“You have probably heard news of the great fire.”
Lavinia Goodell, December 14, 1853
Lavinia Goodell lived in New York (mainly in Brooklyn but also, for a year, in Manhattan) from 1853 until 1871. During her years in the city she witnessed many historic events. She watched president-elect Lincoln’s carriage procession from a Fifth Avenue balcony. She and her family survived the deadly draft riots of 1863. In December of 1853, fourteen year old Lavinia was an eye witness to the huge fire that destroyed Harper Publishing’s offices in lower Manhattan.
Lavinia was helping her father, publisher of American Jubilee magazine, ready a new issue for mailing in their offices at 48 Beekman Street when the fire broke out at Harper’s building in the afternoon of Saturday, December 10, 1853. Lavinia described the scene to her sister:
You have probably heard before news of the great fire in the city which destroyed the buildings of Harper and brothers, with several others. I was in the office during the whole of it, and only two blocks from it. I wanted to see it but could not, very well. The streets were a perfect jam, and there was a great deal of noise and excitement. Miss Dodge (who works in the office) was much alarmed as she had a sister employed at paper folding, in the fourth story of the establishment. She started several times to go and see about her but was persuaded not to as the crowd and heat were so incessant that it would not be safe. Finally she could stand the suspense no longer and put on her things to go, but her sister luckily appeared at that moment, frightened almost out of her wits. She got out she hardly knew how, only she found herself running up to our office with paper folders in her hand. She had a number of things burnt but thought herself fortunate to have escaped as she did. There were no lives lost that I have heard of, though many were hurt. The loss of property was over one millions of dollars, partial insurance. The fire broke out in the fore part of Saturday afternoon and the ruins have not done smoking yet. It was caused by the lighting of a cigar.
Lavinia was mistaken about the source of the fire. It started when a plumber lit a lamp with a roll of paper and then tried to extinguish the burning roll in a tub of water that contained camphine, a chemical used to clean ink from rollers. Within minutes the building was an inferno. Lavinia was correct that, amazingly, no one was killed. Reports said that when someone asked John Harper which part of the property they should try to save, Harper replied, “Never mind the property, save the lives!” Bindery foreman Captain Rosenquest was credited with the successful evacuation. The worst injury sustained was a broken leg suffered by a woman who jumped out of a window.
The Harper brothers immediately decided to rebuild. The December 12 New York Daily Times contained the brothers’ card of thanks to members of the police and fire departments who had responded to the conflagration. The January 1854 issue of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine contained a lengthy apology giving a history of the company, explaining the devastation of the fire, and expressing their determination to move forward . In 1855, Harper & Brothers moved into two new, five story fireproof buildings, the forerunner of the modern steel skyscraper, in Franklin Square. In 1867, Lavinia became an employee of Harper’s when she helped launch Harper’s Bazar magazine and admired the elderly Harper brothers almost as much as she did her own father. She continued working at Harper’s until she moved to Janesville, Wisconsin in the fall of 1871.
Sources consulted: Lavinia Goodell’s letter to Maria Frost (December 14, 1853); New York Daily Times (December 12, 1953); https://200.hc.com/stories/the-harper-fire-of-1853/