The First 100 Years: In the Beginning...

Even in 1876 amateur journalism was no new hobby.

It had, since the 1840’s, spread over the entire country. There were dozens of more or less enduring local organizations devoted to its purpose.

The first group which claimed a national scope was brought together by J. Blair Scribner, William Terhune and others at Scribner’s home in Newark. Although not at first so named, it was later known as the National Amateur Press Association. The club held several annual conventions, but after a few years failed. However, it had served as an initial effort toward an all-embracing association and the idea did not die with it.

Philadelphia, in 1876, was host to the world. All America was celebrating the centenary of the Declaration of Independence. Everyone, who could, went to see the Exposition delineating the progress of the world to that date.

There is no doubt that many amateur journalists gazed toward Philadelphia, longing to see the show and, perchance, meet others interested in the same pastime. Of all the group, only three persons appear to have done anything about it: C. E. Williams, Evan Reed Riale and James M. Beck.

Credit has been generously given to Charles E. Williams’ Gazette for first suggesting the convention. Shortly after the meeting had concluded the Pacific Amateur Journal published:

“To the now defunct Gazette of Portland, Maine, belongs the honor of suggesting this assemblage of amateurs.”

This version was presented by William Terhune, later, as the true story of the birth of the convention. In the light of later data this does not appear to be the case. In an address Evan Reed Riale declared the Williams’ story to be a complete falsehood. He stated that Williams “did not directly or indirectly remotely inspire” the Philadelphia activity.

While Williams did print the suggestion, he did so after Beck had, and after Riale had begun the campaign in Philadelphia which actually resulted in the first convention. Thus, although not first, Williams was one of those who early made the suggestion.

Riale, feeling that a national organization within amateurdom was desirable, resolved, early in 1875, to promote the establishment of such a group. It seemed to Riale, as to others, that the exposition the following year was an ideal opportunity to convoke the amateur journalists of the country. He carried on considerable correspondence in regard to the project. One of the first results was the founding of the Amateur Scribbler’s Club in New York. In July of that same year the New York amateurs began to lay plans for the following summer.

When Frank Vondersmith visited Riale on August 5, 1875, the host revealed his idea for a meeting and suggested July 4 for the date. It was decided that a local group should be formed and called the National Amateur Press Association in order to cinch the right to use that name. The two boys went calling that very afternoon to promote the plan.

The first printed notice by an individual seems to have been a call issued in the winter of 1875-1876 by James M. Beck, later to be solicitor-general of the United States, who also lived in Philadelphia. He was news editor of William Grissinger’s Philadelphia Literary Times and in that magazine he wrote:

“Reader, what do you think of holding a grand convention of the amateurs of the world in this city on July 3rd? The plan can and will be pushed through.”

Out of Riale’s efforts a local Philadelphia club was formed on February 19, 1876. There were ten boys present. In accordance with the plans the organization was named the National Amateur Press Association. George W. Bertron was elected president. Among other officers Riale was elected corresponding secretary. The group held regular meetings and began to plan for the convention.

In response to Beck’s suggestion amateurs from Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware met and formed the Amateur Union. It, too, proposed to hold a convention but aimed more at the social side than to found any national organization.

The Philadelphia amateurs were thus split. The “up-towners” of the Amateur Union were generally boys of wealthier parents than the “down-towners” who had formed the NAPA. Beck and the others who realized the value of union, made overtures during May to the local NAPA regarding amalgamation of the two organizations. Committees from the two clubs met at Vondersmith’s home. They were unable to reach an agreement. The Union had selected July 5 as the meeting date while the others had chosen the 4th. Neither would yield and nothing came of the discussion.

At a subsequent meeting of the Philadelphia NAPA, James Beck appeared to urge, eloquently, the July 5th date. The club voted the proposal down, however. Beck, on finding the group could not be swayed, joined it, and was promptly elected to the vice-presidency. His eloquence was sufficient to cause his appointment to deliver the address of welcome to the convention.

Thus the “up-towners” split and a minority went over to the down-town group. The majority actually held a convention on July 5, but it was a failure.

The group continued to meet and perfect the preparations. Weekly meetings were held and Beck tells us that they gathered their pennies to defray the expenses.

It was necessary to select some amateur to serve as chairman of the proposed meeting. Richard Gerner visited Riale on May 10 when the exposition opened. Three days later at a meeting of the local club, Riale moved that Gemer be requested to serveas president pro tem. It was passed and the invitation was dispatched.

At the May 27, 1876, meeting of the local NAPA the final arrangements were made. David Hunter reported that the City Institute Hall had been hired. Gerner accepted the chairmanship. One hundred printed invitations had been sent out and it was moved to mail another hundred. All eagerly awaited the arrival of “the day.”

Many of the boys who attended the convention arrived early to enjoy the Centennial Exposition. Or, perhaps it might be said many boys who visited the fair arrived to be at the convention also.

John Winslow Snyder arrived a day early- His experience was typical. He met a few of the other amateurs who were there also. He slept that night on a cot in a crowded hotel. On the morning of the 4th he got up early to see the parade and catch a glimpse of Dom Petro, the emperor of Brazil. He heard Patrick Henry’s grandson read the Declaration of Independence; the presentation of the “Centennial Ode,” especially written by Bayard Taylor; and the speech of the celebrated orator, William Evarts. Yet through all this Snyder tells us his mind was on the meeting of the amateurs. No one can doubt this, for all the amateur journalists were eagerly looking forward to meeting personally boys whom they knew only through their journals.

In going to the meeting room in the City Institute Hall one first climbed a long flight of stairs. At the top there was a little ante-room. Here, about noon on July 4, one would have seen perhaps twenty boys crowding about, exchanging greetings and becoming acquainted. A register lay on the table and, as each newcomer signed, someone would read his name to the group. We are told that the first eight names on the list were: John Hosey, John J. Farrell, W. T. Hall, J. F. DuHamel, Correl Kendall, F. 0. McCleary, J. J. Richardson and J. A. Fynes.

The original register of attendees has been lost somewhere in the years that have elapsed, but Evan Riale managed to reconstruct an accurate list of the 65 boys present on that occasion-there were no girls. Philadelphia, naturally, led the list with 19 present and five more were from Pennsylvania. In all, eleven states and the District of Columbia were represented as follows: Pennsylvania 24, New York 13, District of Columbia 10, Maryland, Massachusetts and Illinois 3 each, Missouri, Ohio and Virginia 2 each, Delaware, New Jersey and Wisconsin 1 each.

Thus it may be seen that the meeting and its resulting association was truly national in character.

At 1:35 the buzz of conversation died down under the rap of the chairman’s gavel. Richard Gerner, greeted with considerable applause, gave the opening address. Speaking at length from a previously prepared manuscript the chairman pro tem praised advances already accomplished in amateur journalism and forecast an even greater future. He then proceeded to introduce James Beck who was to deliver the “Address of Welcome.”

James Beck, so short he had to mount a stool to be seen, wearing the spectacles which won him the nickname of “Goggles,” rose to deliver his oration. He issued a hearty welcome to all present and then went on to eulogize Richard Gerner. “There has been,” he said, “some little dispute as to our selection of Mr. Gerner for temporary chairman I raised by some of our amateurs.” As he spoke, Beck’s gaze turned toward the corner where sat the powerful Bostonians, Correl Kendall and James Austin Fynes. And, growing excited, he declaimed, “Mr. Gerner is a prominent amateur! His words here today, speak for themselves. Mr. Gerner is one of the smartest amateurs in the country! Mr. Gerner is one of the most genial amateurs!” And he sat down.

Whether he was aware of it or not, Beck brought into the open the struggle between the two main leaders of the convention-Gerner, of Hoboken, N.J., and John W. Snyder, of Richmond, Va. Oddly enough neither was famed for printing or editing but as authors. Gerner was well known as a short story writer and novelist. Snyder was particularly esteemed as an essayist of great merit. Both contributed much material to the amateur press. Both were leaders and, as James A. Fynes remarked, “They measured blades at the very outset.”

Gerner, technical and aggressive, was in the better position, but he had enemies from his own section of the country. They thought they saw a cut and dried plan to put Gerner into office, “wherefore they resolved that no one should take the crown without scratching awhile through the thorns.” There is considerable question whether the Philadelphians had any political purpose in mind in making Gerner chairman. It is true that they must appoint someone. Riale affirms, “No names had been previously mentioned as nominees for officers…there were absolutely no expectations of obtaining office on the part of the faithful eleven boys who made all…arrangements for the convention and defrayed all expenses.” On the other hand Beck admits, “Those of us who had called. the convention and paid all the expensives felt–somewhat foolishly–that we had the right to dictate to the convention its choice of permanent chairman and we had selected Richard Gerner. The opposition put forward Snyder and the association commenced its long career of quarreling with a bitter contest.”

Almost before Beck could conclude his remarks, members sprang to their feet to move the choice of permanent chairman. In rapid order Richard Gerner, Correl Kendall, Clarence G. Allen of Washington, D. C., Edgar R. Hoadley of Philadelphia, J. Guilford White of Virginia, and John W. Snyder were nominated. White then asked to withdraw his name. Frank Vondersmith, George W. Bertron and Leland Williamson, all of Philadelphia, were appointed tellers.

Before turning to the actual balloting a resolution was proposed by Messrs. Fynes, White and Hosey: “Resolved, that the only authorized voters in the National Amateur Press Association are those who are, or have been, actively engaged in amateur affairs.”

The measure was adopted.

Mr. Gerner stated that the person receiving the largest number of votes would be declared elected. With his copy of “Cushing’s Manual” at hand, Mr. Kendall rose and reminded the chairman that a majority of the total vote cast was required to elect. The chair admitted he had forgotten and stood corrected.

The nominations having been completed, the convention proceeded to the election. The first ballot gave: Richard Gerner, 22; John W. Snyder, 18; E. R. Hoadley, 7; Correl Kendall, 6; Clarence G. Allen, 3. Thus there was no choice.

Before the second ballot was taken the opponents of Gerner were able to unite with the result: John W. Snyder, 33; Richard Gerner, 27. John Winslow Snyder was declared permanent chairman of the meeting.

About his election Snyder was to say twenty years later: “It is needless to say that I was flattered by my election to the highest office in the gift of those whose opinion I most highly valued.”

As the newly elected chairman mounted the platform he was welcomed by Gerner and turned to face an audience much of which was sullen and angry at his election. The way was open for a breach in the National Amateur Press Association before the club was even organized. The curly-haired Virginian began a calm, conciliatory speech, though in clear, incisive tones. Such was his ability as an orator that when he had finished all thought of animosity had faded.

Richard Gerner moved that the “NAPA of Philadelphia now be dissolved, and that with other amateurs from all parts of the United States a National Amateur Press Association be formed. “The motion was seconded and passed without discussion.”

One might suppose that the convention would consider this their most important accomplishment but such does not appear to be so. There was no general realization that they were creating an institution that would outlive all of them. Riale continually assures us that his sole motivation in working to bring about the convention was the formation of a permanent nation-wide organization. We believe him to be unique in this aim. Beck states, and we feel most amateurs were of his mind, “…It was…spirit of hospitality which impelled the amateurs of Philadelphia to invite their brothers of other states to come. The formation of a permanent national organization was only incidental to the main purpose. “Indeed, even afterwards, the meeting was not called the First NAPA Convention but was known as the Centennial Amateur Convention.

With an organization officially established it now became necessary to define the officers. Beck moved that there be a president, five vice-presidents, a recording secretary, a corresponding secretary, a treasurer and an official organ. The motion was passed without discussion.

The officers having been defined, J. Guilford White moved that the permanent chairman and the permanent secretary of the convention become president and recording secretary of the new NAPA. Considerable argument ensued, but the motion was passed. Thus Snyder became president and Hall first recording secretary. The convention then proceeded to the election of the other officers, with the result: 1st vice-president, Richard Gerner, N. J.; 2nd vice-president, William E. Leaning, N. Y.; 3rd vice-president, George W. Bertron, Pa.; 4th vice-president, Charles C. Heuman, N. Y.; 5th vice-president, William W. Winslow, Pa.; corresponding secretary, Evan Reed Riale, Pa.; and treasurer, James A. Fynes, Mass. The New England Star was named the official organ for the period 1876-1877.

It was decided to have a constitution prepared and presented at the next convention. Richard Gerner, Charles C. Heuman and Franklin Barritt were appointed a committee to draft the constitution and by-laws.

There was a lively discussion as to the seat of the next year’s convention. It was agreed to hold it during July but the exact date was to be left to the committee on arrangements. The voting gave: Long Branch, N. J., 16; Chicago, 5; Niagara Falls, 2; New York City, 8; Washington, 12.

Of the literary-dramatic program which had been planned, most was not presented. However, before the meeting closed, a Philadelphia boy recited an original poem and Richard Gerner presented, in a highly approved manner, the poem “On the Brink.”

Some attendees had departed early and, after these two numbers, the meeting dispersed.

—Burton J. Smith