Nimble’s Publishing Heritage: William F. Zimmerman of A.C. McClurg & Co.

P.S. There are three incredible twists at the end. Read all the way through!

Although everyone calls me Fred, my full name is actually William Frederick Zimmerman, and I am at least the sixth William Zimmerman in a row. The first that we know of was born in Prussia in 1811 and emigrated to the United States in the 1850’s, where he started in Pennsylvania and settled in Chicago. According to the 1870 Census, he was a gardener who owned a house worth $2500, which sounds a bit out of proportion; perhaps he came to the States with some property.  His son, William Frederick Zimmerman, was born in Berlin in 1849 and wound up in Chicago with his father, where he joined the book and stationary house of Jansen, McClurg & Co.

A.C. McClurg & Co. traces its origins to Chicago’s oldest book and stationery store which was founded in 1844. The young Alexander C. McClurg went to work for the company, then known as S. C. Griggs, in 1859. McClurg resumed working for Griggs after returning from the Civil War with the rank of general. S.C. Griggs lost all its contents in a fire in 1868. But when the store was completely destroyed by the great Chicago Fire of 1871, Griggs decided to sell his share of the company to E. L. Jansen, A. C. McClurg and F. B. Smith. Jansen, McClurg & Co. was established in 1872. The business flourished and in 1873 published its first title, Landscape Architecture by H. W. S. Cleveland. By 1880 McClurg’s ranked as one of the country’s largest book distributors. In addition to its wholesale book business, McClurg supplied to small-town retailers throughout the West and Midwest a variety of merchandise, including “blank books and tablets, stationery, typewriter paper and supplies, hair and tooth brushes, druggists’ sundries, pocketbooks, pipes, pocket cutlery, etc.”

Although the book distribution component of the company was more successful than its publishing side, General McClurg felt secure enough to start publishing the monthly literary magazine the Dial in 1880 and continued to do so until 1892. It was during this period that George Millard created the rare book section that became known as the “Saints and Sinners Corner.” In 1886 the company changed its name to A.C. McClurg & Co.

By 1897 William Zimmerman was established as a leading light of the Publishers, Newsdealers and Stationers of Chicago, and spoke at their annual meeting that year.

His topic was “The Bookseller and His Duty to the Public.”

When the firm’s premises were destroyed by fire in 1899, General McClurg decided to reorganize as a corporation with shares sold to employees, including William F. Zimmerman.


Zimmerman was in charge of the wholesale stationery department.  Admittedly, not the most fascinating area of publishing.

McClurg died soon thereafter in 1901

[and William F. Zimmerman seized power by dint of being a hard worker and an exacting creditor.]
One notable title published in Zimmerman’s tenure was a memoir by Clarence Darrow called FARMINGTON after his home town.  My great-grandfather remembered seeing a thank-you letter to his father from Darrow.

According to the Chicago Tribune of January 18, 1903, McClurg sold a boatload of Bibles:


Zimmerman celebrated his 30th anniversary at McClurg in 1909:


He held the throne until 1911:

[In] 1914 the firm negotiated what turned out to be its most profitable publication, Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs. McClurg & Co. went on to publish 10 more Tarzan titles. Eventually Burroughs set up his own company to deal with all iterations of his famous character.

History of the editions of Tarzan of the Apes.

At the moment of McClurg’s greatest triumph, Zimmerman’s life was struck by tragedy.


William F. Zimmerman of Chicago Is Expected to Reach Des Moines This Morning

William F. Zimmerman, vice president of the A. C. McClurg & Co publishing firm and father of Herbert Zimmerman, the former Ames student who was killed by a train here Thursday night, is expected to arrivein Des Moines today to take charge of the body. The young man's identity was established yesterday by President Tt. A. Pearson of the state college. The body is being held in Dunn's undertaking rooms awaiting the father's arrival. Police department detectives are convinced there was no foul play in Zimmerman's death.

The death was banner news in the Chicago Tribune of April 11, 1914.

Sat, Apr 11, 1914 – 4 · Chicago Tribune (Chicago, Illinois) ·

Herbert’s older brother William was  my great-grandfather, who became Assistant Secretary of the Interior for FDR. I never met him, although I did meet Hilmar, who lived in the Chicago area, in my teens.  My son is Parker William Zimmerman.

Herbert’s death was so troubling that according to the Des Moines Register of April 16, 1914, the elder Zimmerman hired a private detective.

An inquest was held.

Later that fall, my great-great-grand father established a fund to honor his son at Iowa State University.

It was increased to $200 by 1917.

From the son of a gardener, a humble book clerk, to president of Chicago’s leading publisher, to a father crushed by grief: a remarkable life in letters.

P.P.S. — from Professor Jeffery Iles at Iowa State University’s Department of Horticulture:

I am pleased to report that the Zimmerman Memorial Award ($50) is still presented annually to a deserving student majoring in horticulture.  As of today, the cash balance in the account was $1,738.94, and at the rate of $50/year, we should be able to continue distributing this award for many years to come.  Since its inception, the Zimmerman Award has benefited just over 100 undergraduate students.  Quite an impressive track record!

Of course, additional contributions can be made to the fund to either (1) insure its viability well into the future, or (2) increase the amount given annually.

On behalf of the ISU Department of Horticulture, I want to thank you and the Zimmerman family for helping support so many of our deserving students.

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