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Knapp was educated at the Polytechnical Institute in Brooklyn.
116th St & Broadway, New York, NY 10027
Knapp attended Columbia University, from which he was graduated in 1884.
Knapp was educated at the Polytechnical Institute in Brooklyn and Columbia University, from which he was graduated in 1884.
After an unsuccessful year at Columbia University, Knapp’s disappointed father hired him to work at his company, the lithographic firm Major & Knapp. Thus, in 1881, Knapp began working for a mere five dollars a week as a printing apprentice. Knapp’s mother insisted he give three dollars a week to the Methodist Church, leaving the young man with a monthly salary of eight dollars. While Knapp’s academic career had been less than stellar, he was about to surprise everyone. Out of a desire to improve his wages, he began selling printing contracts during his lunch hour and in his spare time. Knapp was a natural salesman and was soon earning a decent wage.
Knapp’s first marriage in 1886 only fueled his desire to become more financially solid, thus sparking new ideas for the young man. An early friendship with his client James B. Duke of the American Tobacco Company led to Knapp hiring writer Edward Book to create biographies of famous Americans to enclose in cigarette packages. These biographies not only earned Knapp more money but also established him as an innovative young man, greatly impressing Duke. The two would remain friends and later become business partners.
In an effort to curb his son’s earning power, Knapp’s father offered him company stock and reduced amounts of cash instead of sales commissions. Knapp agreed utilizing his stock options to buy more stock. In 1891, after an argument with his father, Knapp used his stocks to purchase his father’s shares of Major & Knapp. At the tender age of 27, Knapp now had controlling interest in the lithographic firm. In the ten years since his employment began, Knapp had emerged as a true businessman, changing the company’s name to Knapp & Co. However, this business venture created a rift between Knapp and his father that would never be resolved.
Although Knapp was now the owner of his father’s company, he turned to his meager beginnings as a printing apprentice for inspiration. From his early experience, he saw the opportunity to greatly improve the printing process. With the necessary funds, he did just that. In 1896, Knapp and his old client-turned-friend Duke went into business together, creating a daily newspaper, the New York Recorder. The newspaper achieved moderate success in its first few years but was dismantled in 1901 because of increased competition in the newspaper business. Never one to stew over his failures, Knapp merely ignored the failed newspaper, moving on to bigger and better things. In 1903, he established the first newspaper supplement, the Associated Sunday Magazine. This magazine became the model for most newspaper supplements that followed, achieving great success with a circulation of over 1,500,000. However, financial and business success once again came with a price tag.
Knapp spent the early years of the twentieth century adding to his publishing empire. In 1906, he purchased Crowell Publishing Company, which included the magazines Farm & Fireside and Women's Home Companion. By 1911, now operating under the name Publications Corporation, Knapp purchased American Magazine, and in 1919, P. F. Collier’s publishing empire. The latter acquisition included the magazine Collier’s Weekly and a book subscription business.
In addition to his many publishing ventures in the twentieth century, Knapp established himself as a humanitarian. Knapp was one of those responsible for the development of programs in public health and in the building of public housing through (his father’s other company) Metropolitan Life. Knapp’s support of worthy causes exhibited itself in other ways as well. He donated nearly $1 million toward the construction of a model school system in Currituck County. He also donated heavily to support public-school music, to train adult bus drivers, and to provide instructional equipment for public health work in both New York and North Carolina.
Between 1919 and 1930, Knapp struggled to keep his publishing ventures afloat. Finances everywhere were tight due to World War I and the Great Depression. As a result, Knapp was forced to invest millions of his own dollars into his companies. Of the changes he made during this time, there are two that stand out. In 1927, Knapp renamed Farm & Fireside, changing its title to Country Home, and began focusing on covering the home, garden, and farm instead of just farm news. This change, along with such printing enhancements as using four-colors and coated paper, resulted in a large increase in circulation. The other major innovation during this time was to Collier's Magazine. During the 1920s, the magazine suffered great financial losses. Again, Knapp used his own money to keep the publication afloat. In 1925, in an effort to improve the quality of the magazine, Knapp appointed William L. Chenery as the new editor. This addition provided the editorial stability that the magazine had not enjoyed in over a decade.
Knapp was raised in a religious household, thanks to his Methodist mother and grandfather.
Throughout the 1930s, Knapp achieved great literary success. His many publications survived the financial storm created by World War I and the Great Depression. His method of survival seemed to be in not dwelling on his failures and capitalizing on his opportunities. Knapp was a businessman at heart, who happened to make a living in a literary profession. Perhaps this explains the lack of notoriety he has received from the publishing world since his death.
He remains largely unknown and is mentioned in only a handful of references. Although the obituaries in the weekly news magazines were incomplete, they were, in a sense accurate. Knapp did have a strong reputation in lithography, and it was through that interest that he gained entry into publishing.
While Knapp enjoyed much financial and business success during his lifetime, it would be at the expense of numerous personal relationships, a cost Knapp apparently believed he could afford.
In 1886, Knapp married Sylvia Kepner. Their marriage ended in divorce in 1903, and Knapp married Elizabeth Laing Mcllwaine, but she died. Joseph was married for the third time to Margaret E. Rutledge. He had two children, Joseph and Claire Antoinette.