Carp: Frank Carpenter and the World

In 1880s America, the news media, the entertainment media, the social media could all be summed up in one word: newspapers.  Everybody read newspapers and the media stars of the day were all writers and columnists.  One of the most popular and highly read newspaper correspondents on the American scene was a skinny little kid who grew up in Mansfield.

His articles were signed simply with four letters: Carp, and by this name he was known across the country.  In 1893 The San Francisco Morning Call said “He stands at the head of the syndicate correspondents of the United States.  What he writes is read every Sunday in twenty of the biggest cities of the Union, and his newspaper constituency must at the lowest amount to a million readers every week.”

His name was Frank G. Carpenter.  He grew up on Third Street and graduated from Mansfield High School when it was on West First Street, in a building that would eventually be named for him.  If all he ever did was write newspaper columns, his would have been a significant life; but that was merely the stepping-stone of his greater ambition to see the entire world, and then to share that sight with generations of younger Americans who could grow up with a better vision of the earth as a global village.  In many ways he opened the door to the Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries.


Another newspaper reporter, who was no doubt awed by Carpenter’s broad success, described him in 1883:

“A good many persons have inquired about the personality of “Carp,” the correspondent of the Cleveland Leader whose stories are being copied more widely than those of any other writer in Washington.  I can tell you that the gentleman is Frank G. Carpenter, whose father is a prominent banker in Mansfield, Ohio.

“Carp is a slender young man, not more than five feet, eight inches tall, with a thin face, twinkling gray eyes, a small sandy mustache and unmanageable red hair.  He is popular, overflowing with kindness and good humor, always anxious to do you a favor, or at least to say a kind word.  Retiring and seeming slightly embarrassed, you would never take him for the brilliant journalist he is.”

His schoolmates in Mansfield said much the same thing: he was smart, nerdy and fragile, had no interest in sports, and read all the time.  A little guy and friendly but largely overlooked, and no one could have guessed he would end up so famous.

These two portraits of Frank Carpenter are bookends of his career: the first taken in Mansfield as a lanky kid, where his friends nicknamed him ‘Bony Chapter.’

The second photo was made by his publisher, Doubleday, for use in one of his popular travel books.

The Washington Beat

His career started in Cleveland at the Leader, and through them he was posted to Washington DC to cover the national scene for 30 dollars a week.  Within ten years his words also fed into the Associated Press, and he had devised his own personal syndicate to carry his articles throughout the US.

People were charmed by his view of things because, even though he was covering the nation’s capitol, there was little of political opinion and lots about the actual people involved—what they looked like, how they acted—that put a more human scale on the daunting dimensions of government.  It was his own curiosity and fascination that came through, with an accessible smile and a twinkle in his eye.

He was there when the Washington Monument was completed: he called it ‘the longest lightning rod yet constructed.’  Speaking of its formidable height he wrote:

“So far no one has been killed in the construction of this monument.  It is probable that it will be completed without loss of life, but when it is, it will make a splendid place for suicides.”

The World Beat

Having grown himself a national audience, Carp needed a larger subject to write about than just DC, so he took off for Europe in 1888.  This trip launched a mission that lasted the rest of his life: to open the door for people at home to have a personal glimpse of the rest of the world.

If there was one talent that Carp had, it was taking complex and foreign issues and people and making them, not merely comprehensible, but neighborly and oddly familiar.  Like an understanding pal or a companionable co-conspirator, he went to the strangest places on Earth in order to make sense of them, and then share that connection with his friends back home.

Carp was a friendly tour guide who made his readers feel at home anywhere in the world.  With a self-deprecating humor he could bring any perceived threat down to his own innocent level of normalcy.  On his trip to Russia he was warned about the oppressive Tsarist Police, so he went to St. Petersburg to find out for himself.  Taking a horse-drawn taxi around the city to see the sites, he attracted the scowling attention of militarist cops as his vehicle went faster and faster, racing around the streets.  He said he only knew three words of Russian to say to the coachman, and it turned out they meant “go faster.” 

Scrapbook Photos from Frank’s Travels

Carp’s rapport with people exhibited a faith in humanity that inspired his readers to approach the world with less fear. Here he demonstrates how harmless a fascist can be when common interest is found.

In a career spanning 31 years Frank Carpenter wrote a great many words. In the beginning his writings were set to paper with the use of an early form of typewriter, but in later years he dictated all those words to a secretary, or to his daughter who accompanied him on his journeys. His friends said he often spoke his puncuation aloud for emphasis, as he would to a secretary, as in:
“I think the successful interview is made by asking questions (comma), so I asked him whether money-making was compatible with preaching (period).”

Carpenter’s Geographical Readers

By the 1890s Frank Carpenter’s convivial introductions to international understanding quite naturally became directed toward school kids—whose traditional geography textbooks were more effective than sleeping pills.  In Carp kids found a companionable voice who spoke in terms of comparisons they understood like breakfast and clothes and pets.  His fascination with the variety of humanity was a contagious and welcome force in shaping education and values.

A couple generations of American kids came to adulthood with Carp’s friendly regard for the rest of the curious wide world.

For schoolkids whose homework included books from the Carpenter’s Geographical Readers series, Carp made the world more comprehensible as he, quite literally, put things into perspective.

This Mansfield High School on First Street was built in 1870, and Frank Carpenter graduated from here in 1873. In later years when a new high school was built on Fourth Street, this building was recommissioned as a grade school and it was named Carpenter School in tribute to the Mansfield boy whose travel books were in every room.

The Scope of His Life and Works

By the time Carp died in 1924 at the age of 69, he had written 20 books of travels for children and adults, published a newspaper column every Sunday for 31 years and dozens of travel pieces in Cosmopolitan magazine, and shipped, trained, automobiled and donkeycarted over very nearly the whole of the planet.

He also documented his voyages with a camera, and his daughter had the collection of 15,000 photographs placed in the Library of Congress.  In recent months the digitized collection has been made available online, so today you can follow Frank Carpenter around the world from the comfort of home on your online screen. 

It’s exactly what Frank had in mind.  Looking at the photos you can’t help but love the guy, as did millions of Americans a hundred years ago.

Frank Carpenter was born in 1855 in Mansfield, graduated from Mansfield High School in 1873, from Wooster College in 1877. When he died in Nanking, China in 1924, the Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote in tribute to him: “He did more than any other one man of his profession to promote international understanding by reporting to half the world how the other half lives.”

Find Frank G. Carpenter’s extensive collection of travel photos in the Library of Congress at: Carpenter Collection.

One comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s