John Brown Herreshoff: How I See Him
Curator’s Log - November 2013
Today the Herreshoff story is mostly told through the work of Nathanael Greene Herreshoff (1848-1938), the designs he created and the extraordinary record of the boats built by the Herreshoff Manufacturing Co. (HMCo). We extoll Nat’s intellect and work ethic; seldom do we apply like efforts to understand John Brown (JB) Herreshoff (1841-1915). This is unfortunate because without JB there was no HMCo and although Nat certainly would have made his mark as a talented designer it would have been different and in many ways less.
Writing about JB is not easy because we have found little written material that he authored. We do know from records that as long as he was the president of the company it was financially successful. There are also tales of his keen prowess at business and activities that belie his blindness; sail racing with younger brother Nat as his eyes, handling the reins of a carriage or sleigh pulled by spirited trotters, and knowing exactly where he was at any moment to the extent of offering directions advice to a driver or companion. [i]
When I think of JB I am drawn to the following.
JB was primarily a person of “indestructible will and energy”, that is how Nat described him in a 1930 letter when the 1860 catboat SPRITE was donated to the Ford Museum in Dearborn, MI. Moreover he had an underlying ‘’courage” that only “haulted him a few months” following the “catastrophy” of losing sight at the age of 14.[ii]
The same theme comes through in JB’s response when interviewed by Orison Swett Marden for the book How They Succeeded in his Bristol office in 1899.[iii]
Marden - "What do you call the prime requisite of success?”
JB - " I shall have to answer that by a somewhat humorous but very shrewd suggestion of an other, — select a good mother.” He continued, to improve the rising generation he would appeal first to mothers- “Above all else, show them that reasonable self-denial is a thousandfold better for a boy than to have his every wish gratified. Teach them to encourage industry, economy, concentration of attention and purpose, and indomitable persistence.”
Marden went on to explore JB’s handicap of blindness.
Marden- "You must have been terribly handicapped by your blindness."
JB- “It was an obstacle, but I simply would not allow it to discourage me, and did my best, just the same as if I could see. My mother had taught me to think, and so I made thought and memory take the place of eyes. I acquired a habit of mental projection which has allowed me to see models in my mind…and to consider their good and bad points intelligently. Besides, I cultivated my powers of observation to the utmost, in other respects.”
While JB alludes to boat models in describing his powers of mental projection and observation I am convinced that he meant that to apply to all aspects of business and industry. I see that in his negotiations to dominate the torpedo boat business. In my words, he worked from the confidence of knowing that he was the most perceptive, if not the smartest, man in the room.
JB was also a very proud person in two respects. He wanted to be recognized as the exemplary businessman without any reference to his blindness. This is evident from the cross outs in the newspaper stories that his wife Sadie L. Herreshoff read to him at home. The words about his affliction are crossed out ("John B. Herreshoff, who is blind, superintended the work of the engine", becomes "John B. Herreshoff superintended the work of the engine.") so she would not accidentally read out loud the reminder of his handicap.[iv]
Secondly his word once given in a business deal was the gold standard, whether a guarantee of performance, price or delivery schedule. He could not abide any stain on this record. When forced by Nat to abrogate the Russian torpedo boat contract in 1915 he resigned from the company and died shortly thereafter.
John Brown Herreshoff- indestructible will and energy, courage, superior mental projection and observation, pride in self.
[i] For tales about JB see the following: various Herreshoff Marine Museum Chronicles available at www.herreshoff.org; Nathanael G. Herreshoff’s Recollections; Their Last Letters 1930- 1938 Nathanael Greene Herreshoff and William Picard Stephens; Captain Nat Wizard of Bristol.
[ii] Nat Herreshoff letter of letter of 9 Oct 1930 to J. A. Humberstone, Edison Inst. of Technology, Dearborn, MI. Herreshoff Marine Museum Archives.
[iii] Marden, Orison Swett, How They Succeeded, Life Stories of Successful Men Told by Themselves. 1901
[iv] Sadie L. Herreshoff March 1875 Newspaper Cuttings Book, in which JB’s wife Sadie Herreshoff, pasted news cuttings ranging from 1870 to 1882. Herreshoff Marine Museum Archives