József Pulitzer

Victorian English Pierced Brass Bookstand (LEO Design)


On this day in 1917, the first Pulitzer Prizes were awarded—in three categories: Biography, History and Journalism.  They were awarded by Columbia University in New York, thanks to an endowment by Hungarian immigrant, József Pulitzer (1847-1911), who had made a fortune in American publishing.  It was Pulitzer's bequest which had established the Columbia School of Journalism in the first place.

Pulitzer was born to a Jewish family in Southern Hungary, near Romania.  His father was a successful merchant and eventually moved the family to Pest (along the Danube River, the eastern portion of Budapest).  The Pulitzer children were privately tutored, learning French and German.  When Pulitzer's father died, however, the family went bankrupt, forcing the young József to find work.  The teen attempted to join several armies—the Austrian, French Foreign Legion, Mexican and British—none of which would take him. Finally, he was recruited by the U.S. Union Army to fight in the American Civil War and the 17 year old boy sailed for Boston.  Upon arrival in Boston, young József discovered that the recruiters were stealing most of the men's signing bonuses, leading him to escape to New York City where he joined "Sheridan's Troopers," 1st New York Cavalry Regiment.

After the war, Pulitzer moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts, pursuing work in the whaling industry (which he found boring).  He moved-back to New York City, flat broke, sleeping in wagons on the street.  He sold his only possession, a white handkerchief, for 75 cents and hopped a freight train to St. Louis, Missouri.  Pulitzer's German language skills helped him amongst the many German immigrants in St. Louis.  But work was hard to come by.  A tall but scrawny man, Pulitzer was not suited to physical labor and his hot temper (and broken English) was difficult for his supervisors.  He kicked-around, driving mules, shoveling coal, waiting tables in restaurants, collecting debts and serving papers for a law firm.  All the while, he spent hours at the St. Louis Mercantile Library, educating himself and improving his English.

Always looking for better work, Pulitzer fell prey to a scam in which he paid five dollars to a steamboat captain who promised good work in Louisiana.  Some thirty miles outside of St. Louis, the crooked captain pulled ashore and threw Pulitzer off the boat.  He walked back to St. Louis and wrote a story about his ordeal—which was purchased by the Westliche Post—which became Joseph Pulitzer's first published story.

Pulitzer spent a few months filling a vacancy in the Missouri House of Representatives (as a Republican).  In 1878, Pulitzer bought the struggling St. Louis Post which he combined with rival St. Lous Dispatch—creating the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.  Pulitzer's "common man" sensationalistic journalism allowed the paper to quintuple its daily circulation in four years.

In 1883, Pulitzer paid the princely sum of $346,000 for the unprofitable New York World. Within three months, Pulitzer doubled its daily circulation with his brand of "yellow journalism": a heaping serving of sensationalism, sex, scandal, crime, sports, human-interest stories and graphic horrors.  Pulitzer is quoted, "The American people want something terse, forcible, picturesque, striking, something that will arrest their attention, enlist their sympathy, arouse their indignation, convince their reason, awaken their conscience."  The paper would eventually achieve a circulation of a million copies a day, making it the largest circulation newspaper in America.

New York City, largely Democratic, previously had lacked a Democratic newspaper. Pulitzer was happy to fill that niche, so disgusted had he become with the corruption within his former Republican Party.  He also held office in the U.S. House of Representatives from New York (as a Democrat).

Pulitzer died (in 1911) a very rich man.  He left an endowment to found the Columbia School of Journalism and fund the Pulitzer Prize.  Today, some two dozen categories are honored with Pulitzer Prizes each year—marking excellence in journalism, arts and letters.

The Victorian English brass bookstand, shown above, was made in the 1860's-1880's—about the time that young József came to America and began his difficult journey to fulfill his American Dream.  Click on the photo above to learn more about it.


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