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  1. John D. Rockefeller: Introduction
  2. John D. Rockefeller: Early Life and Education
  3. John D. Rockefeller: Success Story
  4. John D. Rockefeller: Net Worth
  5. John D. Rockefeller: Famous or Infamous
  6. John D. Rockefeller: Most Influential Quotes

Perhaps Rockefeller’s conflicted nature was unavoidable, given who his parents were. His father, William Rockefeller, was a lumberman-turned-conman who posed as a physician and sold pricey concoctions – petroleum-based, by some accounts – that he claimed would cure cancer. He had two daughters with a housekeeper before he left the family when John D. was a teenager. Using the false name Dr. William Levingston, he married a woman in Ontario. She did not know about his first wife, to whom he was still legally married. “Devil Bill,” as he was known, said he liked to “cheat my boys every chance I get,” thinking that this would “make 'em sharp.” Apparently it worked. 

Rockefeller’s mother was an entirely different sort of person. She was a pious Northern Baptist who read Scripture every day and imbued her children with the values of thrift, hard work, charity and decency. Her favorite refrain was “willful waste makes woeful want.” 

Rather than pick and choose, Rockefeller appears to have wholly absorbed both of these approaches to life. Chasing profit by underhanded or deceitful means—check. Shunning vice and excess, living a pious life and giving generously to those less fortunate—also check. He reconciled these two paths morally with this formulation: “Get money, get it honestly, and then give it wisely.” (For more, see: Wall Street History: A Robber Baron and a Beer Baron.)

Whether he got his money honestly in all cases is debatable, but he certainly believed he had. As for his theology, it had ample precedent in Northern Europe and America. Max Weber, writing in 1905, described the Protestant work ethic as an internalization of the Christian monastic tradition: rather than praying and meditating your life away in a cloister, make your mind a cloister and go about your business in the world diligently and honestly. If you happen to make money, it’s a sign of divine favor—but don’t grow too attached to it.

Armed with the certainty that he was on a divine as well as a commercial mission, Rockefeller went out at the age of 16 into the streets of Cleveland, where his family had moved two years prior from New York. He asked for a job at practically every business in the city, and when he didn’t get one, he made the rounds again. He had knocked on some doors three times before he was hired by a commission merchant and produce shipper as a bookkeeper.

He worked long hours, doing tedious calculations and collecting on delinquent accounts. He was very good at both, and within a couple of years, he was taking on complex transportation deals for the company, contending with the chaos of 19th-century railroad and shipping schedules. He was notoriously honest, and was already giving away 6 and later 10% of his 50 cent-per-day salary to charity.

Just before turning 20, in 1859, Rockefeller and a neighbor, Maurice Clark, formed a partnership with a $4,000 initial investment. They began turning a handsome profit as commission merchants, making $4,400 in 1860 and $17,000 in 1861. The Civil War drove the price of grain up and the partners’ commissions with it. Rockefeller paid substitutes to fight for him, though his brother did serve. Around this time his philanthropic activities picked up. He gave a black man the money to buy his wife’s freedom in 1859 and gave to a number of churches the next year, not just his own Baptist congregation. What he would not do was make loans.

In the mid-1800s, whale oil, which was burned as a source of light, was becoming scarce as sperm whales were hunted to near extinction all over the globe. In 1859, Edwin L. Drake became the first person to apply well-digging techniques to the petroleum business, igniting a black gold rush in Titusville, Pennsylvania. (For related reading, see: Wall Street History: The Boesky and Siegel Deal.)

Petroleum had been a familiar presence in northwestern Pennsylvania since before European colonization. In the 19th century, it was a nuisance to well-diggers and farmers, who saw it as just a contaminant. To the extent it was sought after, it was as a folksy cure-all of dubious medicinal value, peddled by soap-box toting quacks like Rockefeller’s own father. 

But when people began drilling it in large quantities, and chemists began isolating various byproducts, it was found that crude oil could serve as an exponentially cheaper substitute for animal products. In 1846 a Canadian geologist showed that coal could be rendered into kerosene, and five years later the technique was applied to crude oil, signaling the death of whale-oil lamplight. Lubricants derived from crude oil were found to work better than lard for greasing machine components. 

In 1863 Rockefeller bought an oil refinery in the Flats section of Cleveland. 


John D. Rockefeller: Success Story
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