Many people in Canton and western North Carolina may still remember Peter G. Thomson as the founder of Champion Papers.

What they most likely do not know is that Peter Thomson had a very successful career as a book publisher in Cincinnati in the 1880s, specializing in children’s books.

I am a great-grandson of Peter Thomson, for whom I am named, and I am writing a biography of the three Reuben Robertsons – my grandfather, my father, and my eldest brother. Reuben Buck Robertson, Sr. was Peter Thomson’s son-in-law, marrying his daughter Hope in 1905. This piece will be part of that prologue to my biography. 

Peter Gibson Thomson was a Cincinnatian of Scottish descent who was born in 1851. After some early success as a book seller and most notably as a book publisher, Peter went on in 1894 to found what became a papermaking industrial giant originally known as Champion Coated Paper Company (eventually called Champion International). Peter was actively involved in the company until his death in 1931 at the age of 80.

Thomson’s years as a book seller/publisher

After learning the rudiments of business and the book trade from a Cincinnati publisher,

Peter decided to go into business on his own at the age of 25. Peter borrowed the necessary money and established a retail bookstore and a printing and publishing business in 1877. Over the next few years, Peter expanded his publishing and printing business, buying a building nearby and installing printing and binding equipment.

Adult/scholarly book publishing

At the outset, Peter published adult, scholarly and historical works. Over the next seven years, he published 41 of these types of books and as well as two novels and a variety of other material. Thomson’s most notable publication among his adult and scholarly books was The Bibliography of the State of Ohio, which was released in 1880.

The book was a massive, 436-page catalogue of the books and pamphlets about the history of the state of Ohio, for which Peter did all the research over an 8-year period. In the preface, Thomson wrote that he had “examined nearly every public and private library where such works were likely to be found, from Boston, Mass., to St. Paul, Minn.” Peter’s obituary in the Cincinnati Enquirer on July 11, 1931 noted,

. . . Mr. Thomson . . . is the author of the most complete book of its kind yet produced in the United States [The Bibliography of the State of Ohio] . . . Proud as Mr. Thomson was of a magnificent and successful business career, he was much more proud of his ‘Bibliography’ and of his collection of books published in the days when Ohio was in the making. . . A voracious reader and student of history, his interest in books led him to publish the Bibliography of the State of Ohio in 1880, the fourth of such state bibliographies.”

That 1880 edition of the The Bibliography of the State of Ohio is now a collector’s item.

Peter had a particularly unprofitable experience publishing one adult book, which undoubtedly was repeated with other ones as well. That experience explains why he published no adult, historical or scholarly books after 1884. It certainly helped convince him to focus exclusively on publishing children’s books, toys and games.

Printing business

In his early years, Peter also did commercial printing, which provided him with a steady source of income as he got his publishing business going. One of his regular customers for stationery and other items was the City of Cincinnati, which provided his first identifiable business income. In all from 1878 through 1883, Peter had total sales to city departments of more than $40,000, or more than $1,000,000 in today’s dollars.

One sizable printing contract that Peter bid on in 1879 – and did not get – became quite controversial. Peter was one of the two low bidders for printing a new version of the Ohio Revised Statutes for the state of Ohio.

However, the company with, by far, the highest bid was awarded the contract. Peter and the other losing bidder objected to the contract going to a company that had a higher bid that either of theirs. The other losing bidder complained to a newspaper that he had been offered cash to withdraw his bid by the company that won the contract, which he refused. Peter and the other low bidder challenged the awarding of the contract in the Ohio Supreme Court.

A Cincinnati Enquirer ran a story on July 4, 1879, about the bidding and awarding process, which included a lengthy interview with the one of the state officials that awarded the printing contract.

When the reporter pointed out that the company with the highest bid had won the contract, the state official had an odd response: “Appearances are deceptive, and this is not an exception to the rule.”

The state official said there were technical difficulties with the bids by Thomson and the other losing bidder. He also added that the losing bidder other than Thomson “had treated the State badly in the award to it of the Constitutional Convention printing . . . [I]t had acted in bad faith. That’s why we passed it.”

The official also spent considerable time in the interview trying to justify why the winning bidder had been allowed to effectively lower his price after all the bids had been submitted. The reporter then confronted this official with a rumor that the winning bidder had promised to give him $5,000. The official responded: “Oh, that is a g-d d_____d lie.”

 The Ohio Supreme Court ruled against Thomson and the other challenging bidder in July 1879 because of technical shortcomings in their bids. It almost certainly did not hurt the case for the winning bidder that the State Attorney General was one of the members of the three-person commission that reviewed the bids and awarded the contract.

Although the legal challenge to the awarding of the contract was for naught, the controversy did not end there. A Cincinnati, Ohio newspaper reported in February 1880 that a State Senate Committee was investigating the awarding of the contract.

Clearly, there was something fishy about the process in light of the stories about the winning bidder offering money to Thomson and the other losing bidder to drop their proposals, about the winning bidder being allowed to reduce his price after all the bids and been submitted, and about one of the state officials being offered a bribe. In the other major legal disputes in which Thomson was involved later years, he made sure he did not lose.

Children’s books, games and toys

By 1884, Peter had shifted his focus from adult and scholarly books to publishing children’s books, manufacturing children’s toys and games, and making Christmas and Valentine cards.

His wife Laura played a vital role in this segment of Peter’s publishing career as she wrote many of the verses for the comic valentines and the children’s books that Peter published. In fact, Peter published two children’s books that were written by Laura – My First Book in 1886 and Lady Fox in 1887.

The children’s books Thomson published were magnificently illustrated and brilliantly colored. One of the books with magnificent illustrations is “Blue Beard,” which is shown in the attachment. Some of Peter’s Christmas-themed books have been made into Christmas cards by the Cincinnati and Hamilton County Public Library taken from his book The Night Before Christmas, the cover of which is shown in the attachment.

In a 1886 letter providing an overview of his children’s book publishing and toy manufacturing business, Thomson identified the elements of his new line of books and products as consisting of 104 varieties of toy books, 16 kinds of linen books, 11 kinds of bound books, 26 kinds of games, a complete line of paper dolls, a full line of paper soldiers including infantry, calvary and artillery, and several kinds of new toys.

Sales of the children’s books and toys and valentines increased rapidly, getting the attention of a much larger New York publisher, the McLaughlin Brothers. According to a profile of Peter in a family history published by his son-in-law Reuben B. Robertson, Sr., the McLaughlin Brothers “began a campaign of price-cutting and coercion tactics among the retail dealers, in the hope of driving Peter out of business. . . .” Trail Blazers of the Thomson-Gamble Family.

It was during this campaign by the McLaughlin Brothers that Peter’s factory was destroyed by fire in October 1884 at the peak of his Christmas business.

A report about the fire in a Cincinnati newspaper indicated that Thomson employed about 100 people and operated five presses in his five-story building. The article described the business as “Peter G. Thomson’s extensive manufactory of toy books and games, the only establishment of its kind, with one exception, in the United States.”

Peter was undaunted and resilient. He sold his book store and with those proceeds, the insurance payout and salvaged equipment, he re-opened his factory by December and lost no Christmas orders.

I have been able to identify 115 separate titles of children’s books that Peter published between 1880 and 1887. Many of these books were issued in different editions.

In 1881, Peter started issuing his children’s books in series, and the series sometimes included titles that he also had published as individual books. In all, Peter published 18 series of children’s books, with one containing three subsets.

Many of the children’s books published by Peter Thomson are available in digital format on the web site of the Cincinnati and Hamilton County Public Library. Original versions of those books are now collector’s items and can be bought on eBay, Etsy and other sites. The Cincinnati Public Library web site also includes a volume with the illustrations from many of Thomson’s children’s books.

Other toys

Peter also made a variety of other toys for children, including paper dolls and soldiers. The most unusual toy he manufactured was a replica cannon made of brass, with a cast iron frame, hitch and wheels. The cannons were stamped with Peter Thomson’s name and Cincinnati, Ohio. Like his children’s books, the cannons are now collectors’ items and are sold on various web sites.

Business sold

After the 1884 fire that destroyed Peter’s original building, the price war between Peter and the McLaughlin Brothers continued. Peter came to the realization that competition with a much larger competitor who had much deeper pockets could not continue indefinitely so he decided to get out of the business if he could do so without suffering a loss. Peter’s strategy involved going to the McLaughlin Brothers headquarters in New York and offering to buy out his competitor.

A Cincinnati newspaper provided a detailed accounting of the interaction between Thomson and the McLaughlin Brothers head:

“I want to buy this establishment,” said Peter, after a few preliminary words.

“But this establishment is not for sale,” he was told.

“But there must be some figure at which you will sell,” Peter insisted. “Some figure up in the millions.”

“No, there isn’t. We are not in the selling out business. We are buying out, we are. We will buy you out.”

“But I don’t want to sell,” said Mr. Thomson.

“You must have some price, up in the thousands,” said McLaughlin, paraphrasing Mr. Thomson’s remark of a few moments before.

“Yes, I confess I have a price, yielded Mr. Thomson, apparently with great reluctance.

“Name it,” demanded the head of the firm.

“Not less than One Hundred Thousand.”

“We’ll take it,” came back instantly from the McLaughlin [head], “provided you guarantee never to engage in this kind of business.”

Mr. Thomson agreed.

With the sale to the McLaughlin Brothers, Peter was out of the book publishing business, and he began looking for new business ventures for the use of his new-found capital. When a housing development he had started fizzled out, Peter next focused on the paper business and decided to build a paper mill on a large portion of the land he had purchased for the housing development.

In 1893, Peter founded a new company to pursue that business, known as the Champion Coated Paper Company. That company became an enormous success and made Peter very wealthy.

In the early 1900s, Peter decided he needed a steady source of pulp and then proceeded to buy large tracts of timberlands in western North Carolina (which eventually totaled almost 100,000 acres) and started a new pulp mill in Canton, which began operations in 1908. Over the years, the Canton mill, founded as the Champion Fibre Company, was continuously expanded until it became one of the largest industrial operations in North Carolina and the largest pulp and paper making mill in the United States. In the 1930s, the Champion Fibre Company and the Champion Coated Paper Company were merged to form the Champion Paper & Fibre Company.

After serving as the president of the North Carolina operations for many years, Reuben Robertson – Peter Thomson’s son-in-law – succeeded to the presidency of the combined company (then known as Champion Papers) in 1946 when the last of Peter Thomson’s sons involved in the management of the company died.

Reuben Senior’s son, Reuben, Jr., took over as president in 1950 and served in that capacity — except for a two-year period from 1955 to 1957 while he served as Deputy Secretary of Defense under President Dwight Eisenhower — until 1960, when he was tragically killed by a drunk driver at the age of 51.

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