John D. Rockefeller: Industrialist & Philanthropist

1887 Standard Oil Stock Certificate- From Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository
1887 Standard Oil Stock Certificate- From Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository

Born in 1839, John D. Rockefeller was an American industrialist and philanthropist who built an oil empire by guaranteeing a uniform quality grade for his standard oil. He was one of the richest men in history. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company was perhaps one of the most powerful monopoly in America. At the time of his death, his wealth was estimated to be worth over half a-trillion dollars.

Fig. 1 From Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository
Fig. 1 John D. Rockefeller, 1885 | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository

At the young age of sixteen, Rockefeller began attending community college. He was a student for three months until he found his first job as a produce clerk at a Cleveland commission firm where Rockefeller was the person who bought and sold commodities for clients for a commission. The firm bought and sold shipped grain, coal, and other raw materials. After three months, he was given a raise and became the cashier and bookkeeper for the firm. 1 At the age of nineteen, in 1859, Rockefeller borrowed money from his father and began his first business venture with Maurice B. Clark. They formed their own commission firm. Clark handled all the work in the field, while Rockefeller managed all of the bookkeeping and bank issues. They experienced great success the first year, bringing in $450,000 from buying and trading farm produce and supplies.2 Within that same year the first refinery was erected in Titusville, Pennsylvania. Cleveland became a refining center for the booming new industry, and in 1863, Rockefeller and Clark entered the oil business as refiners. With Samuel Andrews, who had plenty of experience in refining, joining the business, they now operated an oil refinery as well as the commission business. Within two years Clark was bought out by Rockefeller for $72,000. The new firm was named Rockefeller & Andrew, and promptly their business became Cleveland’s largest refinery.3

Shortly afterwards, Rockefeller partnered with his younger brother William, along with S. V. Harkness and H. M. Flagler, who helped set up favorable freight rates on the railroad. By 1870, the use of kerosene was rapidly spreading for the use of lighting. Rockefeller formed the Standard Oil Company of Ohio and within a year they were a one million dollar corporation making forty percent profit.4 Rockefeller bought out most of Cleveland’s refineries, as well as New York, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Rockefeller next turned to new transportation methods: railroads and pipelines. The Pennsylvania Railroad opened up a refinery in an attempt to stop Rockefeller from buying them out. By 1879, Standard Oil became a full industry monopoly by buying out rival refineries and distributing and marketing its products around the world. Standard Oil controlled ninety percent of America’s oil. In 1882, Rockefeller’s properties were combined into the Standard Oil Trust, which ensured that no one would ever be able to buy him out. Standard Oil Trust had an investment of seventy million, and there were forty-two certificate holders, or owners in the trust.5 Rockefeller was a target for muckraking, and people viewed him as greedy and selfish. He was a man who bribed other men to spy on competing companies, or threatened rivals to join the Standard Oil Trust, and he had no problem getting richer by the downfall of other men and their companies.

Fig. 2 Rockefeller University-From Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository
Fig. 2 Rockefeller University-From Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository

By 1890, the Ohio Supreme Court dissolved the Standard Oil Trust. However, the business was part of Standard Oil of New Jersey and was considered a holding company. Due to its legal designation it could not be touched. By 1911, after many years of arguing in court, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Standard Oil of New Jersey was in violation of the anti-trust laws and forced it to break up into more than thirty individual companies.6 That same year Rockefeller retired from Standard Oil and made a deal with Andrew Carnegie (a Scottish immigrant who made a fortune in the steel industry). Rockefeller sold Carnegie all his investment holdings. In this new role he handled all of Carnegie’s transportation on the Great Lakes. Rockefeller brought in 200 million dollars for the first time.7  In truth, he was not driven solely by profits. Rockefeller became a philanthropist donating to various educational schools, all kinds of religious churches, and scientific causes, and he funded the University of Chicago and the Rockefeller University. The total of Rockefeller’s philanthropies totaled an estimated 900 million dollars.8 He died at the age of ninety-seven, on May 23, 1937.

The impact of Rockefeller and his genius and business acumen are impossible to ignore. He is an icon in America history. In the end, Rockefeller had accomplished his goals. He did not let anything stop him and his ideas from coming to reality. He was a very smart man and used all his knowledge in creating and becoming one of the richest of men, greatest of philanthropists, and a very powerful man. He made a fortune and lived a simple life giving back to society. He made a promise to himself that he would give back ten percent of what he made and he did just that until his death.

  1. Encyclopedia of World Biography, 1998, s.v. “John Davison Rockefeller.”
  2. Encyclopedia of World Biography, 1998, s.v. “John Davison Rockefeller.”
  3. Encyclopedia of World Biography, 1998, s.v. “John Davison Rockefeller.”
  4. Encyclopedia of World Biography, 1998, s.v. “John Davison Rockefeller.”
  5. Encyclopedia of World Biography, 1998, s.v. “John Davison Rockefeller.”
  6. Encyclopedia of World Biography, 1998, s.v. “John Davison Rockefeller.”
  7. Alan Brinkley, American History: Connecting with the Past Volume 2 (Fifteenth Edition, McGraw-Hill Education, 2014), 464-65.
  8. Encyclopedia of World Biography, 1998, s.v. “John Davison Rockefeller.”

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This Post Has 34 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Christopher Metta Bexar

    John Rockefeller is the founder of one a few real monopolies ever created. It is indeed asked if he would in fact be the wealthiest man in the world in the last three centuries (including Jeff Bezos who is the chairman of the world’s first trillion dollar corporation).
    As the author tells us Mr Rockefeller made his money his way. I found it interesting to read about one of the greatest of the so called “robber barons” of the 19th century.

  2. Avatar
    Raymond Nash Munoz III

    This is a really informative article that provides all the necessary information to get interest of who Rockefeller was. From the article I have gathered that, from a large perspective, Rockefeller seems like a very caring contributor to his society. Though, I can’t help but notice how Rockefeller started his business with Clark, then integrated Andrew, and eventually ditched Clark. I know I don’t have the full story and that there probably is some crucial detail that explains the change of pace, but as of right now, it would seem like Rockefeller’s interest’s changed and they didn’t involve Clark. Even though Rockefeller’s switch up on partners looks like the common negative aspect of business, it still doesn’t erase all the good he had done, he was in fact human.

  3. Avatar
    Greyson Addicott

    interest in John D. Rockefeller after reading Upton Sinclairs “The Jungle,” I immediately bought his only authored book, “Of Men and Events.” The only thing I learned about Rockefeller in that novel, however, was just how secret he was about his personal life. He was, however, an amazing individual. I read once that he would give children around him silver dollars and tell them to invest the money after his retirement. Capitalism, Rockefeller proved, is not inherently evil at all. He grew his company to enormous heights by paying his workers well, and offering cheaper and cheaper prices to his consumers. The only monopolies that emerge in a free market nation are created through government intervention, because competition never truly dies.

  4. Avatar
    Valeria Perez

    I am divided with this story. In one hand I admire Rockefeller, he started his own business at a young age and dominated market through his skills and leadership. On the other hand, he bullied others and abused the system that had made him his fortune (capitalism). Though he abused his power you still have to admit he was an excellent business man that knew when to get into a business and when to get out.

  5. Avatar
    Ethan Rodriguez

    I choose this article to comment on because earlier in my schooling at St. Mary’s University, we talked about Rockefeller and his historical significance in oil. In the core class Others, we talked how impactful Rockefeller was and how he made his fortune in the industry. I feel like this article explained more of the philanthropist side of Rockefeller. I think this article provided me with more of an interesting aspect of that lifestyle, and I feel that through the writing I gained more knowledge. It was a great read.

  6. Avatar
    Max Lerma

    This article was a great read. I knew about Rockefeller’s business enterprises, but less about his philanthropic efforts. I am really glad that you brought it up in your article. The fact that he gave ten percent of his profits to charity every year shows that he was not your typical leader of a big business. The way you wrote it too, ensured that your readers never lose interest in what else Rockefeller accomplished in his life.

  7. Avatar
    Yahaira Martinez

    i had actually never heard much about Rockefeller prior to this article and i never knew how much of a fortune he obtained by his hard work. Although seeming like he would be a very greedy person, the article managed to capture a different side of his personality and his actions by speaking about his philanthropist lifestyle, which allowed the readers to look at him from a more relatable view.

  8. Avatar
    Auroara-Juhl Nikkels

    In high school, I remember learning that Rockafeller was the oil guy. And that he had a lot of money. That was pretty much all I knew about him. Your article opened my mind about who he was and what he did. I learned so much more about him than I did in high school and what he did for the community. I did not know he was a philanthropist and wanted to help so many different causes. I am glad you included that part of who he was on your article. Very good job!

  9. Avatar
    Saira Castellanos

    I think all people know is that Rockefeller was in the oil business. Thats the limit of my knowledge about him anyway, and also that he was ridiculously rich. Its pretty amazing how one man can help so many people and help different causes. I always thought that he was the same as all rich people, always so greedy. I am glad to see a nice side of this philanthropist. Great article!

  10. Avatar
    Osman Rodriguez

    I never knew much about Rockefeller aside from the fact that he was in the oil business and amassed a fortune. He is indeed an interesting man and one that helped many people and different causes. Reading about his philanthropist side was warming and something I hope to one day personally relate to. I agree with giving back to the community and its people. Hopefully someday I will be able to do that in a way I see fit.

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