John D. Rockefeller
John D. Rockefeller, 1885
John D. Rockefeller was born on July 8, 1839, at Richford, New York. His father was a merchant who traveled across the Midwest and Northeastern portions of the United States. The family eventually moved to Ohio. The Rockefellers lived in Strongsville and then Parma, before settling in Cleveland in 1853. John Rockefeller eventually owned a home in East Cleveland, Ohio. John found employment hiring himself out to neighboring farmers. While he liked the pay, he dreaded the physical labor and determined that he must find a less physical occupation. In 1854, Rockefeller enrolled in a business school. He had hoped to attend college, but he determined that tuition was too expensive and an unnecessary financial burden on his family. He studied business practices, bookkeeping, and handwriting, graduating from the school in 1855.
Upon graduation, Rockefeller's first position was as bookkeeper for Hewitt and Tuttle, merchants in Cleveland. In 1859, Rockefeller left this firm and partnered with M.B. Clark to form his own business. The partners specialized in selling produce. During the American Civil War, Rockefeller and Clark profited tremendously as they sold supplies to the federal government.
In 1862, the two partners joined with Samuel Andrews to establish an oil-refining company. The men purchased oil wells in Titusville, Pennsylvania, and constructed a well near Cleveland, Ohio. In 1865, Rockefeller bought out Clark's interest in the company, creating Rockefeller & Andrews Oil Company. In this year alone, the business earned approximately 200,000 dollars.
While Rockefeller reaped extensive wealth in 1865, the oil industry was just beginning to grow. Most people only used oil for lighting. The market was limited. Prices fluctuated dramatically, as oil production waxed and waned during this period. To try and stabilize oil prices Rockefeller and Andrews approached O.H. Payne, owner of the largest oil refinery in Cleveland. They proposed that the three men unite their companies together. By having a single oil company operating in northeastern Ohio, this company could hopefully fix prices and avoid the tremendous swings as production sometimes increased or dwindled. The company organizers convinced numerous other Cleveland firms to join with them. In other cases, they bought out the companies or drove them out of business by selling their oil for a much cheaper price than their competitors could. In 1870, Rockefeller united these companies together as the Standard Oil Company.
During the 1870s and 1880s, Rockefeller sought to expand Standard Oil's influence. The company began to purchase or drive out of business oil refiners across the United States. By 1878, Standard Oil purportedly controlled ninety percent of the oil refineries in the United States. In 1881, the Standard Oil Company became known as the Standard Oil Trust. In essence, the Standard Oil Company created various companies across the United States that were purportedly their own entities. In reality, Rockefeller directed all of these businesses.
During the 1880s and 1890s, Rockefeller came under attack from the federal government for having created a virtual monopoly over the oil industry. In 1890, John Sherman, a senator from Ohio, proposed an anti-trust act, authorizing the federal government to break up any businesses that prohibited competition. The Standard Oil Trust effectively eliminated competition. In 1892, Ohio's attorney general filed suit against Rockefeller and his company. While Ohio won the case, Standard Oil appealed the decision. In 1911, the United States Supreme Court eventually ruled in this case that Standard Oil was a trust and had to cease to exist. The company then splintered into numerous subsidiaries. In theory, these companies were no longer owned by a single person or operated by a single board of directors, but it appears that they still operated in conjunction with each other. Among these various companies were Standard Oil of Ohio, Standard Oil of Indiana, Standard Oil of New York, Standard Oil of New Jersey, Standard Oil of California, Standard Oil of Kentucky, Standard Oil of Iowa, Standard Oil of Minnesota, Standard Oil of Illinois, Standard Oil of Kansas, Standard Oil of Missouri, Standard Oil of Nebraska, and Standard Oil of Louisiana. Other companies used the Standard Oil name to profit off of the company's reputation, but these organizations were never part of the company formerly controlled by Rockefeller.
Rockefeller was alive during the government's attack on Standard Oil, but he had retired from the company in 1895, well before the dispute ended. In 1901, his wealth was estimated at 900 million dollars, making him the wealthiest man in the world. He dedicated the remainder of his life to philanthropic efforts. He used his wealth to establish the University of Chicago in 1892 and the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in 1901. Rockefeller also was a driving force behind the preservation of Williamsburg, Virginia, as a historic landmark. He donated funds to innumerable other charities through the Rockefeller Foundation. John Rockefeller died in 1937 at Ormond Beach, Florida.
- Tarbell, Ida. History of Standard Oil. New York, NY: Arno Press, 1976.