He wanted firecrackers but ended up a millionaire instead

Hello! Every seven days, for the rest of the year, This Week in Portland History is bringing to light a person or event from the city’s past.

When Cyrus Hermann Kotzschmar Curtis was 12-years-old, he asked his mother for money to buy firecrackers. Like any good mother, she said, “No.”

So, he used the three cents in his pocket to buy three newspapers, which he sold on the corner at a profit. By the end of the day, he had nine cents. When he died, 71 years later he was worth $174 million, which is $43.2 billion in today’s cash.

He was the richest publisher in the world — and he was born in Portland 167 years ago this week, on June 18, 1850.

Cyrus Herman Kotzschmar Curtis (photo in the public domain)

Cyrus Hermann Kotzschmar Curtis (photo in the public domain)

Cyrus H.K. Curtis was born at the corner of Brown Street and Cumberland Avenue. The wooden house is long gone. His father gave him the middle names Hermann Kotzschmar after a German music teacher who once lived with the family.

Curtis started his publishing career at the age of 13. He bought a hand-powered printing press with money he made selling newspapers. Acting as reporter, editor and pressman, he published a neighborhood paper of his own called Young America. He even acted as his own debt collector, waking people at dawn to get his due when they were sleep deprived and vulnerable.

Unfortunately, he lost his press when the Great Fire of 1866 burned the shed that housed it. Heartbroken, he came up with his own personal mantra of moving forward. He would repeat it for the rest of his life when times were tough: Yesterday ended last night.

As an adult, Curtis moved to Boston and sold newspaper ads. In 1872, he started his own paper, a weekly called the People’s Ledger. A few years later, he started a a paper in Philadelphia. It had a section called, “The Woman’s Page.”

His wife, Louisa Knapp, asked him, “Who wrote that?”

“I did,” replied Curtis.

“It’s utterly ridiculous,” she said.

“Well,” the wise Curtis said, “perhaps it is. Will you write a page for me?”

She did. Her page immediately became the most popular part of the paper. Soon, it became the whole paper. He published it as a magazine called Ladies Home Journal starting in 1891. It was the first American magazine to reach 1 million subscribers, in 1903.

In 1897, Curtis bought the Saturday Evening Post magazine for $1,000. Its circulation increased from two thousand to over three million copies a year by 1910. It launched the careers of people like author Jack London and artist Norman Rockwell.

As a publisher, Curtis was known for hiring good editors and staying out of their way. Eventually, he published the magazines Holiday and Business as well. He also owned newspapers like the Philadelphia Public Ledger, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the New York Evening Post. He even owned at least one paper mill.

At his fortune’s peak, his publications accounted for 40 percent of all print advertising in the nation.

Cyrus Hermann Kotzschmar Curtis was born in this house at the corner of Brown Street and Cumberland Avenue in 1850. (This picture is item no. 98923 at the Maine Memory Network.)

Cyrus Hermann Kotzschmar Curtis was born in this house at the corner of Brown Street and Cumberland Avenue in 1850. (This picture is item no. 98923 at the Maine Memory Network.)

Curtis was very rich but also generous, donating to many universities and public buildings. He even left philanthropic marks on his hometown you can still see today.

Portland’s City Hall burned in 1908. When they rebuilt it in 1912, he donated the organ in memory of Hermann Kotzschmar, his old music teacher and namesake. In 1930, Curtis donated $100,000 to get the Boys and Girls Club built at 277 Cumberland Ave.

In 1932, Curtis had a heart attack aboard his 163-foot yacht. He never quite recovered and died in 1933, at the age of 83. No word on whether he ever got those firecrackers he was after.

Note: Today’s story is brought to you, in part, by “Portland City Guide,” published in 1940 by The Forest City Publishing Company and “Investors Daily Business News.”

Disclaimer: I’m not a historian. I owe everything I know to the dedicated research of those who have come before me. These character sketches and historical tidbits are assembled from multiple (often antique) sources and sprinkled with my own conjecture. I’m happy to be set straight or to learn more.

Troy R. Bennett

About Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.