD because he laid the cornerstone of his greatness in the shop of a licensed junk dealer.

Last revised: 12 July, 2010

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