John Jacob Astor.
Not far from the lovely Heidelberg on the Rhine, is the picturesque village
of Walldorf, which is the birth place of John Jacob Astor, who was born in 1763.
His father was a peasant, thus it is seen that he had not the advantages of family influence or
assistance. He saved what little money he could earn, and at sixteen set out on
foot for the sea coast, where he took passage in a vessel for London. He had a
brother in that city who was, in a small way, a manufacturer of musical
instruments. Here he remained until 1783, when he embarked for America, taking
some flutes with him. On the voyage he made the acquaintance of a furrier. This
individual he plied with numerous questions, until he was quite familiar with
the business, and when he reached America he at once exchanged his flutes for
furs, and hastening back to England succeeded in selling them at a fair profit
over all expenses.
Having disposed of his business in London, he engaged passage in a ship which
did not return for some weeks. In the meantime he purchased a lot of goods which
he thought would prove salable in America. He also improved the time in visiting
the Governor of the then great East India Company. The Governor was from his
native town in Germany, and Astor, making the most of this fact, secured from
him a permit to trade at any port subject to the East India Company. When he
arrived in New York once more he at once closed a bargain with a West India
trader, that gentleman furnishing a ship and cargo, Astor the permit, which was
very valuable, as it gained them access to Canton, China, which was closed to
all foreigners save the vessels of the East India Company. The terms of this
bargain was that each should participate equally in the profits of the voyage,
and Astor's share was several barrels of milled dollars, the total profit being about $110,000.
He after this bought ships of his own, and shipped his own merchandise to the
East, bringing back cargoes to be sold in the new world. The Government at
Washington approved of Astor's proposition to get possession of the fur business
of the Interior, controlled at that time by British companies. He succeeded in
raising a corporation with $1,000,000 capital, and within a few years Mr. Astor
controlled the fur interests of the country. This was back in Jefferson's time
when the city of New York was a small village. Astor, with that keen foresight
which marked his life's history, had been buying land on Staten Island, and the
marvelous growth of the city brought the price of his possessions up to fabulous
amounts, and the latter part of his life his whole attention was occupied in
taking care of his great blocks of real estate.
While other merchants went to their desks at nine, Astor could always be seen
there at prompt seven. He early in life, before leaving his old home on the
Rhine, resolved to be honest, to be industrious, and to avoid gambling. Upon
this solid moral basis he built the superstructure of his fame and secured his
The one great act of John Jacob Astor's life, which must forever keep the
name of Astor before the people, is the establishment of the Astor Library by
donating for that purpose $400,000, to which have been added large contributions
by his son William B., to whom the elder Astor left about $20,000,000. The
library contains about two hundred thousand volumes, the catalogue alone
contains two thousand five hundred pages alphabetically arranged. The Astors are
the principal real estate owners of America.
Memorial for John Jacob Astor