In 1870 he and his associates—including S. V. Harkness, H. M. Flagler, and his brother William—organized the Standard Oil Company of Ohio, capitalized at $1 million. By enforcing strict economy and efficiency, through mergers and agreements with competitors, by ruthlessly crushing weaker competitors, and by accumulating large capital reserves, Rockefeller soon dominated the American oil-refining industry. Rebate agreements, which he forced from the railroads, and the control of pipeline distribution of refined oil strengthened the near monopoly of the Standard Oil Company.
In 1882 the diverse holdings of the various members of Rockefeller's combination were tied together into the Standard Oil trust. Court action compelled the trust to dissolve 10 years later, but in a few years the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey was chartered as a holding company, with a capitalization of $110 million. Rockefeller was also prominent in the affairs of railroads and banks, being second only to J. P. Morgan in the domain of finance. When the United States Steel Corporation was formed (1901), Rockefeller was one of the directors. In 1911 a decision of the U.S. Supreme Court required the holding company to dissolve and its directors to relinquish their control over the numerous subsidiaries. Rockefeller personally ruled over his enormous petroleum business until 1911, when he retired with a fabulous fortune.
Intensely religious, Rockefeller had an interest in philanthropy as deep as his interest in business. He gave generously to the Baptist Church, to the YMCA, and to the Anti-Saloon League. He also founded (1892) the Univ. of Chicago. The most prominent of the philanthropic enterprises to which he eventually turned over some $500 million were the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, founded (1901) in New York City and since 1965 known as Rockefeller Univ.; the General Education Board, organized (1902) to make gifts to various educational and research agencies; the Rockefeller Foundation, established (1913) to promote public health and to further the medical, natural, and social sciences; and the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial, founded (1918) in memory of his wife, for the furthering of child welfare and the social sciences. He wrote Random Reminiscences of Men and Events (1909).
His son John Davison Rockefeller, Jr., 1874-1960, b. Cleveland, grad. Brown, 1897, took over active management of his father's interests in 1911 and engaged in numerous philanthropies. Riverside Church in New York City was built through his gifts. He also gave vast sums for religious projects, for scientific investigation, and for the restoration of historic monuments. Among his most notable philanthropies were the restoration of colonial Williamsburg, Va., and the donation of the site for the United Nations headquarters in New York City. He founded (1931) and helped plan Rockefeller Center in New York City, which the Rockefeller interests completed in 1939. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., had six children, and his five sons all became famous in various fields of endeavor.
His eldest son, John Davison Rockefeller 3d, 1906-78, b. New York City, grad. Princeton, 1929, was active in the management of family interests as well as art collecting and the support of numerous civic and philanthropic ventures, such as Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, the United Negro College Fund, and the Population Council.
His second son was Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller.
Laurance Spellman Rockefeller, 1910-2004, b. New York City, grad. Princeton, 1932, was noted for his involvement in conservation and the protection of wildlife. He funded the expansion of Grand Teton National Park and promoted creation and expansion of numerous other national parks. An astute investor, he was the principal backer of Eddie Rickenbacker when the latter founded Eastern Airlines in the 1930s, and was subsequently an early underwriter of a number of successful companies.
Winthrop Rockefeller, 1912-73, b. New York City, attended (1931-34) Yale and then went into investment management. Interested in agriculture, he became the owner of a farm in Arkansas noted for its experiments in animal husbandry. A Republican, he served as governor of Arkansas from 1967 to 1970.
David Rockefeller, 1915-, b. New York City, grad. Harvard, 1936, Ph.D. Univ. of Chicago, 1940, joined what became the Chase Manhattan Bank in 1948 and headed it from 1969 until his retirement in 1981. He acted as spokesman for the U.S. business community on several occasions. His Memoirs were published in 2002.
Jay Rockefeller (John Davison Rockefeller 4th), 1937-, b. New York City, son of John D. Rockefeller 3d, was elected governor of West Virginia as a Democrat in 1976; reelected in 1980, he was then elected to the U.S. Senate in 1984 and reelected in 1990, 1996, 2002, and 2008. He has chaired the committees on veterans' affairs (1993-1995; 2001-3) and commerce, science, and transportation (2009-) and the select committee on intelligence (2007-9).
See biographies of J. D. Rockefeller by A. Nevins (rev. ed. 1959), J. Abels (1965), and R. Chernow (1998); J. T. Flynn, God's Gold (1932, repr. 1971); W. Inglis, John D. Rockefeller Interview, 1917-1920 (1989); studies by D. Frost (1987) and J. Harr and P. Johnson (1988); biography of J. D. Rockefeller, Jr., by R. B. Fosdick (1956) and of Laurance Rockefeller by R. Winks (1997).
(born July 8, 1839, Richford, N.Y., U.S.—died May 23, 1937, Ormond Beach, Fla.) U.S. industrialist and philanthropist. He moved with his family to Cleveland, Ohio, in 1853, and in 1859 he established a commission business dealing in hay, grain, meats, and other goods. In 1863 he built an oil refinery that soon was the largest in the area. With a few associates he incorporated Standard Oil Co. (Ohio) in 1870. He bought out competitors to control the oil-refinery business in Cleveland (1872) and in the U.S. (1882). He placed the stock of the company and its affiliates in other states under control of a board of trustees, establishing the first major U.S. business trust company. As a result of antitrust proceedings, he later converted the trust into a holding company. In the 1890s he turned his attention to philanthropy. He founded the University of Chicago in 1892, the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research (later Rockefeller University) in 1901, and the Rockefeller Foundation in 1913. He donated over $500 million in his lifetime, and his philanthropy continued through donations by his son, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (1874–1960), and other descendants.
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Standard Oil was convicted in Federal Court of monopolistic practices and broken up in 1911. Rockefeller spent the last 40 years of his life in retirement. His fortune was mainly used to create the modern systematic approach of targeted philanthropy with foundations that had a major effect on medicine, education, and scientific research.
His foundations pioneered the development of medical research, and were instrumental in the eradication of hookworm and yellow fever. He is also the founder of both The University of Chicago and Rockefeller University. He was a devoted Northern Baptist and supported many church-based institutions throughout his life. Rockefeller adhered to total abstinence from alcohol and tobacco throughout his life. He married Laura Celestia ("Cettie") Spelman in 1864. They had four daughters and one son; John D. Rockefeller, Jr. "Junior" was largely entrusted with the supervision of the foundations.
In 1859, Rockefeller went into the produce commission business with a partner, Maurice B. Clark. Their firm, Clark & Rockefeller, built an oil refinery in 1863 in "The Flats", then Cleveland's burgeoning industrial area. The refinery was directly owned by Andrews, Clark & Company, which was composed of Clark & Rockefeller, chemist Samuel Andrews, and M. B. Clark's two brothers. In February 1865, in what was later described by oil industry historian Daniel Yergin as a "critical" auction, Rockefeller bought out the Clark brothers for $72,500, and established the firm of Rockefeller & Andrews.
In 1866, John D. Rockefeller's brother, William, built another refinery in Cleveland and he was brought into the partnership. In 1867, Henry M. Flagler became a partner, and the firm of Rockefeller, Andrews & Flagler was established. By 1868, with Rockefeller borrowing heavily and reinvesting most of the profits while controlling cost and utilizing his refineries' waste, the company owned two Cleveland refineries and a marketing subsidiary in New York, and it was the largest oil refiner in the world. Rockefeller, Andrews & Flagler was the predecessor of the Standard Oil Company.
By the end of the Civil War, Cleveland was 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). In January 1870, Rockefeller formed Standard Oil of Ohio, which rapidly became the most profitable refiner in Cleveland. When it was found 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 fighting fiercely for traffic and, in an attempt to create a cartel to control 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 Pratt and Company, headed by Charles Pratt and Henry H. Rogers, led the opposition to this plan, and railroads soon backed off.
Undeterred, Rockefeller 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 less than two months in 1872, in what was later known as "The Cleveland Conquest", 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: 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 became Secretary of Standard Oil.
For 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.
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, 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 wealthy 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.)
Ohio 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 1909, 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 found Standard Oil Company of New Jersey in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act and 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, now part of ConocoPhillips; Standard of Indiana, which became Amoco, now part of BP; Standard of California, which became Chevron; Standard of New Jersey, which became Esso (and later, Exxon), now part of ExxonMobil; Standard of New York, which became Mobil, now part of ExxonMobil; and Standard of Ohio, which became Sohio, now part of BP. Rockefeller, who had rarely sold shares, owned substantial stakes in all of them.
Rockefeller believed in the Efficiency Movement, arguing that
He and his advisers 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 cooperation.
In 1884, he provided major funding for a college in Atlanta for African-American women that became Spelman College (named for Rockefeller's in-laws who were ardent abolitionists before the Civil War). The oldest existing building on Spelman's campus, Rockefeller Hall, is named after him. Rockefeller also gave considerable donations to Denison University and other Baptist colleges.
Rockefeller gave $80 million to the University of Chicago under William Rainey Harper, turning a small Baptist college into a world-class institution by 1900. 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. Rockefeller also provided financial support to Yale, Harvard, Columbia, Brown, Bryn Mawr, Wellesley and Vassar.
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, helped in World War I war relief, and 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 into the Rockefeller Foundation. However, all told, Rockefeller gave away about $550 million.
Oddly enough, Rockefeller became well known in his later life for the practice of giving dimes to adults and nickels to children wherever he went. He even gave dimes as a playful gesture to men like tire mogul Harvey Firestone.
As a youth, Rockefeller allegedly said that his two great ambitions were to make $100,000 and to live 100 years. Rockefeller died of arteriosclerosis on May 23, 1937, two months shy of his 98th birthday, at the Casements, his home in Ormond Beach, Florida. He was buried in Lake View Cemetery in Cleveland.
Rockefeller had a long and controversial career in the 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".
Biographer Allan 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.
Notwithstanding 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 GDP of $101 billion then. His wealth continued to grow significantly (in line with U.S. economic growth) after as the demand for gasoline soared, eventually reaching about $900 million on the eve of WWI, including significant interests in banking, shipping, mining, railroads, and other industries. According to the New York Times obituary, “it was estimated after Mr. Rockefeller retired from business that he had accumulated close to $1,500,000,000 out of the earnings of the Standard Oil trust and out of his other investments. This was probably the greatest amount of wealth that any private citizen had ever been able to accumulate by his own efforts.” 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. According to some methods of wealth calculation, Rockefeller's net worth over the last decades of his life would easily place him as the wealthiest known person in recent history. As a percentage of the United States' GDP, no other American fortune—including Bill Gates or Sam Walton—would even come close.
The Rockefeller 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 part of JPMorgan 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.
John D. Rockefeller rests at Cleveland, Ohio's Lake View Cemetery.
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 everyday.