The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber


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Murphy, Thomas Dowler
(July 10, 1866–September 15, 1928)

–art publisher and author—was the eldest of four surviving children of Hugh Montgomery Murphy and Caroline (Dowler) Murphy. Born on the family homestead in Jasper County, Iowa, he grew up there and attended local schools. Following his graduation from Simpson College in 1888, a college friend, Edmund Osborne, urged him to join him in publishing a newspaper in Red Oak. Hugh Murphy agreed to back his son for the initial payment toward a half interest in the Red Oak Independent.

    The town of 3,000 had enough newspapers, and the Independent was not particularly welcome. There was a mortgage, a long list of delinquent accounts, and a decrepit subscription list. The pair, aged 22 and 23, worked hard to increase subscriptions and collect long-due accounts. They were still short of operating capital, however. In 1889 a new courthouse was to be built in Red Oak. The pair wanted a woodcut of the new building for the Independent, but could scarcely afford it. Murphy gave Osborne credit for the idea of using the woodcut as a centerpiece on a wall calendar, surrounding it with advertising cards.

    The venture met with success, and the young men pursued the concept. They encountered a lot of difficulties with a rheumatic job press. They were, however, in the calendar business. In 1891 they incorporated as the Osborne and Murphy Co., and business expanded.

    In 1894 Murphy married Ina Culbertson, a fellow Simpson graduate and accomplished pianist. They became parents of one son, Thomas Culbertson.

    By 1895 the partners' different philosophies led to a parting of the ways. Murphy sold his interest in the company to Osborne, agreeing to stay out of the calendar business for five years, and devoting himself to the Independent.

    In 1900 Murphy returned to the calendar business under his own name. He and his brother-in-law William Cochrane soon had new quarters and a sales force.

    In 1903 a disastrous fire swept through downtown Red Oak. With business doubling every year, the company undertook an ambitious new building project away from downtown. The three-story, 50,000-square-foot building, set among lawns and flower gardens, might have been part of a college campus.

    The business continued to expand, with Cochrane as an able sales manager. The Thos. D. Murphy Co. met with outstanding success and became one of the nation's largest manufacturers of art calendars. The calendars were sold to businesses that distributed them to customers, providing frameable art works. The widely varied subjects often reflected the decade in which they were produced. Elbert Hubbard wrote with characteristic enthusiasm, "Not a house, a home, a hotel, a store, a factory, a banking house or an office in all America but has a Red Oak calendar."

    A branch office was opened in London, and by 1910 sales had expanded to Holland, Belgium, and France. Murphy traveled extensively across the country and to Europe, buying paintings and gathering material for his travel books, which included British Highways and Byways (1908), In Unfamiliar England (1910), Seven Wonderlands of the American West (1912), On Old World Highways (1914), On Sunset Highways (1915), Oregon the Picturesque (1917), and New England Highways and Byways (1924). The books were well received. Trips by automobile were an adventure before the advent of windshield wipers, heaters, radios, and pneumatic tires. Many people preferred to read about it. The books were published by Page in Boston, but the handsome full-color illustrations were printed by the Murphy Co., with cover designs by staff artists.

    Murphy took pride in using works by outstanding artists on his calendars. He commissioned many paintings, and acquired reproduction rights to others. Thomas Moran's work was among the first to be reproduced and distributed in this way. Calendars were produced to high technical specifications, and the company took pride in its artists and its collection of original works. Between 1910 and 1926 the company bought nearly 60 Moran copyrights, and Murphy illustrated his books on the American West with Moran's work.

    Locally, Murphy retained ownership of the Red Oak Express, successor to the Independent, and was a constant supporter of civic projects. He died at his home in Red Oak at age 62. His wife died two years later. Bequests left by the couple led to the establishment of Murphy Memorial Hospital.

    The Murphy Co. continued in Red Oak through most of the 20th century. In 1985 it was sold to Jordan Industries, which continued limited operations until 2002.
Sources include The People's Art (1991); Elbert Hubbard, A Little Journey to the Thos. D. Murphy Co. (1912); and Thos. D. Murphy, The Art Calendar Industry (1922).
Contributor: Helen Murphy