John Davison Rockefeller, Sr was a highly influential and wealthy business man who revolutionised both the petroleum industry and the structure of modern philanthropy. Born in Richford, New York in 1839, he spent a large portion of his life advancing the oil company he co-founded, Standard Oil. After he had built a business empire, amassed a fortune that King Solomon would be jealous of, and then given hundreds of millions of dollars of it away, he eventually died in 1937, at the ripe age of 97.
Known historically for his vast wealth, John D. Rockefeller was by far the world’s richest man, and the first ever person to amass a personal fortune of $1 billion. Despite this, his spending was relatively frugal, and as such Rockefeller donated a large amount of his hard earned cash to philanthropic causes, focussing largely on medicine, education, and scientific research. Rockefeller’s frugal spending was most likely down to his mother, who drummed her tongue twisting catchphrase into his mind from an early age: “Willful waste makes woeful want.”
Rockefeller was also influenced by his mother in the area of religion. A lifelong attendant to his local church, the Erie Street Mission Baptist Church, he was a devoted Northern Baptist from an early age, just like his mother, Eliza Davison. His love and devotion to the church was so great that all through his busy life he taught Sunday school there and even helped out as a janitor. Although you would think with $1 billion in the bank account he could have just hired one. Thankfully, he inherited the majority of traits from his mother rather than his father, but more on that later.
John D. Rockefeller is one of the most well known and well documented businessmen in history, but here are some facts that you might not have known about him.
5. John D. Rockefeller Caused Antimonopoly Laws
John D. Rockefeller’s practices in business whilst controlling Standard Oil ended up with him controlling up to 90% of the United States oil industry. This incredible monopoly was a major contributing factor towards the introduction of the United States Antitrust Law by newly elected president Theodore Roosevelt.
The United States Antitrust Law is a collection of government and federal laws that were introduced in order to prevent business monopolies and promote fair competition for the benefit of the customer base. The first of these laws, the Sherman Act of 1890, was passed due to the monopoly that Standard Oil held over the petroleum industry in the 1880s.
To be fair to Standard Oil, their domination of the oil sector resulted in increased availability of oil and a drastically reduced cost, therefore benefiting the end customer. However, the practices they conducted to gain this monopoly were less than desirable, with economic threats issues towards their competitors and secret transport rebates. Because of these unsavoury practices, and despite the benefit of the customer, Standard Oil and in turn, John D. Rockefeller, were punished by the Supreme Court and chastised by journalists all over the country.
When the sentence was given, Standard Oil was split up into 34 separate, regional companies that all had to compete with one another. In an ironic turn of events, this proved immensely profitable for Rockefeller, as when the company split up he then held shares in all the resulting companies.
4. John D. Rockefeller is the Wealthiest Person in History
As mentioned earlier, John D. Rockefeller was the first person in history to amass a personal fortunate of $1 billion. He didn’t stop there though; he continued to build on his already staggering wealth until it peaked at $1.5 billion after his retirement. When he died, in 1937, his net worth was estimated at around $1.4 billion, with the majority of the cash tied up in family trust funds.
To put these figures into perspective for the time, when his fortunes peaked at $1.5 billion, the United States national gross domestic product (GDP) was an estimated $92 billion. This means that Rockefeller held 1.6% of the money of the entire United States!
Various methods have been used to adjust Rockefeller’s wealth to account for inflation over time, in order to see how much he would be worth today. The highest of these estimates put his personal fortune at an estimated $663 billion, the lowest at $336 billion. Let’s compare this to the richest man alive, Bill Gates. Gates’ net worth stands at around $77 billion at the time of writing, his wealth peaked at $101 billion. This means that the lowest estimate for Rockefeller’s adjusted net worth is over three times the amount of the richest man on Earth! This makes him far and away the richest man in recorded history. No wonder he was giving money away to strangers on the streets, but more on that later.
3. John D. Rockefeller Was Always a Philanthropist, But Not Always Known as One
Rockefeller routinely gave his money away. Ever since his very first pay check, of which he donated 10% to the Erie Street Mission Baptist Church, he charitably gave away a portion of his earnings. Throughout his career and life he offered considerable donations to many organisations, mainly focussing on medical research (he was a major factor in the eradication of hookworm and yellow fever), public education, and scientific research.
Despite all this, Rockefeller wasn’t seen in a positive light until his later life. This transformation of public opinion came when he sought the advice of a publicist called Ivy Lee. With Ivy Lee’s help, Rockefeller began to change his public image step by step. This began by Rockefeller setting up the Rockefeller Foundation (which, to date, has distributed over $14 billion), and Lee helped by turning journalists attentions away from Rockefeller’s business goings on.
However, with human psychology truly intact, the public perception of John D. Rockefeller truly began to shift when he began giving away dimes and nickels to strangers on the street. When he was out and about he would give dimes to adults he saw and nickels to children. Funnily enough (and rightly so I might add), by the time he died Rockefeller was known as a massively generous philanthropist.
2. John D. Rockefeller Once Earned $50 in Three Months
John D. Rockefeller wasn’t always a businessman; he got his first job aged 16 as an assistant bookkeeper. This job was for Hewitt & Tuttle, a small produce commission company in New York. He worked very long hours for the princely sum of $0.50 per day, so after three months of work he had earned his first $50. Due to his deeply religious and charitable nature, he promptly gave $5 of it to his church.
During his stint at Hewitt & Tuttle, Rockefeller worked very long hours, but enjoyed life in the office. He became skilled at calculating transport expenses and helped to streamline the company’s expenditure in this area. These transport cost skills were the building blocks for Standard Oil’s monopoly in the oil industry, so his time in the offices of Hewitt & Tuttle paid off well. His insights into the workings of Hewitt & Tuttle also inspired his first business venture, which was a produce commission business.
It is said that, during his time as an assistant bookkeeper, Rockefeller came up with two personal goals for his life: To make $100,000 and to live to 100 years old. He died aged 97 with a fortune of $1,400,000,000. I would say he did a pretty good job.
1. John D. Rockefeller’s Father Was a Conman
William Avery Rockefeller, or ‘Doc Rockefeller’ as he became known, amassed his own personal fortune through conning a variety of people out of their savings. His various cons, whilst effective, were pretty damn despicable by anyone’s standards.
Advertising himself as a doctor, whilst holding no medical certificate whatsoever, William Rockefeller would con residents of rural towns and villages by offering medical consultations for a mere $25. To put this into perspective, $25 was about two months’ wages back then. In addition to this, the self proclaimed doctor routinely sold a patented ‘medicine’ that he claimed could cure cancer. I think we know he was lying on this one. Not content with his fraudulent medicinal practices, he was also found to have raped a young woman that worked in their house.
William Rockefeller was absent a lot, out working his cons on unsuspecting victims, but he eventually did a permanent disappearing act and abandoned his family. ‘Doc Rockefeller’ then re-emerged as William Levingston and married a young woman in Ontario. But he didn’t really marry her, because he was still legally married to John D. Rockefeller’s mother, Eliza, whom he left to raise his four children alone. Nice guy wasn’t he?