People & Events
Henry Alvah Strong was the opposite of George Eastman in just about every way possible. Where Eastman was taciturn, Strong was gregarious. Where Eastman was tough-minded, Strong was a soft touch. Together, they made a formidable business partnership.
The son of a newspaper publisher, Henry Strong started as what today might be called a "problem child." Quitting school at the age of 16, he made his way to New York City and tried his hand at banking briefly before going to sea "as a common sailor before the mast." Discovering that life aboard ship involved little more than drunken skippers and scrapes with death, he jumped ship in France, without a dime in his pocket or a word of French in his head, and got by on his charm. He surfaced next in St. Louis, where he went into an unspecified business with a cousin in 1859. The plan failed almost immediately, leaving him free to climb Pike's Peak in the middle of winter with a team of oxen. During the Civil War, he served as a paymaster in the Navy (which was conveniently far from any action), then settled down to a marriage and a principal position in his family's buggy-whip company, having earned the title of "colonel" in a mysterious fashion along the way.
This errant pilgrim entered Eastman's life in 1870, when Maria Eastman, trying to make ends meet after her husband's death, took the Strong family in as boarders. As the decade progressed, George Eastman took an increasing interest in photography, and by 1880 had gone into the dry-plate business for himself. For all his drive, Eastman was still on his first shaky legs as an entrepreneur and needed capital to give his company a fighting chance. This capital arrived in the nick of time, on December 23, 1880, when Henry Strong put up $1000 and became the president of the Eastman Dry Plate Company, effective the first day of 1881.
Strong took to his position like a natural. By August of 1881, he had invested an additional $5,000, allowing Eastman to move his operation to larger quarters. Later, when money was no longer an object, he proved even more valuable as the public face of Eastman's business. Strong knew everyone and everyone knew him. If he and Eastman chanced on an acquaintance on the street, Eastman would hem and haw and squint off into the distance while Strong plunged into a round of bearhugs and backslaps.
Their contrasting personalities made for a decided advantage in business dealings: in public Strong would charm clients to distraction, and in private Eastman would bargain them into the ground. But the two men managed to form a genuine friendship as well -- one of the few Eastman could honestly claim. When Strong embarked on a foolhardy scheme in the dry dock business in the 1880s, Eastman, normally intolerant of sloppy business practices, was the very picture of patience as he talked Strong into cutting his losses. And, perhaps because they had met under casual circumstances, Strong was one man who felt free to tease Eastman, calling him by various nicknames, taking him playfully to task for remaining single, even cautioning his partner to treat his new employees less harshly.
By 1901 Strong had grown weary of his presidential tasks and tendered his retirement, staying on only as vice president of the holding company and president of the manufacturing company in Rochester--both honorary titles. When his wife died in 1904, the 67-year-old bon vivant married a woman half his age. He spent many of the remaining days until his death in 1919 on the golf course, with such eminent partners as John D. Rockefeller.
Strong himself probably summed his personality best when, after his dry-dock fiasco, he wrote to Eastman with the admission: "You may be able to blow some sense into me yet. I have no taste for battles. I indulge only in cigars." Fortunately for Eastman, he indulged in the photography business as well.
written by David Lindsay