The second son of Willem J. H. Bok (a.k.a. Willem Bok, Jr.) and Sieke van Herwerden, Edward Bok was born October 9th, 1863, in Den Helder, Netherlands. In light of the fact his father was a prominent local politician and notary public, the Bok family was able to afford four servants, ensuring a comfortable start to Edward's life.
Some questionable financial decisions made by his father and a downturn in the Dutch stock market compelled the Bok family to immigrate to America in 1870. They settled in Brooklyn, New York, and were granted American citizenship in 1876.
An energetic entrepreneur from an early age, Edward began working afternoons in a Brooklyn bakery in 1873. Initially hired to wash windows for the sum of fifty cents per week, the lad demonstrated his enthusiasm for the job and was shortly working behind the counter of the bakery. He continued working
his paper route and various other odd jobs, while continually on the lookout for other entrepreneurial opportunities.
Edward Bok quit school at age thirteen and went to work as an office boy at Western Union. It was there that he crossed paths with business titan and financier Russell Sage
. In addition to the occasional lecture Sage offered the boy on the value of a penny, Edward carefully observed the actions of his bosses, learning valuable life and business lessons he would carry with him throughout his life. Though he gleaned much from his time with Sage and Jay Gould, it was actually Clarence Cary who acted as mentor to the boy.
Before Edward's father passed away in 1881, he asked Cary to take care of his sons. An attorney and family friend, Clarence Cary became a trusted mentor and father figure for Edward following his dad's death. Henry Ward Beecher was another prominent mentor and father figure in Bok's life.
His acceptance into the prestigious Philomathean Society in October of 1883, not only allowed him to expand his intellectual horizons, but also gained him entry into upper crust social circles.
He went to work
as a stenographer for the publishing house of Henry Holt and Company beginning in 1882, and then moved to Scribner's in 1884. He continued his work as a stenographer until he was placed in charge of advertising at the new Scribner's Magazine
. The creation of the publication gave Bok a hands-on education in the management of a major magazine.
The 1880s was an eventful decade for Edward Bok. He contributed articles to the Philomathean Review
and briefly acted as president of the Philomathean Society. With Frederic Colver as his partner, Bok launched the Bok Syndicate Press in 1886, and published and edited Brooklyn Magazine
Under his leadership, it became a successful, respected publication with a number of notable contributors. The success of the magazine did not go unnoticed. In 1887, millionaire Rufus T. Bush offered to purchase Brooklyn Magazine
for a generous sum and Edward eagerly accepted. Following the purchase, Brooklyn Magazine
was renamed The American Magazine
, before a final change
. That same year, Bok received national attention when he published the Henry Ward Beecher Memorial.
In 1889, he entered into negotiations with Cyrus Curtis of the Curtis Publishing Company to take over as editor of the women's magazine, Ladies' Home Journal
publishing giant Frank Doubleday was an old classmate of his and was among those encouraging him to accept the offer. Doubleday would remain a lifelong friend of Bok's. On October 20th, 1889, Edward William Bok assumed his duties as editor of Ladies' Home Journal
As editor of the Ladies' Home
, he balanced fiction, fashion, non-fiction and editorials to successfully boost the number of readers, and enhance its influence and prestige. He sought out literary contributions from both undiscovered literary talent and major figures of the day. Bok was responsible for persuading Helen Keller
to pen her autobiography, The Story of My Life
which appeared in the magazine in serialized form in 1902.
With the magazine's enhanced reputation and influence secure, he used it as a platform to shape public opinion on a wide range of social issues. He pressed for public sex education, battled against patent medicines, encouraged improvements in
architectural design, gardening, home furnishings, and was a leader in early movements to beautify America. His drive to produce a genuinely instructive publication for American households not only yielded a trusted and profitable periodical, but also resulted in palpable social change in America. Under his leadership, circulation of the magazine grew from a few hundred thousand, to nearly two
million at the time of his retirement.
In addition to his column, "At Home with the Editor," he wrote a number of popular books including, Successward: A Young Man's Book for Young Men
, Before He Is Twenty
(1894), The Young Man in Business
(1900), Her Brother's Letters
(1906), The Edward Bok Books of Self-Knowledge
(1912, in five volumes), Why I Believe in Poverty
(1915), A Man from Maine
(1923), Dollars Only
(1926), Twice Thirty: Some Short and Simple Annals of the Road
(1925), Perhaps I Am
(1928), and the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Americanization of Edward Bok: The Autobiography of a Dutch Boy Fifty Years
Bok had long hoped to turn Ladies' Home Journal
into a family magazine, and even proposed dropping the word "Ladies" from its title in 1918. This effort was a rare failure for the successful editor.
His thirty-year leadership at Ladies' Home Journal
came to a close in 1919. The former stenographer, editor, publisher and Pulitzer Prize-winning author retired to devote himself to philanthropic and civic endeavors.
Between 1907 and 1926, Edward Bok was the recipient of honorary degrees from Villanova University, Hope College, Tufts University, Rutgers University, and Williams College.
Following his retirement, he served
as president of the Netherland-American Association (NAF) from 1921 till 1924. (The organization was founded in 1921 to advance relations between the two countries.) Bok established the American Peace Award (APA) in 1923 in an effort to secure the best proposal to bring about world peace. In January 1924, the nationwide competition awarded $100,000 to the winning plan. Unfortunately, experts were
quick to draw attention to the fact that there was nothing new in the winning proposal, which was little more than a revised plan for the U.S. to join the League of Nations. The APA organization was renamed the American Foundation in 1925 and unified his various philanthropic efforts under one roof.
1921, he fell in love with and resolved to make his winter home in Lake Wales, Florida. Wanting to preserve a pristine corner of rural Florida near his new winter home, he began work on acres of botanical gardens in the spring of 1922, on what would later become the beautiful Bok Tower and Gardens on the grounds of his Historic Bok Sanctuary. February 1st, 1929, President Calvin Coolidge
dedicated the Singing Tower and Sanctuary in Lake Wales, Florida.
A heart attack brought Bok's life to a close at 4:25 a.m., January 9th, 1930. He left the bulk of his $23 million estate to his wife, along with generous gifts to other relatives, servants and friends. His eldest son, W. Curtis Bok, went
on to a distinguished career as an author, lawyer, and Pennsylvania Supreme Court justice. One of Edward's grandsons, Derek Bok, served as president of Harvard University (1971-91).
Naive, bombastic and idealistic, were a few of the terms detractors used to label Bok and his progressive ideals. But his
supporters far outnumbered his critics. President Theodore Roosevelt said of him, "Bok is the only man I ever heard of who changed, for the better, the architecture of an entire nation, and he did it so quickly and yet so effectively that we didn't know it was begun before it was finished."
He was an avid autograph collector, stamp collector, golfer, gardener, and a voracious reader.
Residences of Edward William Bok
Note that these residences may no longer exist, and it's possible the addresses
have changed over the years. This is not to suggest that Bok owned each and every one of
these structures. We're only reporting the fact that he called them home at one point or another in his life.
Kosciusko Place, Brooklyn, New York, U.S.A. (1870-72)
Yates Avenue, Brooklyn, New York, U.S.A.
257 Carroll Street, Brooklyn, New York, U.S.A. (1873-74)
333 Smith Street, Brooklyn, New York, U.S.A. (1874-75)
35 Second Place, Brooklyn, New York, U.S.A. (1875-79)
324 Union Street, Brooklyn, New
York, U.S.A. (1879-80)
331 Smith Street, Brooklyn, New York, U.S.A. (1880-81)
258 Carroll Street, Brooklyn, New York, U.S.A. (1881-87)
320 State Street, Brooklyn, New York, U.S.A. (1887-89)
453 North Highland
Avenue, Merion, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.