Belford, Clarke & Co., Chicago, 1875-1892


ALEXANDER BELFORD, the well-known publisher of books and magazines, senior of the late firm of Belford, Clark & Co., etc., died in Los Angeles early this month. He was a son-in-law of Andrew McNally of Rand, McNally & Co. of Chicago. -- The Publisher's Weekly, No. 1809 (September 29, 1906), p826.


ALEXANDER BELFORD, whose death occurred at Los Angeles last month, was born on May 6, 1854, in Valentia Island, County of Kerry, Ireland. His father was an officer in the Irish Constabulary, who retired from the service on a pension and came to America while Alexander was a babe in arms. Both parents died in Toronto before Alexander, who was the youngest of a large family, had reached the age of ten. There was little time for schooling, because when not quite twelve years of age Belford -- he was familiarly known as "Aleck" to his friends and associates to the day of his death -- was managing the business of the Toronto Evening Telegraph, which was owned by J. Ross Robertson and James B. Conk. While on The Telegraph Belford started the Canadian News Company, which a few years later became a branch of the American News Company. He was at this time not yet thirteen. His first venture in hook publishing was in 1866 or `67, and either the "Hans Breitmann Ballads" or Joaquin Miller's poems was his first publication. About this period he also published Omar Khayyam's "Rubaiyat," which is believed to be the first reprint in America of Fitzgerald's masterpiece.

Not until the year 1872 was the imprint of Belford used. For several years the publishing business was conducted by the three brothers -- Charles, who was then the leading Conservative editor in Canada, Robert and Alexander -- the firm being Belford Brothers. About 1875 James Clarke, the well-known and successful publisher, joined the Belfords. Soon after Clarke became a member of the firm Charles Belford died, and the field seeming too pent up for Belford, Clarke and he migrated to Chicago and the name of the firm was changed to Belford, Clarke & Co. Robert Belford remained in Toronto to continue the publication of reprints of The Fortnightly Review and London Society and to manage Belford's Magazine, which was started in Toronto in 1873, besides a fairly large catalogue of American and English reprints. Belford's Magazine was subsequently published in New York City under the editorship of Colonel Don Platt. Those were the "palmy days" of pirating. It is a fact, however, that few houses tried more sincerely and persistently for an international copyright law than did Belford, Clarke & Co. Colonel Donn [sic] Platt, who represented the firm in Washington, did everything possible with a caustic pen and a persuasive tongue to put an end to piracy. What in the end really helped towards securing the present law were the piratical publishing enterprises carried on by John W. Lovell, Belford, Clarke & Co., by the Munros and by the other reprinters, nearly all of whom came out of Canada.

Belford, Clarke & Co. made great strides in Chicago. In a few years after starting there the business is said to have run up to over a million a year. A house was opened at 384 and 386 Broadway, New York, of which Robert Belford took charge. It was Alexander who practically made all the new innovations; it was he who opened book stalls in most of the big department stores, until not a city of note was without a Belford, Clarke & Co. retail department. Others had done the game kind of business before him, but failed to make sufficient market to carry such a large capital tied up in plate. Belford learned how to overcome this by establishing book stalls in the large department stores, and by opening temporary stores in small towns, "hippodroming," as he called it, "tail-ends" and "plugs." It was Belford who had the "Encyclopedia Britannica" Americanized, and it was he who succeeded in having the newspapers and others sell it on the instalment plan for premiums. It was Belford, also, who went to London for the Werner Company and succeeded in getting the Blacks and the proprietors of the London Times to undertake the undreamed-of innovation of selling the "Britannica" with the Times, in which deal, owing to circumstances which need not be enlarged upon here, only James Clarke, Hopper and Jackson reaped the reward.

Early in his publishing career Alexander Belford became intimate with Lyman J. Gage, then vice-president of the First National Bank, whose support of Belford, Clarke & Co. did much to make the business. Few men had more ability to squeeze out of financial difficulties with ease and promptness than Alexander Belford had. However, financiering, on which he prided himself of being a master, was in the end his undoing. Over-sanguine, generous, careless to a fault of property rights -- more so of his own than those of others -- he suffered in his dying day because of his good nature and confidence in human nature.

The total destruction by fire of Belford, Clarke & Co.'s business house, at the corner of Congress and Wabash Avenues in Chicago, was the beginning of trouble to the company. Much of the insurance never was collected. Belford, who was visiting his brother in New York on the day of the fire, stubbornly refused to call the creditors together. He ordered half the New York stock to Chicago and notified the creditors that there would be no interruption in business. It was not until two years later, when hard times overwhelmed the country, that a compromise had to be made. The business was split in two, Belford, Clarke Co. in Chicago, under Alexander Belford and James Clarke, and Belford Co. in New York, under R. J. Belford. About fifteen years ago James Clarke withdrew from the company, coming to New York to handle the "Century Dictionary." The remainder of Belford, Clarke Co.'s business was amalgamated by Belford with R.S. Peale, the Kocherspergers, Werner and others into the $3,500,000 Werner Company. This company did an enormous business -- many millions, it is said, a year. Be1ford was the second largest stockholder and general manager of the publishing department. The company was hardly formed before the panic of 1898 made collections almost impossible. Through Belford's ingenuity the company for a time weathered the financial storm; but a year later the business was temporarily forced into the hands of a receiver, and Belford's connection with the firm came to an end. After several half-hearted attempts to continue in the book business he was obliged by ill health to retire from active business altogether, and removed to California, settling in Los Angeles, near his brother, Robert.

Belford loved to read, but had a silent contempt for the mere scholar -- his life was one of intense action. 'Though frail of body, weighing about 125 pounds, the energy he expended seemed to those who knew him intimately bound to shorten his life; still, in his short life, he certainly did more work in forty years -- he began work at twelve -- than most men accomplish in three-score and more. --J.B.R., The Publishers' Weekly, No.1812 (October 20, 1906). p1098-1099.

Last revised: 29 October 2010