James Augustus Webb
Morris Co. Up


Biographical and Genealogical History of Morris County New Jersey. Illustrated. Vol. II., Lewis Publishing Company, New York and Chicago, 1899, pp1-6.

[1] The history of the United States is best told in the story of the lives of its individual citizens. The aggregate of such lives is the national life exemplified under free institutions. An individual is best studied in the environment of his residence, where the observations and opinions of neighbors receive and retain his conduct for good or evil as a sensitized plate does the image cast upon it. Judged by such a test, the life of the subject of this sketch is readily written, and worthy of permanent record and careful storing as an aggressive force for good, socially, morally and civilly.

A common test of success is the acquisition of wealth. The true test, however, of its power for good or evil lies in its distribution. Money is power, and the individual who has gathered wealth and applied his acquisitions to the elevating of mankind is a public benefactor. Such a man is James Augustus Webb, a prominent resident of New Jersey, and a leader in the business life of the American metropolis for many years. He belongs properly upon that roll of honored American citizens whose efforts contribute to the general prosperity of the community.

Mr. Webb was born in Chenango county, New York, in the town of Norwich, February 3, 1830, a son of Augustus Van Horn and Phoebe (Baker) Webb, of New York city. Orange Webb, the father of Augustus Van Horn Webb, was a prominent merchant and ship-owner in New York, and resided at No. 19 Maiden Lane, opposite Little Green street, now known as Liberty street. He was an elder in the old brick church at the corner of Nassau and Beekman streets, Rev. Gardiner Spring, D. D., being its pastor. Orange Webb had two sons, Augustus Van Horn and David; and his daughters were Catherine C., who became the wife of Rensselaer Havens, of New York city; Fannie, wife of Rev. Alexander G. Fraser, who [2] formerly lived in New York, but, being the heir to the Lovett estate in Scotland, removed to that country in or about 1830; and Sarah A., wife of James H. Leverich, whose business interests connected him with both New York and New Orleans, he being a very prominent man in the commercial circles of the latter city.

Augustus Van Horn Webb was reared in New York city, and in early life engaged in the dry-goods business. He removed to Norwich, Chenango county, New York, in 1830, and engaged in the manufacture of woolen goods. From his father he inherited considerable inventive genius, and during his residence in Norwich he invented a fluid and lamp for lighting purposes, a substitute for candles and whale-oil, then in general use for illuminating. In 1836 he resumed his residence in New York city, and about that time he invented "Camphene," and a lamp known thereafter throughout the world as "Webb's burner." He established many branches or agencies of his main business house in various cities of the United States, his main establishment being at 418 Broadway, northeast corner of that and Canal streets. For several years his enterprises were attended with success, but afterward he met with financial reverses, causing the loss of much of his accumulated wealth. He retired from active business ripe in years, and died, honored and beloved y all who knew him.

In writing the personal history of James A. Webb we record the career of one who has attained success in business along the tried lines of honorable effort, indefatigable energy and perseverance. Educated at the academy of Barry & Lockword, at 411 Broadway, he began his business career with his father, where he remained but a few months. In August, 1843, he entered the establishment of Messrs. Doremus, Suydam & Nixon, wholesale dry-goods merchants, located at the corner of Nassau and Liberty streets, opposite the old South Dutch church. There he continued faithful to the interests of his employers until August, 1848, when he entered the employ of Arnold, Southworth & Company, wholesale jobbers and importers of fancy goods. He was the accountant for this firm for some five years, when, in March, 1853, notwithstanding that his prospects for admission as a partner were most flattering, he gave up his position in order to embark in business on his own account. His father, though in failing health, rendered valuable assistance to the young man in his new undertaking, which consisted in the refining of camphene and alcohol and the manufacture of burning fluid, the elder man [3] having invented some important improvements in the production of the articles of commerce mentioned. Our subject built and operated refineries in Newark, New Jersey, and in New York city, and in 1855 he occupied a store at No. 165 Pearl street, in the last named city. He is still located there and is pursuing the same business as in former years, with his accustomed energy and success. Considering the changes necessary upon the conduct of business in the metropolis, the instances are rare where a firm has continued in one location in the same line of business, successively and successfully, for forty-four years.

As Mr. Webb in his early business years proved faithful and loyal to his business superiors, so, in his later life, he has always entertained a proper regard for his own employes, recognizing their manhood and ability, and providing for them when, by reason of impaired health or advancing years, they are incapacitated for further active service. It is quite true to state that a clerk has never left his employ, to receive better treatment or higher compensation, and it has often occurred that, when an employe of his has found opportunity to enter business upon his own account, he has found in Mr. Webb a wise counselor, and received at his hands substantial assistance. With Mr. Webb business has never been a trade, but rather a profession, in which the test was not time service, but a hearty and wholesome loyalty to entrusted interests, which served to develop all that was best in the individual, and tended to develop all that is best in manhood.

Mr. Webb continued his residence in New York city until 1852, when he removed to Madison, where he has been well known for many years. He was married there to Margaretta Baker, a daughter of Jacob and Anna Maria (Brittin) Baker. Mrs. Webb is a native of Westfield, New Jersey. The two children of Mr. and Mrs. Webb are Ella Cebra and James Augustus. The daughter was educated at Vassar College and is now the wife of Edward Packard Holden, of Madison, who for twenty-four years has been connected with the Mutual Life Insurance Company, of New York city. They have three daughters and one son, namely: Margaretta Webb, Eleanor Sanford, Edward Packard and Elizabeth Cebra. The son, James Augustus, Jr., was born in New York city, July 11, 1859, and graduated in Princeton College with high honors, a member of the class of 1881. He was very popular in college and there associated with many who have attained brilliant positions in professional and business life. While pursuing his education James Augustus [4] passed the months of his vacation in his father's office, gaining a practical knowledge of business methods, and upon completing his collegiate course he entered the establishment as corresponding clerk. In 1884 he was admitted to a partnership in the business, under the firm name of James A. Webb & Son, displaying an energy, enterprise and discretion in its management that rapidly won him recognition and commendation among leading business men generally. He was a young man of broad, humanitarian principles and sympathy and was active in church and benevolent work. The poor found in him a friend, bestowing his gifts in such a manner as not to destroy the self-respect of the one who received assistance. His kindly tact and sympathy were as marked as his beneficence, and many have reason to remember him with gratitude for his timely aid. He was a lover of music and found one of his chief sources of pleasure through that art.

In December, 1885, James Augustus Webb, Jr., married Miss Nellie Sanford Packard, a daughter of Davis S. and Eleanor Packard. It was on the 6th of April, 1887, that the useful and noble career of this worthy young man was ended by death. His loss in every honorable walk of life in business, in social circles, in the home and in Christian work has been most keenly felt.

"His life was noble and the elements
So mixed in him that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world, 'This was a man.'"

His father, in commemoration of his upright career and devotion to all that is truest and best, erected in Madison a beautiful memorial known as the Webb Memorial Chapel, a fitting monument to one whose every act was prompted by a lofty purpose.


Postcard of Webb's Memorial Chapel, Madison, NJ

James A. Webb, Sr., also is active in the work that develops the character and lifts man from the sordid things of life to "a purer and broader view." He was one of the organizers of the Young Men's Christian Association of Madison, and was its second president. He continues in his efforts to promote its interests. A life-long member of the Presbyterian church, he has been treasurer of his home church and was superintendent of the Sunday-school for more than thirty years, and has ever labored earnestly for the advancement of Christianity among men. His belief, too, is evidenced in those practical efforts wherein assistance is rendered in tangible form gifts to those who fail to secure success and the advancement of various interests [5] that contribute to the material welfare, the aesthetic culture and the happiness of the individual. In this way he has been instrumental in promoting the interests of Madison.

The commercial activity of any city contributes to the welfare of all its citizens, and realizing this truth Mr. Webb has been an active factor in promoting a number of her enterprises. He is a director and vice-president of the First National Bank of Madison; was one of the organizers and directors of the Morristown Trust Company; a director of the Safe Deposit Company of Morristown, a member of the Washington Association of Morris county, and is interested in several banking and trust institutions in the city of New York, and is a director and officer in several large manufacturing concerns in that city.

In his political affiliations Mr. Webb has been a stalwart Republican since the organization of that party, and has been a conspicuous figure in local and state politics. Though frequently urged to become a candidate for office, both state and national, he has steadily refused, and will accept no [6] political office, having served only in positions in Madison when he felt that his duties of citizenship demanded his services. He was a Harrison elector in 1892, and has served as commissioner of appeals of Madison and Chatham townships for more than a quarter of a century. Mr. Webb was closely identified with the formation of Madison borough, resulting in the establishing of first-class water works and the installing of an electric-light plant of the very best order. Through his personal efforts and guaranty, the benefits of a metallic-circuit telephone exchange are now enjoyed by the citizens of Madison. In short, whenever co-operative effort will inure to the benefit of his fellows, Mr. Webb is always at the front. He is the owner of a large amount of town property. His own home is located on High and Prospect streets, Madison, in the midst of ample grounds, standing on an eminence which commands a splendid view of the surrounding country.

Mr. Webb's prominence in the business world has made him well known by reputation throughout the country. He is a familiar figure in Washington and in New York, and, among his friends are some of the most distinguished statesmen of the capital city, the most celebrated representatives of the Congress and the most prominent business men of the country, and he is accorded that honor and respect everywhere given to true worth. The world instinctively pays deference to the man whose success has been worthily achieved, who has attained wealth by honorable business methods, acquired by merit the highest reputation in his chosen calling, and whose social prominence is not the less the result of an irreproachable life than of recognized natural gifts.

Transcribed by Brianne Kelly-Bly


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