The idea of someone going from rags to riches has fueled people’s imaginations for untold centuries. Human history is filled with examples of people beginning at the bottom of society, only to somehow make their way to the very top of the world by the end of their lives. As you can expect, this concept has also bled into the world of fiction. Read these 27 facts about the "rags to riches" myth and the reality behind it. Who knows, maybe the good luck will rub off.
1. From Swineherd to Soldier
Over a century after the Roman Empire had been split between the Eastern half and the Western half, a young pig farmer descended from peasants named Istok was forced to flee, with some friends, to Constantinople. With almost nothing but the clothes on his back, Istok joined the army, devoting most of his life to an army career, rising high enough that he actually commanded the palace guard. Amazing what an illiterate pig farmer managed to do with his life! And it gets even better...
2. The Ultimate Riches
The crazy thing was Istok wasn’t even finished with climbing the ladder! At the ripe old age of 68, Istok earned great respect amongst the soldiers of the Empire. Thus, when the Emperor Anastasius died without any heirs in 518 AD, Istok used his vast influence to take the throne for himself. He ruled for nine years as Justin I, dying at the age of 77.
3. I Can See Clearly Now
Leonardo Del Vecchio spent his childhood in an orphanage after his widowed mother proved unable to support her five children. From there, Del Vecchio worked in a factory that produced eyeglass frames. He would go on to open his own shop, Luxottica. You might know this company as the producers of Ray-Ban and Oakley glasses. At one point, Del Vecchio was the second-richest man in Italy!
4. The System Works!
After a difficult childhood, which included moving to a foster home and being part of the LA gang culture, John Paul DeJoria served in the US army. After that, DeJoria lived in his car when he created John Paul Mitchell Systems as he sold shampoo door-to-door. From those humble beginnings, JPM Systems has come to be worth over $900 million. No doubt Dejoria has some extra space as he lives in a different limousine every week (I kid, he probably has an enormous mansion).
5. Started on the Streets…Now I’m Flying to the Stars!
In his early days, Guy Laliberté was a humble busker in Quebec. He would walk on stilts, eat fire, or play the accordion while depending on the kindness of strangers. Everything changed for him when he made the risky move of bringing a troupe down to the US to try their luck performing their unique show without even money to return home if things got bad. That’s how broke Laliberté was at the time. Today, Laliberté is worth over $2.5 billion, and he’s even become a space tourist. How did he manage that? By being the CEO of Cirque du Soleil. Looks like that gamble with the troupe paid off big time!
6. Please, Sir, I’d Like Some More
One of the most famous writers in the English language spent the latter half of his childhood working 10 hours a day in a factory for six shillings per week. Charles Dickens’ father was imprisoned for his debts, forcing young Dickens into the work force to help feed the rest of his family. Sad as it was that he spent his wonder years working worse than a dog, it’s safe to say that he would make good use of this experience to fuel his later writing career.
7. Is It a Happy Ending?
As a child, Joseph Stalin had no reason to think he would become a big success in life. His father was a struggling cobbler and his family grew up in poverty. When his father became an abusive alcoholic, he and the rest of his family fled the house and were taken in by a family friend. Despite the low quality of living, childhood illnesses, and his tendency to get into fights, Stalin’s amazing grades ensured that he was given schooling that he wouldn’t normally have gotten. Stalin would eventually climb the ladder to hold sway over the entire Soviet Union. Given all the people who perished under his rule, we’re not saying he should have stayed in rags, but maybe it would have been better if he was satisfied with just a few riches?
8. Cheap Jerk
The irony of that last joke was that Stalin actually WAS satisfied with only a few riches. The man famously lived a very spartan lifestyle, dressing only in army styles, avoiding plane flights as much as possible, and keeping simple furniture in his home. As it was reported, it wasn’t the wealth that Stalin wanted, it was the power of deciding so many lives with a mere word from his mouth.
9. If the Shoe Fits…
One aspect of the "rags to riches" concept is the "Cinderella story". When related to the world of sport, the Cinderella story usually describes the journey of an athlete or competitor who defies all expectations by becoming very successful in their respective sport/game.
10. Bill Murray Would Be Proud
The term Cinderella story references the fairy tale of Cinderella and her almost literal jump from rags to riches. In 1950, Disney released their first film version of Cinderella, and City College of New York’s basketball team surprised everyone by winning the NCAA Men’s Basketball championship. Both these events popularized the use of "Cinderella" in sports. The term was also famously used in the film Caddyshack.
11. The Don Draper of the Old West
In 1846, a 14-year old German boy named Heinrich Alfred Kreiser came to the United States. Later, Kreiser purchased a non-transferable steamer ticket to California from a travelling salesman. The problem was that the ticket was in the salesman’s name, so Kreiser took on his new name, "Henry Miller".
12. An American Tail: Heinrich Goes West
With nothing but six dollars in his pocket, the newly named Henry Miller began working seven-day weeks as an assistant in a butcher’s shop. After he saved up enough for his own shop, Miller saw opportunity coming in with the new settlers populating California. He began buying cattle and land, and financed irrigation systems that created arable land out of former deserts. Miller amassed a fortune of $40 million (in old-time money, mind you) and owned 1.3 million acres of land across four different US states.
13. Only When You've Been in the Deepest Valley...
Oprah Winfrey’s story from low to high is as astonishing as it is emotional. Winfrey spent her childhood in extreme poverty, as well as being sexually abused , including by two of her family members. She even conceived a child at 14, though the infant passed on shortly after birth. After she went to live with her father, things finally began to turn for her. Through hard work, determination, and a bit of luck, Winfrey managed to get a full scholarship, got the attention of a radio station after winning a beauty pageant, and went down the path to where she is now: worth nearly $3 billion and beloved by millions.
14. From Depression to Succession
Kirk Kerkorian lived a life that seems to beg for a biographical movie or two. Born in California to Armenian parents, Kerkorian grew up during the Great Depression, dropping out of 8th grade to take up boxing. During the Second World War, Kerkorian became a daring fighter pilot for the Royal Air Force. Kerkorian would eventually move back west, investing in real estate in Las Vegas. He would go on to buy the Flamingo, a massive casino in Las Vegas. Kerkorian went on to get into the entertainment industry too, becoming a multi-billionaire along the way.
15. Order on the Court
LeBron James was born to a 16-year-old mother living in poverty while she went from job to job in Akron, Ohio. After he found a chance to display his athletic talents, James went on to become one of the highest-paid athletes of his day.
16. Rags of Slavery
The time of slavery was immeasurably cruel to those who were forced inbto servitude, and even when government policies began to be established to outlaw slavery, the slaveowners would take advantage of their slaves’ lack of education to keep them ignorant of their few rights. One such man was Robert Smith, who spent five years in California with his family and slaves, even though California had passed a law making it a free state. Smith tried to relocate to Texas so he could sell his slaves, including a woman named Bridget, rather than lose them for nothing. Bridget, however, petitioned a court in Los Angeles for her freedom. Even though Smith bribed her lawyer to stay away (which made things tough for her, since she was unable to testify in court against a white person due to her skin color), Bridget still pleaded her case before the judge, winning her freedom. She took on the name Bridget Biddy Mason for herself.
17. Real Estate Riches
Winning her freedom, however, wasn’t enough for Bridget Mason. After working as a midwife in Los Angeles for 10 years, she became one of the first people of color to own land in Los Angeles when she bought her first property. Mason then flipped her property for commercial ventures, investing her money in the city’s business districts. She also showed her philanthropic side by donating to many causes while also founding the first black church in LA. By the time of her passing in 1891, "Grandma Mason" had made a fortune of $300,000.
18. What are the Odds??
Stories that glorify the rags to riches ideal have met with a lot of criticism over the years. Statisticians have argued that these stories fail to address the fact that for every person who succeeds, there are hundreds, or even thousands, who aren’t so lucky. To be fair, we hardly ever think much about the people who don’t win the lottery, do we?
19. Your Holiness
Back in the Dark Ages, it was considered impossible and unnatural for a commoner to become Pope, but with the protection of the emperor Charlemagne, the common-born Leone became Pope Leo III, now recognized as a saint.
The rags to riches story has been used in literature for a long time, but one author made it part of his trademark. Horatio Alger spent the 19th century writing inspirational novels about people living the American Dream by starting out poor, displaying excellent character, and coming across great riches as a reward. This later became known as the “Horatio Alger myth".
21. “The Man Who Dies Rich Dies Disgraced”
Before he became the richest man of his time, Andrew Carnegie was the son of “destitute laborers” in Scotland. Coming to America, the young Carnegie was working in a textile mill at 13, earning just $1.20 per week. From there, however, Carnegie would work his way up the ladder, going from messenger boy to secretary, to the superintendent of Pennsylvania Railroad’s western division. He expanded his portfolio from there, forming business after business, including Carnegie Steel. He was worth hundreds of millions of dollars, giving most of it away to various charities before he passed on.
22. Thanks Mom!
Ursula Burns became the first black woman to lead a Fortune 500 Company as the CEO of Xerox. Before that, however, she had grown up in a single parent household in Manhattan’s Lower East side, which didn’t have the best reputation at the time. Her mother not only ran a daycare center in the family home, she also ironed shirts for extra money so that Burns could go to school. Burns earned her degree at NYU, became an intern at Xerox, and the rest is history.
23. Delusions of Grandeur
Because of the focus on those who go from rags to riches, socialists and revolutionaries have argued that these stories are most often used to give false hope to the masses so that they don’t stand up to the upper classes and revolt against unfair systems. Writer George Orwell hinted at this in his famous novel 1984 with the way that the lottery is used to distract the proles from their miserable existence.
24. Paving the Way
Amazingly, while his rule was short and largely uneventful, Justin I (if you remember him from the beginning of this list) managed to lay the groundwork for an even more impressive rags-to-riches story. In 525 AD, he changed the law so that it was no longer illegal for women of the lower classes to marry governors and senators of the empire. This allowed Justin’s nephew, the legendary Justinian, to marry the former theater actress Theodora and make her his empress. At the time, the acting profession for women was also part of the demi-monde, and for a time Theodora likely sold her body as well as her talents. But the two of them would have a glorious reign that saw many progressive laws passed and Justinian reconquering large parts of the former Western Roman Empire. All thanks to a young fugitive pig farmer who found himself becoming the emperor!
25. My Life Is a Fairy Tale
Born in 1684, the woman who would become Catherine I of Russia was orphaned at the age of three when her parents succumbed to the plague, which was affecting the peasant population at the time. She spent part of her youth being raised by a pastor in the city of Marienburg, but when the Russians conquered the city in 1702, an 18-year-old Catherine was captured and became a servant to a government official in Moscow. However, it was there that she met the Russian Tsar, Peter the Great. The two of them began a passionate affair, eventually marrying in 1712.
26. Climbing Higher
Catherine would become Peter the Great’s closest confidante during their marriage, even as Peter helped develop Russia into a powerful empire. Never forgetting her own roots, Catherine became beloved among the people for her philanthropy and generosity. After Peter’s demise in 1725, Catherine broke gender barriers by becoming the first ruling Empress of Russia
27. The Author Who Succeeded
The starving artist is not a new story to tell, but sometimes it astonishes when someone starting so low rises so high. Such was the case with J.K. Rowling. In the early 1990s, Rowling was a newly divorced single mother who was living on welfare. Seven books about a young wizard named Harry Potter later, Rowling is worth over $1 billion, with two film franchises providing even more royalties her way (plus screenwriting credits for Rowling when it comes to the Fantastic Beasts series). But less people know that at the time she began writing Harry Potter, Rowling suffered a huge tragedy: the loss of her mother to multiple sclerosis just six months after she started writing the novels. What a trooper. Rowling has said that her mother's passing had a big impact on the series; as she once noted, "My books are largely about death".