Birth of Jack London

U.S. #2182 – London wrote 51 books during his life, though several weren’t released until after his death.

Acclaimed writer Jack London was born on January 12, 1876, in San Francisco, California.

Born John Griffith Chaney, the future author adopted the name “Jack” at an early age.  And he took the surname London from his step-father John London, a Civil War veteran.

The young London credited his rise to literary success to his reading of the Victorian novel Signa in 1885.  He spent many of his childhood hours in the Oakland Public Library with librarian and future poet laureate, Ina Coolbrith.

U.S. #2197a – London was also an animal activist, writing about the conditions of circus animals.
U.S. #2197a – London was also an animal activist, writing about the conditions of circus animals.

To help support his struggling family, London began working in a cannery in 1889.  Desperate for a more exciting life, he borrowed money to buy a ship and became an oyster pirate.  When that ship became damaged beyond repair, he took a job with the California Fish Patrol.  London then joined a sealing schooner off the coast of Japan.  During that voyage, his ship was caught in a typhoon that nearly killed everyone on board.

When he returned home,  London took a job in a jute mill earning 10¢ an hour.  One day he told his mother the dramatic story of the typhoon, and she convinced him to enter it in a local writing contest.  With just an eighth-grade education, London won the $25 first prize, beating college students.  London believed he had found his calling.

But making a living as a writer wasn’t as easy as London had hoped.  Unable to find a publisher, he briefly attended the University of California at Berkeley.  In 1897, London then travelled north, hoping to strike it rich in the Klondike Gold Rush.  Though he didn’t find the riches he had hoped for, he had a wealth of stories to tell from his own experiences and from people he met there.

U.S. #3235 – London wrote several stories based on his experiences in the Klondike Gold Rush, most famously, The Call of the Wild.

Returning to California in 1898, London recommitted himself to getting published.  The Overland Monthly paid him $5 to publish his first story in years – “To the Man on Trail.”  He was disappointed, but continued writing.  London was relieved when The Black Cat bought his story, “A Thousand Deaths” for $40.  In the coming years, new printing technology led to a boom in magazines for a wide variety of interests.  And London benefited, selling story after story.  One of London’s most famous works, The Call of the Wild, was first published in The Saturday Evening Post in 1903.  It was then released as a short novel, earning London significant fame.

In 1904, London took a job with the San Francisco Examiner covering the Russo-Japanese War.  Over the course of six months there, he was arrested four times and eventually returned to America.

Item #55713 – Jack London First Day Proof Card.

Hoping to find more financial success, London bought a ranch in Glen Ellen, California, in 1905 and  frequently added to it.  He once claimed that “Next to my wife, the ranch is the dearest thing in the world to me.” Soon, his writing became a means to expand his beloved ranch.  However, the ranch was never economically successful for London.

London also used the earnings from his writing to buy a yacht, which he and his second wife used to visit Hawaii and Australia.  During their 1907 visit to Hawaii, London witnessed surfing for the first time.  He tried it himself and then wrote a long essay about it, titled, “A Royal Sport.”  It was published in Women’s Home Companion that October, and is often credited with giving surfing national attention in America.

London’s adventurous life and alcoholism took a toll on his health, leading to his death at just 40 years old on November 22, 1916.

Click here to read some of London’s stories.

Click the images to add this history to your collection.

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  1. My favorite short story of Jack London is, “To Build a Fire”. I have also learned some life lessons from his other fictional writings. To me he was a great author. Definitely he deserved to be honored on our stamps.

  2. one of my favorite subjects–Jack London. I used to collect my unemployment on the site of his birth near 3rd and Brannan Streets in San Francisco. His books were my adventure and my imagination benefited from his colorful writing. This was a very fine summation of his life.

  3. No reference to London’s well-known politics or to his disappointing views on race? Not even a tiny little hint? I appreciate that you want to avoid anything that is controversial, but these characteristics are central to knowing who Jack London was.

    Notwithstanding, thanks for the overview of London’s travels and publications.

  4. Another great article about our (US) history. A gifted writer and journalist he was. A lot of unknown problems (Alcoholic) that couldn’t settle down to a much slower paced life-style. That cost him his life.

  5. I had dinner at an Oakland restaurant on the water back in the mid 1980’s. I recall it was either once owned or frequented by Jack London. Don’t recall the name of the restaurant.

  6. Loved “Call of the Wild” and his dog stories. He really lived an incredible
    life and his stories will remain priceless in our memories. Thanks for your
    wonderful article on him.

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