Born: 8 July 1839
Richford, New York, U.S.A
Died: 23 May 1937
The Casements, Ormond Beach, Florida
Occupation: Chairman of Standard Oil Company; investor; philanthropist
John Davison Rockefeller, Sr. (July 8, 1839 – May 23, 1937) was
an American industrialist and philanthropist. who played a pivotal role
in the establishment of the oil industry, and defined the structure
of modern philanthropy. Rockefeller strongly believed that his purpose
in life was to make as much money as possible, and then use it wisely
to improve the lot of mankind. In 1870, Rockefeller founded the Standard
Oil company and ran it until he retired in the late 1890s. He kept his
stock and as gasoline grew in importance, his wealth soared and he became
the world's richest man and first billionaire.
His business career
was controversial. He was bitterly attacked by muckraking journalists;
Standard Oil was convicted in the Federal Court of monopolistic practices
and broken up in 1911. Rockefeller spent the last forty years of his
life creating the modern systematic approach of targeted philanthropy,
creating foundations that had a major impact on medicine, education,
and scientific research. His foundations pioneered the development of
medical research, and was instrumental in the eradication of hookworm
and yellow fever. He was a devout Northern Baptist and supported many
church-based institutions throughout his life.
the spotlight, Rockefeller was remembered for handing dimes to those
he encountered in public. Predeceased by his wife Laura Celestia ("Cettie")
Spelman, the Rockefellers had four daughters and one son (John D. Rockefeller,
Jr.). "Junior" was largely entrusted with supervision of the
John Rockefeller was born in Richford, New York to Eliza Davison Rockefeller
and William Avery Rockefeller, an itinerant medicine peddler and bigamist
who wandered in and out of his son's life. The son, by contrast, was
straight-laced, devoutly religious, and was known for his ability to
concentrate intensely on detail. John Davison Rockefeller attended country
schools and spent a year at Owego Academy before his family moved to
Ohio. He enjoyed playing poker and attended high school for two years
in Cleveland. In 1855, he started his business career when he obtained
a bookkeeping job after three months' training at a commercial college.
When he was only 18, he became a partner in a commission house.
Main article: Standard Oil
ca. 1875In the early 1870s, Cleveland had become established as one
of the five main refining centers in the U.S. (besides Pittsburgh, Philadelphia,
New York, and the region in northwestern Pennsylvania where most of
the oil originated), and Standard Oil had established itself as the
most profitable refiner in Cleveland. When it was found out that at
least part of Standard Oil's cost advantage came from secret rebates
from the railroads bringing oil into Cleveland, the competing refiners
insisted on getting similar rebates, and the railroads quickly complied.
By then, however, Standard Oil had grown to become one of the largest
shippers of oil and kerosene in the country.
The railroads were
competing fiercely for traffic and, in an attempt to create a cartel
to 'stabilize' freight rates, formed the South Improvement Company.
Rockefeller agreed to support this cartel if they gave him preferential
treatment as a high volume shipper which included not just steep rebates
for his product, but also rebates for the shipment of competing products.
Part of this scheme was the announcement of sharply increased freight
charges. This touched off a firestorm of protest, which eventually led
to the discovery of Standard Oil's part of the deal. A major New York
refiner, Charles Fratt and Company, headed by Charles Fratt and Henry
H. Rogers, led the opposition to this plan, and railroads soon backed
continued with his self-reinforcing cycle of buying competing refiners,
improving the efficiency of his operations, pressing for discounts on
oil shipments, undercutting his competition, and buying them out. In
six weeks in 1872, Standard Oil had absorbed 22 of its 26 Cleveland
competitors. Eventually, even his former antagonists, Pratt and Rogers
saw the futility of continuing to compete against Standard Oil, and
in 1874, they made a secret agreement with their old nemesis to be acquired.
Pratt and Rogers became Rockefeller's partners. Rogers, in particular,
became one of Rockefeller's key men in the formation of the Standard
Oil Trust. Pratt's son, Charles Millard Pratt (1858-1913) became Secretary
of Standard Oil.
Standard Oil Trust
Certificate 1896For many of his competitors, Rockefeller had merely
to show them his books so they could see what they were up against,
then make them a decent offer. If they refused his offer, he told them
he would run them into bankruptcy, then cheaply buy up their assets
at auction. Most capitulated.
Standard Oil gradually gained almost complete control of all oil production
in America. At that time, many legislatures had made it difficult to
incorporate in one state and operate in another. As a result, Rockefeller
and his partners owned separate companies across dozens of states, making
their management of the whole enterprise rather unwieldy. In 1882, Rockefeller's
lawyers created an innovative form of partnership to centralize their
holdings, giving birth to the Standard Oil Trust. The partnership's
size and wealth drew much attention. Despite improving the quality and
availability of kerosene products while greatly reducing their cost
to the public (the price of kerosene dropped by nearly 99% over the
life of the company), Standard Oil's business practices created intense
controversy. The firm was attacked by journalists and politicians throughout
its existence, in part for its monopolistic practices, giving momentum
to the anti-trust movement.
One of the most
effective attacks on Rockefeller and his firm was the 1904 publication
of The History of the Standard Oil Company, by Ida Tarbell. Tarbell
was a leading muckraker. Although her work prompted a huge backlash
against the company, Tarbell claims to have been surprised at its magnitude.
“I never had an animus against their size and wealth, never objected
to their corporate form. I was willing that they should combine and
grow as big and rich as they could, but only by legitimate means. But
they had never played fair, and that ruined their greatness for me.”
(Tarbell's father had been driven out of the oil business during the
South Improvement Company affair.)
JDR as industrial
emperor, 1901 cartoon from Puck magazineOhio was especially vigorous
in applying its state anti-trust laws, and finally forced a separation
of Standard Oil of Ohio from the rest of the company in 1892, leading
to the dissolution of the trust. Rockefeller continued to consolidate
his oil interests as best as he could until New Jersey, in 1899, changed
its incorporation laws to effectively allow a re-creation of the trust
in the form of a single holding company. At its peak, Standard Oil had
about 90% of the market for kerosene products.
By 1896, Rockefeller
shed all of his policy involvement in the affairs of Standard Oil; however
he retained his nominal title as president until 1911; he kept his stock.
In 1911, the Supreme
Court of the United States held that Standard Oil, which by then still
had a 64% market share, originated in illegal monopoly practices and
ordered it to be broken up into 34 new companies. These included, among
many others, Continental Oil, which became Conoco; Standard of Indiana,
which became Amoco; Standard of California, which became Chevron; Standard
of New Jersey, which became Esso (and later, Exxon); Standard of New
York, which became Mobil; and Standard of Ohio, which became Sohio.
Rockefeller, who had rarely sold shares, owned stock in all of them.
From his very first paycheck, Rockefeller tithed ten percent of his
earnings to his church. As his wealth grew, so did his giving, primarily
to educational and public health causes, but also for basic science
and the arts. He was advised primarily by Frederick T. Gates after 1891,
and, after 1897, also by his son.
in the Efficiency Movement, arguing that
"To help an
inefficient, ill-located, unnecessary school is a waste...it is highly
probable that enough money has been squandered on unwise educational
projects to have built up a national system of higher education adequate
to our needs, if the money had been properly directed to that end."
was attacked as "tainted money"; 1910 Puck cartoon shows him
purifying it through a foundation. He and his advisors invented the
conditional grant that required the recipient to "root the institution
in the affections of as many people as possible who, as contributors,
become personally concerned, and thereafter may be counted on to give
to the institution their watchful interest and coöperation."
In 1884, he provided
major funding for a college in Atlanta for black women, that became
Spelman College (named for Rockefeller's in-laws who were ardent abolitionists
before the Civil War). Rockefeller also gave considerable donations
to Denison University and other Baptist colleges.
$80 million to the University of Chicago under William Rainey Harper,
turning a small Baptist college into a world-class institution by 1900.
He later called it "the best investment I ever made." His
General Education Board, founded in 1902, was established to promote
education at all levels everywhere in the country. It was especially
active in supporting black schools in the South. Its most dramatic impact
came by funding the recommendations of the Flexner Report of 1910, which
had been funded by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching;
it revolutionized the study of medicine in the United States.
Despite his personal
preference for homeopathy, Rockefeller, on Gates's advice, became one
of the first great benefactors of medical science. In 1901, he founded
the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in New York. It changed
its name to Rockefeller University in 1965, after expanding its mission
to include graduate education. It claims a connection to 23 Nobel laureates.
He founded the Rockefeller Sanitary Commission in 1909, an organization
that eventually eradicated the hookworm disease that had long plagued
the American South. The Rockefeller Foundation was created in 1913 to
continue and expand the scope of the work of the Sanitary Commission,
which was closed in 1915. He gave nearly $250 million to the foundation,
which focused on public health, medical training, and the arts. It endowed
Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health, the first of its
kind. It built the Peking Union Medical College into a great institution;
it helped in World War I war relief, 1914-16; it employed William Lyon
Mackenzie King of Canada to study industrial relations. Rockefeller's
fourth main philanthropy, the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Foundation,
created in 1918, supported work in the social studies; it was later
absorbed in the Rockefeller Foundation. However, all told, Rockefeller
gave away about $550 million.
Oddly enough, Rockefeller
was probably best known in his later life for the practice of giving
a dime to children wherever he went. He even gave dimes as a playful
gesture to men like tire mogul Harvey Firestone and President Hoover.
During The Great Depression, Rockefeller switched to giving nickels
instead of dimes.
's painting by John Singer Sargent in 1917As a youth, Rockefeller allegedly
said that his two great ambitions were to make $100,000 and to live
100 years. He died on May 23, 1937, 26 months shy of his 100th birthday,
at the Casements, his home in Ormond Beach, Florida. He was buried in
Lake View Cemetery in Cleveland.
a long and controversial career in industry followed by a long career
in philanthropy. His image is an amalgam of all of these experiences
and the many ways he was viewed by his contemporaries. These contemporaries
include his former competitors, many of whom were driven to ruin, but
many others of whom sold out at a profit (or a profitable stake in Standard
Oil, as Rockefeller often offered his shares as payment for a business),
and quite a few of whom became very wealthy as managers as well as owners
in Standard Oil. They also include politicians and writers, some of
whom served Rockefeller's interests, and some of whom built their careers
by fighting Rockefeller and the "robber barons."
Nevins, answering Rockefeller's enemies, concluded:
“ The rise
of the Standard Oil men to great wealth was not from poverty. It was
not meteor-like, but accomplished over a quarter of a century by courageous
venturing in a field so risky that most large capitalists avoided it,
by arduous labors, and by more sagacious and farsighted planning than
had been applied to any other American industry. The oil fortunes of
1894 were not larger than steel fortunes, banking fortunes, and railroad
fortunes made in similar periods. But it is the assertion that the Standard
magnates gained their wealth by appropriating "the property of
others" that most challenges our attention. We have abundant evidence
that Rockefeller's consistent policy was to offer fair terms to competitors
and to buy them out, for cash, stock, or both, at fair appraisals; we
have the statement of one impartial historian that Rockefeller was decidedly
"more humane toward competitors" than Carnegie; we have the
conclusion of another that his wealth was "the least tainted of
all the great fortunes of his day."
Biographer Ron Chernow
wrote of Rockefeller:
“ What makes
him problematic—and why he continues to inspire ambivalent reactions—-is
that his good side was every bit as good as his bad side was bad. Seldom
has history produced such a contradictory figure." ”
these varied aspects of his public life, Rockefeller may ultimately
be remembered simply for the raw size of his wealth. In 1902, an audit
showed Rockefeller was worth about $200 million—compared to the
total national wealth that year of $101 billion. His wealth grew significantly
after as the demand for gasoline soared, eventually reaching about $900
million, including significant interests in banking, shipping, mining,
railroads, and other industries. By the time of his death in 1937, Rockefeller's
remaining fortune, largely tied up in permanent family trusts, was estimated
at $1.4 billion. Rockefeller's net worth over the last decades of his
life would easily place him among the very wealthiest persons in history.
As a percentage of the United States economy, no other American fortune—including
Bill Gates or Sam Walton—would even come close.
wealth, distributed as it was through a system of foundations and trusts,
continued to fund family philanthropic, commercial, and, eventually,
political aspirations throughout the 20th century. Grandson David Rockefeller
was a leading New York banker, serving for over 20 years as CEO of Chase
Manhattan (now the retail financial services arm of JP Morgan Chase).
Another grandson, Nelson A. Rockefeller, was Republican governor of
New York and the 41st Vice President of the United States. A third grandson,
Winthrop Rockefeller, served as Republican Governor of Arkansas. Great-grandson,
John D. "Jay" Rockefeller IV is currently a Democratic Senator
from West Virginia, and another, Winthrop Paul Rockefeller, served ten
years as Lieutenant Governor of Arkansas.
passed into popular culture as the embodiment of wealth. Oysters Rockefeller
was named for him because the dish was so 'rich'. The Rockefeller family
was a major benefactor in funding the reconstruction effort in France
after World War I. As a consequence, Rockefeller (along with the Rothschilds)
was considered in that country the canonical billionaire—synonymous
with extreme wealth. John D. Rockerduck is a Disney character popular
in Europe who is a foil to other well-known rich duck, the avaricious
John D. Rockefeller
The man behind the
Rockefeller family and its fortune, John Davison Rockefeller, was responsible
for the creation of one of the largest oil empires ever constructed.
Growing up, Rockefeller's ideas were shaped by a mother who was a strict
Baptist and a father who made his living as a traveling salesman peddling
snake oils and herbal remedies. His father's business sense included
the act of pretending to be deaf and dumb when trying for a sale. In
1953, the young Rockefeller moved with his family to Cleveland, Ohio,
where he graduated from Central High School. In 1855, to further his
education, Rockefeller partook in a three-month business course at Folsom
job was as an assistant bookkeeper with Hewitt & Tuttle. Four years
later, he formed a partnership with Maurice Clark. With $2,000 to invest,
the two began working in the commission business. By 1863, the partnership
had expanded to Andrews, Clark & Company and the young men were
embarking on their first oil refinery near Cleveland. Sometime during
this same period, Rockefeller worked as an accountant in a produce commission
house. The story goes that Rockefeller convinced his boss to invest
in oil in Pennsylvania and, by 1866, he owned the outfit himself.
With the oil business
booming, Rockefeller saw an opportunity to buy out his partners and
did so in 1865 with $72,000. The company was now known as Rockefeller
& Andrews, but not for long. By 1870, Rockefeller incorporated his
substantial holdings in Standard Oil Trust. He stayed above the competition
by price-cutting and acquiring secondary ventures associated with oil
refinery. In 1892, Rockefeller's trust was found to be illegal, so he
packed it in and moved the enterprise to New Jersey where laws allowed
a parent company to own their subsidiaries' stock. In 1911, New Jersey
dissolved the main business under anti-trust laws. Many felt Rockefeller
was operating an unfair monopoly so 34 separate companies were born
of this decision.
By this time, Rockefeller
had retired from active duty, but had retained the title of president.
Later in his life, Rockefeller made a deal that would change the face
of America forever: along with Firestone, Philips Petroleum Company,
Mack Truck and General Motors, he created the project National City
Lines to rid urban centers of streetcar systems. Electric systems were
losing anyway, so NCL stepped in to furbish cities with gas-powered,
rubber-wheeled buses. In 1940, a few years after Rockefeller?s death,
NCL was found in violation of anti-trust laws and fined a small $5,000.
A noted activist
and philanthropist, Rockefeller gave away over $540 million in his life.
He endowed Manhattan?s Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, which
later became the Rockefeller University. He also donated funds to Spelman
College in Atlanta, an institution then-dedicated to educating freed
female slaves and their daughters. The University of Chicago can also
thank Rockefeller for his initial donation of $80 million. In addition,
in 1902, Rockefeller founded the General Education Board, whose agenda
was to promote education to everyone - regardless of race, class, sex
or creed. (The Board is no longer in existence.)
(1911) New Jersey court dissolved trust under anti-trust laws
(1896) retired from
active duty but retained the title of president until 1911
(1892) trust was
dissolved by an Ohio court and the company reformed in New Jersey where
laws allowed a parent company to subsidiary stock
(1882) merged all
his holdings into Standard Oil Trust
(1881) had a near
monopoly of the petroleum industry in the U.S.
his holdings into Standard Oil Company with his brother William and
several other partners plowed competition by price-cutting and acquiring
secondary business ventures like pipelines and oil terminals
(1865) bought out
his partners with about $72,000 and renamed the outfit to Rockefeller
(1863) built his
first refinery and it was close to Cleveland, Ohio. Company was called
Andrews, Clark & Company
worked as an accountant
in a produce commission house
his employer to buy into oil in Pennsylvania
owned the whole
outfit by the time he was 27
(1860) became trustee
of the Erie Street Baptist Church in Cleveland
(1859) with a $1000of
his own and an equal amount borrowd from his father, Rockefeller formed
a partnership with Maurice Clark in the commission business
a job as assistant bookkeeper with Hewitt & Tuttle
(1902) created the
General Education Board (GEB) to promote education in the U.S. with
no restrictions on race, class, sex or creed (dissolved in 1965)
(1909) founded the
Rockefeller Sanitary Commission for the Eradication of Hookworm Disease