Bruce Barton Papers, 1881-1967


Perhaps best known as the author of the book, The Man Nobody Knows (a life of Christ), Bruce Barton was himself once the subject of an article entitled, inevitably, “The Man Everybody Knows.” Although Barton found the phrase distasteful, at one time it was quite apt. He became widely known not only as author of popular books, articles, and editorials, but also as a businessman and as a politician.

The oldest child of a distinguished Congregational minister, William E. Barton, young Bruce grew up in a home where reading and writing were as much a way of life as the old fashioned virtues of thrift, hard work, and charity. The elder Barton achieved a reputation not only as a preacher, but also as a writer and as an authority on Abraham Lincoln. He wrote several books on Lincoln and on other subjects. Under the pseudonym, “Safed the Sage” he wrote a series of modern-day parables which gained wide popularity.

It is not surprising that Bruce should turn to writing. However, success did not come immediately. After graduating from Amherst College in 1907, Barton took a position as advertising solicitor with a small Chicago publication, the Home Herald. Barton was promoted to writing editorials, but the magazine folded in 1909. He went to New York, and after a time became managing editor of The Housekeeper, but this publication also failed in 1912. In 1914 Barton became editor of Every Week. This magazine achieved a measure of popularity, but was discontinued in 1918 due to rising war costs. Despite these apparent failures, the popularity of Barton's writings continued to increase, achieving its highest level during the 1920s, especially following the publication of The Man Nobody Knows (1925). In following decades he continued to be a prolific writer, but he came to view his writing career more and more as an avocation, while his main preoccupation shifted to business -- and, for a time, to politics.

Barton's talent for advertising appeared early in his career. In the pre-war period, he had spent several years as assistant sales manager for P. F. Collier and Son, and his promotion of Dr. Eliot's Five Foot Shelf--” a liberal education in only fifteen minutes a day”-- had caused sales to boom. After EVERY WEEK ceased publication, Barton assumed the publicity work for the United War Workers campaign, promoting the various wartime charities making up this organization. He coined the slogan “A man is down, but he's never out” for the Salvation Army. It was also at this time that Barton met Alex Osborn and Roy Durstine, and following the war the three pooled their talents to form an advertising agency.

The new firm of Barton, Durstine, and Osborn grew rapidly, and gained the accounts of General Motors, General Electric, Gillette, and Standard Oil of New York, among many others. By 1928 BDO was itself a leading New York agency, when it merged with one of the largest and oldest advertising firms in New York, the George Batten Company. With Barton as president, and later chairman of the board, Batten, Barton, Durstine, and Osborn became one of the leading advertising agencies in the world, with branch offices in London and in major cities throughout the United States.

His literary and advertising successes led Barton briefly into the motion picture industry during the 1920s. He was invited to Hollywood in 1926 to serve as consultant for Cecil B. DeMille's King of Kings and to discuss the possibility of writing a scenario for Paramount studios. With some of his associates at BDO he sponsored a motion picture company, Better Day Pictures Inc. to produce short films based on his editorials, but the firm never produced more than a single, pilot film.

Barton's interest in public affairs, together with his facility for making friends, his wide circle of business contacts, and his literary talents almost inevitably drew him into politics -- which for Barton meant the Republican party. As early as 1920 Barton, with Frank Stearns, was among a small group promoting Calvin Coolidge for the presidency, and may well have contributed to the selection of Coolidge as the vice-presidential candidate. Barton played an increasing role in successive Republican campaigns, drafting speeches and guiding publicity for candidates from Coolidge through Eisenhower.

Barton's firm, BBDO, for some years held the Republican party advertising account. It is interesting that Barton himself opposed the involvement of his agency in political advertising, as he claimed in his letter to Joseph Alsop of July 9, 1958.

Barton's own career in public office was brief but active. In 1937 a vacancy occurred in New York's 17th (“silk stocking”) District, and Barton decided to run for Congress. He campaigned and won on his pledge to seek to “repeal a law a week,” and was reelected to a regular term in 1938. Barton was already well known because of his writings, and his congressional career helped to keep him before the public eye (he was referred to as “the best advertised man in Congress”). As early as 1936 he had been mentioned as a potential presidential candidate, and by 1940 such talk was even more widespread. Barton, however, threw his support to Wendell Willkie at the 1940 Republican convention. At Willkie's insistence Barton ran for the Senate, but lost to the Democratic incumbent.

After 1940 Barton retired from active politics, but remained one of the Republican party's most influential behind-the-scenes members. He has generally been identified as a member of the “moderate” wing of the party, although he valued party unity more than any faction. Persons of all shades of political opinion were numbered among his friends, and some have felt that Barton's cohesive influence on the party during his active years should not be underestimated.

One further aspect of Barton's life that should not be ignored is the influence of his early religious and family background. This influence has been evident throughout his career, and is reflected in his writings on business and politics, as well as in his religious and general writings. It is perhaps best exemplified in Barton's deep personal commitment to philanthropy. In addition to financial assistance and service on boards of directors, he has frequently contributed his talents as a fund-raiser, speaker, and writer. Among the principal organizations in which he has taken special interest have been the American Heart Association, Berea College, Deerfield Academy, the Institute for the Crippled and Disabled, Presbyterian Hospital of New York, and the United Negro College Fund. In 1960 he was awarded recognition for his educational philanthropies by special mention in Who's Who In America.

In 1957 Barton suffered from a stroke, which forced him to restrict his business, literary, and political activities and his public appearances. Barton died in 1967.