40 facts about John D. Rockefeller, the richest American of all time

40 facts about John D. Rockefeller, the richest American of all time

Larry Holzwarth - July 5, 2019

John D. Rockefeller, whose name remains synonymous with money, was the wealthiest American in history, and one of the richest men of all time. Adjusted for inflation, his fortune at the time of his death in 1937 was about $409 billion, roughly 2% of the total economy of the United States. That doesn’t take into account the vast fortunes he gave away, which included founding the University of Chicago and establishing the Rockefeller Foundation. A deeply religious man throughout his life, a trait he inherited from his mother, he was the son of a grifter who eventually built the Standard Oil Company into one of the most powerful businesses in history. Here is just part of his story, in forty facts.

40 facts about John D. Rockefeller, the richest American of all time
John D. Rockefeller circa 1910, when he was still the power behind Standard Oil. Wikimedia

1. His father was a con man and a philanderer of note

John Rockefeller was born in Richford, New York, the son of a man known throughout the community and its environs as a con whom they called “Devil Bill”. Bill was an infrequent presence in the family home, preferring life on the road, which he claimed was an essential part of his job as a lumber salesman, later a marketer of patent medicines. He had other children out of wedlock in addition to those with his wife Eliza. John was the second of six children which were raised in the family home. Bill was known to cheat his sons out of the money they made through chores and odd jobs, claiming that he did so as part of their education in business matters.

40 facts about John D. Rockefeller, the richest American of all time
Rockefeller remained deeply religious throughout his long life, following the influence of his mother. Wikimedia

2. John’s mother was a devout Baptist who held the family together

Bill’s less than savory business practices and the belief that there were better opportunities on the other side of the hill led the family to move several times in John’s youth, eventually settling in Strongsville, Ohio. John was educated at a Cleveland high school followed by a ten week business class where he learned the rudiments of bookkeeping, giving him an opportunity for gainful employment. Though he shaped his studies towards business, he had a passion for music, which he considered as a career at one stage. He also gained the reputation as a formidable foe in debate, with a gift for expressing his opinions and beliefs with clarity and exactness. From his mother he inherited a religious fervor (Baptist) which remained part of his character for the remainder of his life.

40 facts about John D. Rockefeller, the richest American of all time
Rockefeller was already a highly successful businessman in 1872, around the time he entered the oil business full time. Wikimedia

3. John Rockefeller’s first job was as a bookkeeper for a produce company

Although John had held odd jobs as a boy, such as selling turkeys and vegetables to townsfolk, his first full time employment was as a bookkeeper for a company brokering produce. John rapidly developed a skill which would serve him well throughout his career – the ability to reduce the cost of shipping products to markets, enhancing profits. He learned to negotiate shipping costs previously believed to be fixed by ship owners and freight managers, and through the use of rebates with preferred shippers he developed long term business relationships which remained relatively free of the influence of changing market conditions. He worked as an apprentice, for a period of three years, the last of which saw him compensated at the rate of $58 per month.

40 facts about John D. Rockefeller, the richest American of all time
Rockefeller avoided the draft during the Civil War by hiring substitutes, and profited from the sale of foodstuffs to the Union Army. Wikimedia

4. In 1859 Rockefeller entered into his first business partnership

After three years as an apprentice Rockefeller and business partner Maurice Clark started their own produce selling business, buying and selling from farmers on a commission basis. Rockefeller lacked sufficient cash to buy half the business, needing $2,000 for the deal and having been able to save only $800 during his apprenticeship. The rest came in the form of a loan from his father, at a rate of interest of 10%. The start of the business was timely, when the Civil War erupted in 1861 Rockefeller and Clark joined in the rush of contractors sending their products to the Union Army. Rockefeller was drafted to serve in the Army, a problem he resolved through hiring substitutes to serve in his stead, and as the war drew towards a close began to consider investing his sizable profits in the business of refining crude oil for kerosene, the main means of lighting at the time.

40 facts about John D. Rockefeller, the richest American of all time
Whales celebrate the news of oil wells being discovered in Pennsylvania, reducing the demand for whale oil as a light source. Wikimedia

5. Rockefeller entered the oil business at the precisely right time

During the 1860s, government subsidies drove the price of oil to over $13 per barrel, up from 35 cents when the war began. The price the government paid for oil led to the first wave of wildcatters drilling oil wells, and by the end of the war oil glutted the markets. Prior to the Civil War most kerosene was extracted from coal (coal oil) and it was soon evident that crude oil could be a cheaper source of kerosene. At the same time, establishment of a refinery was relatively inexpensive, as were the costs of operating one. Rockefeller observed that the most expensive cost of refining crude oil was shipping it to the refinery, and then shipping the finished kerosene to market. Shipping was an area in which he was already expert at managing costs.

40 facts about John D. Rockefeller, the richest American of all time
What eventually became the international behemoth Standard Oil began in an area of Cleveland known as “the Flats”. Wikimedia

6. Rockefeller and Clark exited the produce business in 1863

While the Civil War was at its height, and profitability from shipping food to the armies was peaking, Rockefeller and Clark left the produce business and built an oil refinery in an area of Cleveland known as “The Flats”. With them were additional partners, including two of Clark’s brothers and a chemist, Samuel Andrews. The refinery was wholly owned by the partnership. With the help of the chemist the partners learned how to keep the gasoline which was a byproduct of the refining process (and which most refiners simply burned off) and use it to provide operating power for the plant. The remaining leftovers, again discarded for the most part by competitors, were manufactured into other petroleum products such as paraffin and lubricating oils.

40 facts about John D. Rockefeller, the richest American of all time
Rockefeller’s innate thriftiness helped grow his company into one of Cleveland’s leading industries quickly. Wikimedia

7. Rockefeller exhibited the thrift he learned from his mother

During his childhood, when his usually absent father left behind hungry children his mother was forced to feed, Rockefeller learned the value of thrift. Nothing was wasted in the house in which he grew up, even table scraps were recycled as fertilizer in the family gardens. Rockefeller applied the same principle to the refining business, with all potential products from crude oil prepared and sold. Tar from sludge was sold to paving and roofing suppliers. When Rockefeller saw the price of wooden barrels go up, he cut off his suppliers, purchased raw lumber, and hired coopers to build his own, reducing costs from more than two dollars per barrel to less than one. Rather than hiring third party pipefitters and plumbers, Rockefeller included them in his own labor force, paying them an hourly wage rather than a set fee for a particular job.

40 facts about John D. Rockefeller, the richest American of all time
Samuel Andrews, chemist and partner to Rockefeller, built this Cleveland home just after the Civil War. Wikimedia

8. Before the Civil War ended Rockefeller owned the company himself

In February 1865 Rockefeller, certain that the market for whale oil for lighting would never recover after the war ended, bought out his partners (though he retained chemist Andrews). Abraham Lincoln had been a proponent of the Transcontinental Railroad, and Rockefeller was certain that the cross-country line, as well as the railroads of the South, would be built following the war. A boom in oil based products was forthcoming, and John D. positioned himself, through stock manipulation, borrowing money at low rates of interest and maximizing his profits, to be a leader in the oil based economy which was certain to follow the war. Coal was still the primary source of fuel to create steam, which was the engine that drove the economy. Rockefeller foresaw coal being supplanted by oil, and he was determined to be ready.

40 facts about John D. Rockefeller, the richest American of all time
Henry Flagler, partner of Rockefeller and a co-founder of Standard Oil. Wikimedia

9. Rockefeller entered into additional partnerships in the 1860s

Immediately following the Civil War Rockefeller joined with his brother William in a partnership which built a second refinery in Cleveland. In 1867 Henry Flagler joined the partnership and the refineries operated as the Rockefeller, Andrews, and Flagler Company. By 1868 the two Cleveland refineries and a subsidiary in New York made the partnership the world’s largest oil refining business. The company was noted for its profits per barrel, which consistently outpaced those of its competitors, despite its main consumer product – kerosene for lighting – being sold for less than average on the market. Rockefeller’s thrift ensured that the refineries operated at a substantial profit, with little waste product discarded as a result of the refining process.

40 facts about John D. Rockefeller, the richest American of all time
The Pennsylvania oil fields became the leading source of crude oil in the United States during the latter half of the 19th century. Wikimedia

10. Leaning towards Standard Oil following the Civil War

The Rockefeller refineries made Cleveland, Ohio, one of the critical oil refining centers in the United States, joining Pittsburgh, New York City, and the oil fields of western Pennsylvania. The success of the refineries created a glut of kerosene on the market, far more than was necessary annually to meet demand, driving the price down. By 1870 there was more than three times the needed kerosene available on the market, an excess which showed no inclination to shrink in the foreseeable future. Rockefeller responded to the market conditions by dissolving the partnership, forming a new corporation which he named Standard Oil. His former partners remained with the company, but there was no doubt that the business was in the hands of John D. Rockefeller.

40 facts about John D. Rockefeller, the richest American of all time
Rockefeller moved to control all of the infrastructure needed to convert crude to products and move them to the consumer. Wikimedia

11. Building a transportation network was a goal for the first oil baron

The former bookkeeper who had maximized profits through the expedient of striking better deals with shippers soon returned to the practice as Standard Oil grew. Already the most profitable of the many oil refiners in Ohio, all of which took advantage of transportation available on the rivers and Lake Erie, Rockefeller was determined to become the largest in the country. The railroads competed with each other for the lucrative oil traffic, and Rockefeller determined to find the means to control shipping rates. Rockefeller formed the South Improvement Company in 1871, which was a cartel of railroads and oil refiners which offered better shipping rates to its members, allowing them to charge less to customers. Three main railroads, the Pennsylvania, the Erie, and the New York Central were involved in the effort, which also served to reduce refining production among the smaller companies, who were excluded by the cartel from moving their products to market.

40 facts about John D. Rockefeller, the richest American of all time
Following the South Improvement Company and Rockefeller’s attempt to stymie competition he began to draw criticism in the press and the scrutiny of state governments. Wikimedia

12. The government steps in against Rockefeller for the first time

By 1871 the oil refiners in the United States were producing about 40,000 barrels per day, at a time when demand for oil products was roughly 16,000 barrels per day. Rockefeller was determined that all of those 16,000 barrels were to be from Standard Oil, and by controlling shipping he could force the smaller refiners to close, or at the very least reduce production to what could be sold locally. Shipping overseas was not a practical option, oil had to be shipped in barrels, tankers not yet being a style of ship within the skills of the shipbuilders. While the South Improvement Company existed Rockefeller bought out 18 oil refineries in a span of a month. In April, 1872, Pennsylvania suspended the charter of the South Improvement Company, but the almost year-long state of near combat among railroads and oil refiners had led Rockefeller to be viewed in the public eye as the first robber baron. He would not be the last.

40 facts about John D. Rockefeller, the richest American of all time
A cartoon which depicts a miniscule President Cleveland lecturing the giants of industry and finance from the early 20th century. Wikimedia

13. Rockefeller’s manipulation of the railroads was not illegal at the time

Rockefeller used the largest and most powerful railroads to manipulate prices in a number of ways, including the issuing of rebates to favored clients, the manipulation of shipping schedules, rates per mile, and other practices which favored his company over the smaller refiners. The smaller companies, crippled by the rates they were forced to pay to move their products, were then quickly gobbled up by Standard Oil. The practice was ruthless, but it was not illegal. Neither Rockefeller nor the railroads broke any laws during a time when business was unregulated by anything other than existing market conditions. When Pennsylvania suspended the charter which Rockefeller used to create the railroad cartel, it was one of the first actions by government to control the conduct of business in the United States.

40 facts about John D. Rockefeller, the richest American of all time
The press vilified Rockefeller even as the public benefited from lower prices on oil for lighting and heat. Wikimedia

14. Rockefeller was roundly condemned in the press, though he made kerosene cheaper for consumers

When the press revealed the role played by Standard Oil’s manipulation of shipping costs for oil they vilified Rockefeller, in both text and cartoons, despite the fact that his actions led to kerosene becoming more affordable than it had ever been. Oil lamps lighted streets and homes, factories, offices, and stores, and for far less cost than before the Civil War, when most homes were lighted by candles. Whale oil had been affordable only for the relatively well-to-do. The press vilified Rockefeller but for the most part the public did not, and he decided to continue to grow Standard Oil despite the beating he took in the nation’s newspapers and the increased watchfulness of government entities, already growing wary of his wealth and power.

40 facts about John D. Rockefeller, the richest American of all time
Rockefeller’s manipulation of shipping rates were a primary feature of his business practices throughout his career. Wikimedia

15. Rockefeller grew more ruthless following the end of the railroad cartel

As the year 1872 began, 26 oil companies operated refineries in Cleveland, Ohio. During a period of just under four months that year, Standard Oil took over 22 of them. Rockefeller was driven as much by his contempt for inefficiency and waste as he was by greed. His tactics were less than savory, he often resorted to secret deals with competing refineries, pitting one against the other before acquiring both. As he reduced the competition, and thus the size of the body which could complain about his business practices, he continued to manipulate the railroads against each other to obtain more favorable shipping rates for his company, and then buying the smaller refiners which could not afford to pay them to compete. He continued to maintain the goodwill of consumers by driving down kerosene prices for personal use, making Standard Oil one of the most well-known consumer brands in the country.

40 facts about John D. Rockefeller, the richest American of all time
William Rockefeller, brother and business partner of John, helped to identify the companies targeted for acquisition by Standard Oil. Wikimedia

16. Buying the competition was as easy as opening his books

As Rockefeller’s power and wealth grew, he developed a negotiating style which was little more than intimidation. Often he would simply open Standard Oil’s books to a competitor, giving them a clear impression of the power the smaller company was up against. The next step was simply to threaten to bankrupt them if they refused to sell, with Rockefeller then acquiring them anyway by purchasing them at the ensuing bankruptcy auction, for pennies on the dollar. His ability to intimidate and his reputation within the industry for ruthlessness served him well during such “negotiations”, and he drew deep satisfaction from using such tactics acquiring companies which had opposed his attempt to create a railroad cartel which favored his company over the competition.

40 facts about John D. Rockefeller, the richest American of all time
Forest Hill, the Cleveland home of John D. Rockefeller, from which he reigned as the guardian of America’s oil business, at least in his own mind. Wikimedia

17. Rockefeller considered himself to be the guardian of the oil industry

John D. Rockefeller applied his passion for efficiency and the elimination of waste throughout the companies he absorbed into Standard Oil, and in the process forced competitors to adopt similar methods as their only hope of survival. Throughout the 1870s, following the pattern he had established by hiring his own coopers and pipefitters, he expanded the company to purchase its own railcars, rather than pay rent to the railroads. Likewise, he invested in pipelines, and delivery trucks to bring his product directly to a consumer’s door, rather than having them purchase it from a third party. Standard Oil often priced it products below market rates, to eliminate the competition and weaken the oil companies manufacturing competing products.

40 facts about John D. Rockefeller, the richest American of all time
By the time this 1895 portrait of Rockefeller was painted Standard Oil marketed over 300 products based on petroleum. Wikimedia

18. Standard Oil branched out beyond home lighting products

Standard Oil, throughout the 1870s, developed over 300 petroleum based products for consumers, driven by Rockefeller’s deep=set contempt for wasting anything, anywhere. Chewing gum became a product line. Oil based paints were developed and sold directly to consumers, as well as a base for paint manufacturers. Petroleum jelly, used for a wide variety of purposes, was developed and marketed by Standard Oil. Paraffin wax, less expensive than beeswax, was marketed and though the earliest paraffin candles were noted for being both smoky and odoriferous, they were soon dominating the market as being less expensive. By the end of the 1870s, 90% of the crude oil refined in the United States was produced by Standard Oil, with new markets for petroleum about to explode on the scene.

40 facts about John D. Rockefeller, the richest American of all time
When the powerful Pennsylvania Railroad began expanding into the oil pipeline and shipping business, Rockefeller and Standard Oil fought back. Wikimedia

19. Rockefeller and the Pennsylvania Railroad’s private war

In 1877 Rockefeller, believing that extensive pipelines owned by the company were a viable alternative to shipping some of his products by rail, began exploring the means of building them. The Pennsylvania Railroad believed that pipelines were within the provenance of the rail companies, since they held the easements necessary to locate them across the country. The Pennsylvania (PRR) began buying and building pipelines supported by their existing rail network through the creation of a subsidiary. They also began buying oil refineries to feed the pipelines, an act which Rockefeller saw as a declaration of war against Standard Oil, and one which he refused to tolerate.

40 facts about John D. Rockefeller, the richest American of all time
Rockefeller prevailed over the Pennsylvania Railroad, but drew additional attention from the US government and the press. Wikimedia

20. Rockefeller defeats the Pennsylvania through, among other things, labor issues

Rockefeller opposed the PRR by stopping all shipments of Standard Oil products on the railroad, diverting it to the PRR’s competition. The loss of revenue to the PRR was devastating, declining profits forced it to cut wages, leading to labor strife for the railroad at the same time. Rockefeller turned to the other railroads, all too happy to cripple the PRR, and initiated a price war which further cut into the Pennsylvania’s coffers. The railroad surrendered, selling its oil and pipeline holdings to Standard Oil as the price for peace. Rockefeller prevailed, but the influence of the PRR within the legislature of Pennsylvania led to Rockefeller and Standard Oil facing an indictment for operating a monopoly in 1879, which the millionaire would find to be a long, expensive battle over the ensuing three decades.

40 facts about John D. Rockefeller, the richest American of all time
As states began closer scrutiny of Rockefeller’s business practices, journalists such as Ida M. Tarbell exposed them in print. Wikimedia

21. Other states hop on the Pennsylvania bandwagon

Once Pennsylvania leveled charges on Standard Oil and John D. Rockefeller for creating a monopoly which controlled the oil industry in the United States, other states quickly joined in the legal action. Each state which brought charges, or initiated investigations, did so only within its own borders, rather than in federal courts. Rockefeller was forced to face them individually, based on the practices and activities within the several states, which took up increasing amounts of his time and attention and appeared to him to be another hated waste. As investigations increased, so did the sensationalist coverage in the nation’s newspapers and magazines, ironically often read of an evening in the flickering light of oil lamps lit by kerosene provided to the consumer by Standard Oil.

40 facts about John D. Rockefeller, the richest American of all time
A coiled snake became a popular means of depicting Standard Oil, with Rockefeller’s head on a serpent’s body. Wikimedia

22. Rockefeller’s enemies grew louder in the 1880s

The end of the 19th century was the heyday of yellow journalism in the United States, and Rockefeller and his Standard Oil Company was common target for politicians and the reporters and columnists who supported them. Never a true monopoly in the sense that it had no competition (there were hundreds of smaller oil companies across the nation) Standard Oil and Rockefeller were condemned in the press for monopolistic practices. The New York World wrote in 1880 that Standard Oil, and by extension Rockefeller, was “…cruel, impudent, and pitiless” and that the company was the most “…grasping monopoly” that any country had ever been forced to endure. Rockefeller argued against the accusations, claiming the size of the company sometimes led to unfortunate oversights which as soon as detected were corrected.

40 facts about John D. Rockefeller, the richest American of all time
Shares certificate for Standard Oil Trust, issued in 1896. Wikimedia

23. The creation of the Standard Oil Trust in 1882

Unlike today, during the late 19th century many states had laws which made it illegal for a company incorporated in another state to operate in their jurisdiction. This meant that Standard Oil operated as a collection of dozens of corporations across several states, a managerial nightmare. To correct this management deficiency, in 1882 Rockefeller created what was in essence a corporation created out of several corporations, and which was named Standard Oil Trust. Forty-one individual corporations formed the Trust, which was managed by a board of trustees consisting of nine members, one of whom was John D. Rockefeller. The result was that Standard Oil was the largest and richest business entity in the world, which encouraged its enemies to redouble their efforts to depict Rockefeller as the ultimate of the robber barons.

40 facts about John D. Rockefeller, the richest American of all time
A photograph of John D. Rockefeller during the late 19th century, when he was at the peak of his financial power and influence. University of Chicago

24. By 1882 Rockefeller’s business empire was staggering in its scope

The newly formed Standard Oil Trust, comprised of 41 companies, was huge. It controlled 20,000 oil wells in the United States, shipping its products through pipelines which exceeded 4,000 miles in length, all owned by the company. It also circumvented rentals on railroad equipment through its ownership of 5,000 tanker cars, as well as a fleet of boxcars, hoppers, and private passenger cars for the use of its executives. At its peak it was responsible for 90% of the refined petroleum products across the globe, a number which began to slowly decrease throughout the 1880s and 1890s, until it bottomed at about 80% at the turn of the 20th century. The slide was due to Rockefeller’s increasing awareness of the hostility his dominance of the oil market was causing, and his steps to alter the public perception of his company.

40 facts about John D. Rockefeller, the richest American of all time
Henry Ford (left), Thomas Edison (light suit) and Harvey Firestone (fishing) were all recipients of gift dimes from Rockefeller, as were strangers he encountered on the street. Library of Congress

25. Giving his money away was a lifelong habit

When John D. Rockefeller began his first job as a bookkeeper for a produce brokerage, he established the habit of giving a portion of his salary to charity, a practice he continued for the rest of his long life. His charitable donations were often substantial (see below) but he also gave away money personally, carrying nickels and dimes in his pocket, which he would pass out to strangers and friends when meeting them on the street or in social situations. He carried a pocketful of dimes for the purpose, and was known to give them to his fellow wealthy business moguls, often gleefully giving the small coins to men like Henry Ford or Harvey Firestone, both exceedingly wealthy men in their own right.

40 facts about John D. Rockefeller, the richest American of all time
Rockefeller’s frugal habits included commuting to his New York office by elevated train and walking. Library of Congress

26. Rockefeller lived frugally despite his enormous wealth

Rockefeller’s ingrained frugality was legendary. Despite an army of accountants, bookkeepers, and business managers he continued to insist on going over his company’s books himself, and he kept a pocket ledger in which he scrupulously recorded his personal expenditures daily. In order to keep his children, and eventually grandchildren, unaware of the vast wealth at the family’s disposal they were prevented from visiting his offices while young, though eventually through employment with Standard Oil the size of their fortune was revealed to them. He taught them the sin of waste and extravagance, and though he built luxurious homes, he did not go to the extremes of many of the rich of the day, who constructed massive estates in Newport, Rhode Island, Massachusetts’ Berkshire Hills, and in the Hudson Valley of New York.

40 facts about John D. Rockefeller, the richest American of all time
Rockefeller’s lifelong piety was often noted with disdain by periodicals of the day which excoriated the “robber barons”. Wikimedia

27. He never strayed from the religious upbringing of his youth

Rockefeller’s mother had been pious and devout, of the Baptist faith, and she imparted her religious and moral beliefs on her son, who in turn applied them to his business dealings (in his own mind) and to his children. His charitable giving was based on the Christian belief recorded in the Gospel of Luke, that the more one gave the more one would have given to him. Many of his charitable donations were of a religious nature, and he saw no moral conflict between his ruthless nature in business and the act of charitable sharing of the fortune he acquired, often at the expense of others. For example, his elimination of the middle man delivering kerosene to customers costs unknown hundreds their livelihoods, but increased his profits, which increased the amount of his fortune he could share through charity.

40 facts about John D. Rockefeller, the richest American of all time
A Puck cartoon depicts Rockefeller purifying money acquired through stock manipulation before giving it to churches. Wikimedia

28. Rockefeller created the oil futures market through price manipulation

In the 1880s Standard Oil began to control pricing of oil by raising or lowering storage prices for oil in its reservoirs and pipelines. On Rockefeller’s orders, certificates of value against the oil stored in Standard’s pipelines were issued, and were soon traded by brokers and speculators. The oil certificates were the first oil futures to be traded, and since the innovation was established they have been the source of oil market prices. By late 1882 oil futures were traded on the National Petroleum Exchange in New York, which had by then been established as the business center of the United States. Standard Oil, through its dominance of the market, was able to set oil prices well into the future, based on changing markets, ensuring their continuing profitability.

40 facts about John D. Rockefeller, the richest American of all time
Thomas W. Lawson, an early version of a ship built for the purpose of carrying oil, known as a tanker. Wikimedia

29. Standard Oil faced increasing competition by the end of the 1880s

Until the mid-1880s over 80% of the world’s crude oil was recovered from the earth in the State of Pennsylvania. By the end of that decade competition was expanding around the world, from the oil fields in Russia, Asia, and the islands of the South Pacific. The creation of an entirely new type of ship – the oil tanker – made the recovery of crude from distant sources economically feasible. There was competition from another source as well. Electrical lighting, at first an amusement but more and more a practical source of illumination, began to decrease the demand for kerosene. Rockefeller’s companies expanded their marketing of natural gas as a means of light and heat, and also expanded their marketing of gasoline, inspired by another new piece of technology – the automobile and the internal combustion engine.

40 facts about John D. Rockefeller, the richest American of all time
Standard Oil moved its headquarters from Cleveland to New York, where he was a readily recognized figure as he commuted to his office. Wikimedia

30. Standard Oil abandoned Cleveland for New York

With more and more of his business dependent on the activities of other businesses, Rockefeller moved Standard Oil to New York, joining his fellow business magnates by building a mid-town mansion and establishing his business headquarters downtown. While most of his fellow titans of industry commuted to their offices in liveried carriages, or increasingly in chauffeur driven automobiles, Rockefeller went to work every morning using the elevated railroad, handing out dimes and nickels and ignoring those importuning him for larger donations. Reading his daily newspaper enroute, he was aware of the problems soon to be posed to his empire by the Sherman Antitrust Act, which in 1890 appeared to be a tool for the management of labor unions, but which carried the provisions which could be used to break up the Standard Oil Trust.

40 facts about John D. Rockefeller, the richest American of all time
Following the breakup of Standard Oil Trust, Standard Oil of Ohio marketed its products under the Sohio brand in Ohio, a name it was prohibited from using in other states. Wikimedia

31. Ohio began the breakup of Standard Oil Trust in 1892

Standard Oil began in Ohio, and it was in the Buckeye State that governments, wary of the power of the oil giant, took the first steps which led to its dissolution. In 1892, through the enforcement of the state’s antitrust laws, Standard Oil of Ohio was forcefully separated from the rest of Rockefeller’s empire. Standard Oil of Ohio survived for another near century, familiar to Ohioans and visitors to the state as Sohio, with gasoline stations bearing that name liberally dotted throughout the state. At the same time Rockefeller led Standard Oil into the iron ore industry, especially the transportation of unrefined ore using the railroad assets he had accrued over the years. The venture into the iron ore business led to conflicts with steel industry magnates such as Andrew Carnegie.

40 facts about John D. Rockefeller, the richest American of all time
Rockefeller took up golf and bicycling late in life, though he continued to control his business interests through his son, John Jr. Wikimedia

32. Rockefeller began buying up oil leases nationwide as the Pennsylvania fields dried out

With production on the wane in Pennsylvania, the region where Rockefeller had established wells for the bulk of his oil fortune, he began to buy up what were perceived to be profitable oil fields to the west, in Ohio, West Virginia, Indiana, and Illinois. He also tired of the daily toil protecting his name and reputation in the press and his business and fortune from politicians. As the nineteenth century drew to an end, Rockefeller began to spend his time in more leisurely pursuits, including becoming an avid golfer, and a habitue of the new sport – bicycling – which was a national fad at the turn of the century. He withdrew from the daily bustle of New York City to a new estate he had built in the Hudson Valley north of the city just as the former governor of New York, Theodore Roosevelt, ascended to the presidency.

40 facts about John D. Rockefeller, the richest American of all time
A cartoon shows a retired Rockefeller keeping a sharp eye on his investments while his son attempts to fill his shoes. Wikimedia

33. Rockefeller entered into retirement with Standard Oil still largely intact

In 1902 Carnegie Steel was purchased by a consortium led by J. P. Morgan, and with it the new company, US Steel, acquired Rockefeller’s interests in iron and the iron ore transportation business. Rockefeller traded his iron investments for share of stock in the new US Steel in a deal brokered by Henry Clay Fricke, and between him and his son John D. Rockefeller Jr, walked away with memberships in the controlling board, allowing John Sr. to fully retire from the operations of Standard Oil at the age of 63. Despite Rockefeller’s removal from the operations of Standard Oil, and his more public acts of charitable donations and endowments, he continued to be attacked in newspapers and magazines condemning his monopoly of the oil industry and his personal wealth and power.

40 facts about John D. Rockefeller, the richest American of all time
Stock holdings in the several companies created from the breakup of Standard Oil – Standard of New York became Socony – continued to feed Rockefeller’s personal fortune. Wikimedia

34. The Supreme Court delivered the death blow to the Standard Oil Trust

In 1911, after years of litigation and warring in the press, which led to several re-organizations of the Standard Oil Companies, the United States Supreme Court declared Standard Oil of New Jersey to be contrary to the Sherman Antitrust Act. Standard Oil was broken up into more than thirty separate companies, many of which retained names recognizable today. Continental Oil became Conoco; Standard Oil of California was renamed Chevron. Socony (later Mobil) was the new name of Standard Oil of New York, and Esso was the name of the former Standard Oil of New Jersey. It later became Exxon, and later still ExxonMobil. Rockefeller held shares in all of the newly formed companies, in proportion to the shares he had held in Standard Oil Trust before its breakup, and as a result, his wealth increased exponentially.

40 facts about John D. Rockefeller, the richest American of all time
Both labor publications and the mainstream media excoriated Rockefeller over the Ludlow Massacre, further damaging his reputation. Wikimedia

35. The Ludlow Strike and massacre in Colorado

Rockefeller was one underwriter of a loan which led him, through and with his son John Jr, to gain a controlling interests in subsidiaries of the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company. In 1913 and 1914 labor violence among the coal miners, corporate interests, and labor organizers led to violence which included the deaths of women and children in the mining camps. Although the Rockefellers were not personally involved in the violence nor the hiring of the strikebreakers which led to it, and despite relief efforts undertaken by the Rockefeller Foundation in the aftermath, public opinion fanned by an outraged (and often outrageously inaccurate) press condemned the Rockefellers, and his public reputation reached its nadir.

40 facts about John D. Rockefeller, the richest American of all time
The stress of business and dealing with the government and press took a serious toll on Rockefeller’s health. Wikimedia

36. Rockefeller’s business success seriously affected his health

As Rockefeller built his fortune, and created the behemoth which was Standard Oil, he was susceptible to illness, both physical and mental. During his middle age he frequently dealt with bouts of what was then known as melancholy, exhibiting symptoms which would today most likely be identified as clinical depression. During the legal battles of the 1890s he lost weight as a result of eating only occasionally, and then suffering from digestive problems which rendered him too weak to exercise. He developed alopecia in the 1890s, losing all of his body hair, including besides the hair on his head his eyebrows and lashes, giving him an eerie appearance. He began wearing a wig in his late forties to compensate for his appearance, but his slender build and lack of facial hair was often commented upon by his contemporaries.

40 facts about John D. Rockefeller, the richest American of all time
Despite his enormous philanthropy, Rockefeller continued to be depicted by some as a miser and skinflint. Wikimedia

37. Rockefeller’s philanthropy continues to benefit the nation

For decades Rockefeller donated money in private to a number of institutions and churches, as well as to the freed slaves during the Civil War, when he gave money to build them schools. Spelman College in Atlanta was largely founded with his money, and named for the maiden name of his wife, Laura Spelman Rockefeller. His endowment to a small Baptist college led by a minister he admired, William R. Harper, led to the school becoming the University of Chicago, to which Rockefeller donated over $80 million. Not content with supporting one school, he provided substantial sums to Yale University, their main rival Harvard University, and others of the established Eastern schools including Columbia University, Vasser, and what became Rockefeller University in New York in 1965, decades after his death.

40 facts about John D. Rockefeller, the richest American of all time
A 1936 view of New York looking north from offices of the Rockefeller Foundation. Wikimedia

38. The creation of the Rockefeller Foundation in 1913

John D. Rockefeller set aside $250 million of his personal wealth to establish the Rockefeller Foundation in 1913, with its charter focusing its work in the areas of public health, public housing, education, and the training of medical professionals. The Rockefeller Foundation, in turn, endowed the School of Hygiene and Public Health at Johns Hopkins University. Rockefeller Foundation money was paramount in the relief efforts in war torn Europe after World War One, as well as research into the spread and containment of the Spanish Flu Pandemic which took hold during the latter days of the war and which spread with such virulence during its aftermath.

40 facts about John D. Rockefeller, the richest American of all time
The boom in gasoline and oil created by the automobile followed Rockefeller’s career, though it continued to increase his wealth. Wikimedia

39. Rockefeller made his fortune before the automobile created the demand for gasoline

Rockefeller retired from business before the great boom in gasoline and motor oil which was created by the automobile, and then aviation engines. Nonetheless, he retained large shares of stock in all of the Standard Oil companies which emerged following the government ordered breakup of his monopoly, and the profits from these continued to increase his wealth for the rest of his life, and the value of his estate beyond. At one time in the United States, it was widely believed that if a gas station’s logo contained the colors of red, white, and blue, it was spawned by Standard Oil. His many innovations in the arrangement of business relationships to the movement of products to market are usually forgotten, dimmed out by the bright light of the fortune he built, often through means which in a later day became questionable as regards their ethics.

40 facts about John D. Rockefeller, the richest American of all time
John D. Rockefeller painted during his retirement, at his Ormond Beach winter home in Florida. Wikimedia

40. John Rockefeller was a man of contradictions and convictions

A deeply religious and in his mind moral man of his day, Rockefeller could and did crush opponents to his wishes with a ruthlessness seldom seen before Standard Oil. His wealth was greater than any other person in American history, yet he favored taking the train to work, despite being one of the most famous and recognizable people in America. He was pious, often quoting the Bible which he read every day, but found no problem with Christ’s prediction of the difficulty a rich man would have entering heaven. The son of a con man father and a pious mother, throughout his life he demonstrated that he had learned much from both, and he put those lessons to work for all of his long life.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

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“John D. Rockefeller Was The Richest Person To Ever Live. Period.”. Kat Eschner, Smithsonian.com. January 10, 2017

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“The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power”. Daniel Yergin. 1991

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“The Grand Acquisitor”. Robert L. Heilbroner, American Heritage Magazine. December, 1964

“The Woman Who Took On The Tycoon”. Gilbert King, Smithsonian.com. July 5, 2012

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“Taking on the Trust: The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller”. Steve Weinberg. 2009

“The University of Chicago: The Early Years”. The University of Chicago History. Online

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“The Ludlow Massacre”. American Experience, PBS. Online

“Rockefeller Says He Tried To Be Fair”. The New York Times. May 21, 1915

“John D. Rockefeller Remade Cleveland and the World”. Grant Segall, Cleveland Plain Dealer. November 23, 2017

“John D. Rockefeller: A Character Study”. Ida M. Tarbell. Entry, Allegheny College. Allegheny.edu. Online