Cyrus Curtis was born in Portland, Maine and entered the publishing business there with a weekly newspaper. His first publishing facility was consumed by fire and he chose to relocate rather than to rebuild in Maine. After opening a business in Boston that operated until it also was destroyed by fire, he moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1876.
He founded the Curtis Publishing Company in 1891. It published the Ladies' Home Journal and the Saturday Evening Post, as well as several other magazines and Curtis expanded to include the publication of national newspapers from Philadelphia as well.
For a time, his newspaper company, Curtis-Martin Newspapers, Inc., owned three of the major newspapers in the United States, the Public Ledger, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the New York Evening Post. Problems with managers at the newspapers led to poor financial returns from the publications, and eventually, the newspapers were sold.
He built a Renaissance Revival style estate in Wyncote, Pennsylvania and the landscaping was designed by Frederick Law Olmstead. Although the main residence and most buildings have been demolished, after his death the Curtis Hall Arboretum was created from the remaining ballroom and gardens by his daughter. The arboretum is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Cyrus Curtis also was known for his philanthropy to hospitals, museums, universities, and schools. He obtained a pipe organ manufactured by the Austin Organ Company, which had been displayed at the Philadelphia Sesquicentennial Exposition of 1926 and donated it to the University of Pennsylvania. It was built into Irvine Auditorium when the building was constructed, and is known to this day as the Curtis Organ. It is one of the largest pipe organs in the world. Curtis donated pipe organs to many institutions in Philadelphia and the biography retained in the library of his burial location notes that on the day of his funeral, all of those organs were played to honor him.
His first wife was Louisa Knapp. In 1883 she contributed a one-page supplement to the Tribune and Farmer, a magazine that was published by Curtis. The supplement became an independent publication the following year, with Louisa as the editor of this new magazine. Its original name was The Ladies Home Journal and Practical Housekeeper, but she dropped the last three words in 1886, and it became the Ladies Home Journal. It rapidly became the leading one of its type, reaching a circulation of more than one million copies within ten years. Louisa Knapp remained as its editor until she was succeeded by Edward William Bok in 1889. Bok became the son-in-law of Louisa and Cyrus Curtis several years later when he married their daughter, Mary Louise, in 1896. Bok retired from the magazine in 1919, but he made important changes to the magazine that made it even more popular.
In the summer of 1932, Curtis suffered a heart attack while aboard his yacht, the Lyndonia. While he was recuperating at Jefferson Hospital in Philadelphia, his second wife, Kate Stanwood Cutter Pillsbury, died suddenly. He remained in frail health until he died on June 7, 1933, less than two weeks before his eighty-third birthday, and he was interred in West Laurel Hill Cemetery at Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania.
After the death of her father, Mary Louise Curtis Bok founded the Curtis Hall Arboretum, created from portions of the Curtis estate. In the former headquarters of the Curtis Publishing Company, she founded a commercial center, the Curtis Center, which now houses a conference center, offices, a health club, shops, and restaurants. Bok, her husband for more than thirty years, had died in 1930 and, in 1943, she married the director of the Curtis Institute of Music that she had founded, the renown violinist, Efrem Zimbalist.