“I was early taught to work as well as play, My life has been one long, happy holiday; Full of work and full of play— I dropped the worry on the way— And God was good to me every day.”– John D. Rockefeller
It’s debatable who the richest person in history was, but when you’re looking at modern history, one man who constantly appears as a candidate for the top spot is John D. Rockefeller. Not only was he an inspirational figure to those wishing to enter the world of business and industry, he was also an embodiment of the American Dream. So what made this man into the legendary figure that became? Find out more about Rockefeller below!
1. Just Four Days Off!
Rockefeller was born on the 8th of July 1839, in Richford, New York. He was the second of six kids born to Eliza Davison and William Avery Rockefeller.
2. Money Money Money!
It’s hard to determine just how much Rockefeller was worth, but the maximum amount he was worth has been estimated to being over $400 billion in 2017 dollars! That’s a spicy meatball!
By the time he died in 1934, Rockefeller was worth an estimated $1.4 billion. He was the first person to ever claim the title “billionaire,” but that number doesn’t quite do justice to just how wealthy he truly was. While today’s billionaires obviously boast more money in terms of raw dollars, the better indication of wealth is the percentage of national GDP. Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world in 2019, is worth around 0.006% of the total US GDP—Rockefeller was at one time worth a whopping 2%.
4. Take This and Go Far, Fellow!
In his old age, Rockefeller became known to give nickels and dimes to anyone that he came across, regardless of age, sex, or social position. He would even unleash his inner troll by gifting such coins to millionaires like Harvey Firestone.
5. No Evidence that it Inspired Asimov, Though
One of the most enduring aspects of his legacy is the Rockefeller Foundation, which he founded in 1913 and gave hundreds of millions of dollars. As per Rockefeller’s own wishes, the foundation has focused on pushing the arts, medical science, and public health. Amongst its many accomplishments is the campaign it launched to eradicate hookworm, a parasitic infection that was rampant at the time. It also shaped politics. It once employed a young man named William Lyon Mackenzie King, who went on to be one of the longest-running prime ministers in Canadian history.
6. Starting Small
As a youth, Rockefeller was constantly at work. Besides chores, he would also raise turkeys and sell potatoes in order to make what little money he could. It’s safe to say that he would one-up himself soon enough!
7. Representing the Big O
Rockefeller’s family moved several times during his youth (given his dad’s scandalous lifestyle of scamming and bigamy, we’re not too surprised by that). In 1853, the family settled in Strongsville, Ohio. Rockefeller went to Central High School in Cleveland. Interestingly, Central High School was not only the first high school to be built in Cleveland, it was also “the first free public high school west of the Alleghenies.”
8. Would You Say He’s a Centurion?
Allegedly, the young Rockefeller had two ambitions in life: he wanted to live for one hundred years and make $100,000. It’s safe to say that he achieved one of these ambitions!
9. Live Long and Prosper
Amazingly, Rockefeller came very close to achieving his second ambition as well. He died on the 23rd of May 1937, just two months away from his 98th birthday.
10. Behind Every Great Man…
Rockefeller first met Laura Spelman when they were in accounting classes together at Cleveland. After this, Spelman would return to New England in order to study at the Oread Institute, hoping to become a schoolteacher. She returned to Ohio and married Rockefeller in 1864. During their marriage, she was a constant source of support and advice to Rockefeller, and she was a noted philanthropist in her own right. The women’s college in Atlanta known as Spelman College was named after her. In keeping with her abolitionist beliefs, the college was founded to educate black women in a time when the major institutions forbade them to attend. Spelman and Rockefeller would remain married until her death in 1915.
11. Not Even Old Enough to Drink
Rockefeller completed a ten-week business course at Folsom’s Commercial College. His initial focus of study was bookkeeping. Remarkably, Rockefeller was still an underage teenager when he got his first bookkeeping job in 1855! Of course, it was a much different time then.
12. And Starring…
In 2012, History Channel released a four-part miniseries titled The Men Who Built America. The series focused on prominent businessmen in American history, including Rockefeller. He was portrayed in the series by Tim Getman.
13. Staying Sober
Perhaps learning a lesson from his father or those around him, Rockefeller would spend his life avoiding alcohol or tobacco. To be honest, we can argue that this may have been a big contribution to his living for nearly nine-eight years.
14. You’ll Go Far
At his peak, Rockefeller’s Standard Oil controlled a whopping 90% of all US oil! No wonder he was worth so much!
15. All Work is All Play
In 1855, at the tender age of sixteen, Rockefeller began working as an assistant bookkeeper at a produce commission firm known as Hewitt & Tuttle. Rockefeller became very efficient in money-saving measures and took genuine joy out of learning as much about the business as possible.
16. Buying Your Way Out of War
When the US Civil War broke out, Rockefeller had already gone into business with a partner named Maurice B. Clark. While Rockefeller’s brother, Frank, fought in the war, Rockefeller hired substitute soldiers to avoid having to fight himself. As a result, he was able to stay out of the war and keep running his profitable business.
17. Emancipate Them Now!
Rockefeller was a noted abolitionist, which led him to support the newly-formed Republican Party for their anti-slavery stance under President Abraham Lincoln.
According to Rockefeller, the day which determined his career was in 1865, when he bought out his then-business partners, the Clark brothers, for $72,500 (around $1,000,000 in modern dollars). This left Rockefeller in a good position to reap the benefits of the postwar boom and the growing desire for oil.
19. Be Proud, Browns
In 1870, Rockefeller formed Standard Oil, based in Cleveland (this was back when Cleveland was one of the five main American centers of oil refining). Under Rockefeller’s leadership, Standard Oil became the leading company in the oil industry.
20. “It’s Not Personal. It’s Strictly Business.”
Over the course of four months, Rockefeller carried out an event known as “The Cleveland Conquest” and “The Cleveland Massacre,” depending on who’s remembering it. Standard Oil’s practice was to buy those oil refiners with the least successful track record and improve their output. They also bought out rival companies and made secret deals to further their influence. Out of twenty-six competitors in Cleveland, twenty-two of them were absorbed by Standard Oil.
21. “I Drink Your Milkshake!”
At its height, Rockefeller’s Standard Oil owned 5,000 tank cars, 4,000 miles of pipeline, and drew from 20,000 domestic oil wells. The number of people employed by Standard Oil was more than 100,000.
In the 1870s and 1880s, Rockefeller’s Standard Oil held a monopoly over the oil and kerosene industry. There was a lot of opposition to the idea that one corporation should have so much power. Laws in the United States at the time stood in the way of a corporation operating across multiple states. As a result, Rockefeller organized Standard Oil into a corporation of corporations, so to speak. This led to the establishment of the Standard Oil Trust in 1882. This would set a standard (pun intended) for businesses in the US.
23. Business Brawl!
Aside from oil, Rockefeller also wanted to expand his interests to include the iron ore industry. In the 1890s, Rockefeller attempted to do just that, but this led him into a fierce competition with fellow industry baron Andrew Carnegie. Their rivalry was fodder for the media at the time. Newspaper cartoonists built their careers on the mockery of these feuding millionaires.
24. You Think This was Easy?!
For all his success in the 1870s and 1880s, Rockefeller later commented that he was under immense strain during that time period. The pressures of running this near-monopoly over oil in the US, coupled with the negative press that he was attracting for the same reason, Rockefeller suffered a severe case of insomnia. He even commented wryly that all the money he ever made at the time couldn’t make up for all the anxiety he was going through. We can assume most of you reading this will be tempted to shout “Oh poor you!” at his resentful ghost.
25. Philanthropist from an Early Age
As a child, Rockefeller was encouraged by his mother to give what few pennies he had to charity. The church that Rockefeller attended put a heavy emphasis on charity as well, with one minister reportedly urging Rockefeller to make as much money as he could to give as much of it away again. This early education gave Rockefeller the idea that his financial success was a gift from God so that he could give that money back to his society.
26. New York, New York
In 1901, Rockefeller founded the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in New York City. This institution, which became Rockefeller University in 1965, is connected to 23 different Nobel laureates.
27. Splintering Success
The Standard Oil Trust prospered until the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890. This legislation was used as a stick to beat Rockefeller and his company. The Ohio government went the extra mile and caused their Standard Oil branch to separate from the rest of the company in 1892.
28. Better to Give than to Get
When he began working full-time at sixteen, Rockefeller would give 6% of his personal income to charity, most of it church-related. He would later increase that amount to 10% when he was twenty. Additionally, his staunch abolitionist views and his church connections led him to support the education of freed American slaves following the US Civil War.
29. Under the Sun
Rockefeller developed a soft spot for Florida’s Ormond Beach. After one of Standard Oil’s co-founders purchased a hotel in the area, Rockefeller would later buy an estate of his own, which became his winter home. After Rockefeller’s death, his heirs sold off the property, and it was later purchased by Ormond Beach. It is currently a historical structure and cultural center.
30. Auspicious Offspring
Rockefeller would have one son (John Davison Rockefeller Jr.) and four daughters (Elizabeth, Alice, Edith, and Alta). His descendants have continued to hold prestigious positions within American society. These include John Davison Rockefeller IV, who served as governor of West Virginia and served thirty years as a US senator.
31. Hair Loss in High Society
During his life, Rockefeller suffered from several physical and mental illnesses. He spent his middle age struggling with depression and later lost most of his body hair due to a condition called alopecia. He would wear toupees for the rest of his life.
32. Influential Impact
Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Trust was disbanded in 1911 by order of the US Supreme Court. They determined that federal anti-trust laws had been violated, and that spelled the end for the company. The mega-corporation split into thirty-four different entities, including what’s now the Chevron Corporation and ExxonMobil.
33. Heck of a Silver Lining!
Ironically, Standard Oil’s breakup proved highly profitable for Rockefeller. He had held more than 25% of the corporation, and he continued to hold shares in each of the thirty-four companies that Standard Oil splintered into. As a result, Rockefeller’s wealth actually increased to more than $900 million!
34. Living Life Easy
Because of his extreme wealth, and partly due to his long lifespan, Rockefeller spent a whopping forty years of his life enjoying retirement!
35. What a Nice Guy
Early in his career, before he was as wealthy as he would later become, a young Rockefeller would purchase a slave’s freedom. And this was on top of his constant donations to the Baptist church’s abolitionist movement and a donation to a Roman Catholic orphanage.
36. Our Benefactor
One of the many beneficiaries of Rockefeller’s philanthropy was the University of Chicago. Rockefeller donated $80 million to the institution, which helped it become an internationally recognized post-secondary school by the 20th century.
37. RIP Rockefeller
Rockefeller is buried in Cleveland’s Lake View Cemetery. Other well-known figures who are resting in Lake View include renowned Untouchables member Eliot Ness, rock-and-roll disc jockey Alan Freed, US president James A. Garfield, and Standard Oil co-founder Stephen V. Harkness.
38. Devious Dad
Rockefeller’s father was known by the nicknames “Big Bill” and “Devil Bill.” William made his living with a number of different jobs, including the title of “botanic physician.” If you’re wondering what a botanic physician was, it involved William selling “elixirs” which were believed to cures all kinds of illnesses, including cancer. As you can imagine, William had a shady reputation as a conman and philanderer.
39. Mother Knows Best
In contrast to his wily and chaotic father, Rockefeller’s mother was a devout woman who tried to give her children a stable upbringing. In addition to William’s erratic working habits, she also had to put up with the fact that William had a double life which included a second wife!
40. The Hunt for Gossip
John D. Rockefeller managed to keep his father’s bigamist ways a secret for many years. In fact, before this was public knowledge, people tried to uncover this “family secret,” even as Rockefeller himself was uninterested in indulging the story-seekers. No less a figure than Joseph Pulitzer (yes, that Joseph Pulitzer) offered $8,000 for any information on William that could be discovered.
41. Clever with Cash
One thing which Rockefeller’s parents did agree on was that their children needed to be smart with money. Rockefeller’s mother was known as a penny-pincher who taught her children never to waste money. Rockefeller’s father, meanwhile, would brag that he cruelly conned his own children regularly, saying, “I cheat my boys every chance I get. I want to make ’em sharp.” Sounds like great parenting!
42. A Dark Day
One of the most controversial episodes in Rockefeller’s career was the Ludlow Massacre. In the early 20th century, Rockefeller invested in the coal industry. In 1913, United Mine Workers called for a strike, and it quickly turned ugly. While Rockefeller didn’t hold a major share and his representatives took a backseat in what happened, the mine operators brought in the National Guard to protect strikebreakers and harass strikers. The union set up a tent city for the strikers, and on the 20th of April, 1914, the tents were attacked. Fifteen women and children were burned alive when the tents were set on fire by the attacking troops.
43. “It Wasn’t Me!”
The Ludlow Massacre was a dark stain on Rockefeller’s reputation, no matter how much he denied involvement. For what it’s worth, when the down-turning economy demoralized the coal miners in 1915, Rockefeller provided funds for relief programs to assist them in their plight. Moreover, Rockefeller testified in court that he would have never allowed such violence to take place if he’d been the one in charge. However, he also had to admit that he didn’t take much action against those responsible for the Ludlow Massacre.
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