John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937), founder of the Standard Oil Company, became one of the world’s wealthiest men and a major philanthropist. Born into modest circumstances in upstate New York, he entered the then-fledgling oil business in 1863 by investing in a Cleveland, Ohio, refinery. In 1870, he established Standard Oil, which by the early 1880s controlled some 90 percent of U.S. refineries and pipelines. Critics accused Rockefeller of engaging in unethical practices, such as predatory pricing and colluding with railroads to eliminate his competitors, in order to gain a monopoly in the industry. In 1911, the U.S. Supreme Court found Standard Oil in violation of anti-trust laws and ordered it to dissolve. During his life Rockefeller donated more than $500 million to various philanthropic causes.
John Davison Rockefeller, the son of a traveling salesman, was born on July 8, 1839, in Richford, New York. Industrious even as a boy, the future oil magnate earned money by raising turkeys, selling candy and doing jobs for neighbors. In 1853, the Rockefeller family moved to the Cleveland, Ohio, area, where John attended high school then briefly studied bookkeeping at a commercial college.
In 1855, at age 16, he found work as an office clerk at a Cleveland commission firm that bought, sold and shipped grain, coal and other commodities. (He considered September 26, the day he started the position and entered the business world, so significant that as an adult he commemorated this “job day” with an annual celebration.) In 1859, Rockefeller and a partner established their own commission firm. That same year, America’s first oil well was drilled in Titusville, Pennsylvania. In 1863, Rockefeller and several partners entered the booming new oil industry by investing in a Cleveland refinery.
In 1864, Rockefeller married Laura Celestia “Cettie” Spelman (1839-1915), an Ohio native whose father was a prosperous merchant, politician and abolitionist active in the Underground Railroad. (Laura Rockefeller became the namesake of Spelman College, the historically black women’s college in Atlanta, Georgia, that her husband helped finance.) The Rockefellers went on to have four daughters (three of whom survived to adulthood) and one son.
In 1865, Rockefeller borrowed money to buy out some of his partners and take control of the refinery, which had become the largest in Cleveland. Over the next few years, he acquired new partners and expanded his business interests in the growing oil industry. At the time, kerosene, derived from petroleum and used in lamps, was becoming an economic staple. In 1870, Rockefeller formed the Standard Oil Company of Ohio, along with his younger brother William (1841-1922), Henry Flagler (1830-1913) and a group of other men. John Rockefeller was its president and largest shareholder.
Standard Oil gained a monopoly in the oil industry by buying rival refineries and developing companies for distributing and marketing its products around the globe. In 1882, these various companies were combined into the Standard Oil Trust, which would control some 90 percent of the nation’s refineries and pipelines. In order to exploit economies of scale, Standard Oil did everything from build its own oil barrels to employ scientists to figure out new uses for petroleum by-products.
Rockefeller’s enormous wealth and success made him a target of muckraking journalists, reform politicians and others who viewed him as a symbol of corporate greed and criticized the methods with which he’d built his empire. As The New York Times reported in 1937: “He was accused of crushing out competition, getting rich on rebates from railroads, bribing men to spy on competing companies, of making secret agreements, of coercing rivals to join the Standard Oil Company under threat of being forced out of business, building up enormous fortunes on the ruins of other men, and so on.”
In 1890, the U.S. Congress passed the Sherman Antitrust Act, the first federal legislation prohibiting trusts and combinations that restrained trade. Two years later, the Ohio Supreme Court dissolved the Standard Oil Trust; however, the businesses within the trust soon became part of Standard Oil of New Jersey, which functioned as a holding company. In 1911, after years of litigation, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Standard Oil of New Jersey was in violation of anti-trust laws and forced it to dismantle (it was broken up into more than 30 individual companies).
Rockefeller retired from day-to-day business operations of Standard Oil in the mid-1890s. Inspired in part by fellow Gilded Age tycoon Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919), who made a vast fortune in the steel industry then became a philanthropist and gave away the bulk of his money, Rockefeller donated more than half a billion dollars to various educational, religious and scientific causes. Among his activities, he funded the establishment of the University of Chicago and the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research (now Rockefeller University).
In his personal life, Rockefeller was devoutly religious, a temperance advocate and an avid golfer. His goal was to reach the age of 100; however, he died at 97 on May 23, 1937, at The Casements, his winter home in Ormond Beach, Florida. (Rockefeller owned multiple residences, including a home in New York City, an estate in Lakewood, New Jersey, and an estate called Kykuit, old Dutch for “lookout,” set on 3,000 acres near Tarrytown, New York.) He was buried at Lake View Cemetery in Cleveland.