John Jacob Astor Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Astor’s commercial success anticipated the rags-to-riches stories popularized by nineteenth century novelists. His first American job was selling baked goods in the streets. By 1820, he was considered the wealthiest man in America.

One of eleven children of a butcher, Johann Jakob Astor was educated until age fourteen. He later joined an older brother in London, where he sold musical instruments, learned English, and changed his name to John Jacob. In 1783, the twenty-year-old Astor set sail for New York. After selling baked goods, he worked for a fur merchant before branching out on his own. In 1785, he married Sarah Todd, the daughter of his poor but well-connected New York landlady.Astor, John Jacob

Astor’s success was influenced by his character and his marriage. He was frugal, hardworking, eager and quick to learn, fearless, and single-mindedly determined to gain financial success. His wife brought a dowry and, through her family, important contacts. In 1786, he advertised musical instruments and supplies at his lodging, later buying fur there. Until he could afford to hire agents to act for him, Astor went on buying trips into the wilderness. His wife ran his store during these absences, despite her pregnancies.

John Jacob Astor.

(Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

In 1808, Astor founded the Fur tradeAmerican Fur Company, which was probably the first holding company, forming its first subsidiary, the Pacific Fur Company, in 1810. By 1836, he controlled the American fur trade east of the Mississippi. To achieve greater profits, he also traded with China;U.S. trade withChina, sending ships to purchase furs on the Pacific coast, shipping the furs to China, buying Chinese goods–especially tea, which was popular in America–and, in New York, loading the ships with goods to purchase more Pacific furs. Astor created many trading posts, envisioning an overland trading route between the two coasts. His long-range plan demanded a permanent post at Fort Astor, later Astoria, on the Columbia River. He sent two expeditions to found this post, one by land and one by sea. Both ended disastrously. Noted writer Washington Irving described these catastrophes in Astoria (1836).

By the 1830’s, American demand for furs and Chinese tea was decreasing, and the development of railways and paddlewheel steamers pointed to major changes in commercial distribution. Astor began dismantling his trade empire in 1834. As early as 1789, he had begun investing in real estate, primarily in Manhattan. By 1830, real estate investment was his most profitable business activity, although, by that time, his affairs were largely in the hands of his son, William Backhouse Astor. In 1834, however, he built Astor House, New York’s first luxury hotel. At the time of his death in 1848, the worth of Astor’s estate was estimated at between $20 million and $30 million.

Further Reading
  • Madsen, Axel. John Jacob Astor: America’s First Multimillionaire. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2001.
  • Smith, Arthur D. Howden. John Jacob Astor: Landlord of New York. 1929. Reprint. New York: Cosimo, 2005.
  • Wilson, Derek. The Astors, 1763-1992: Landscape with Millionaires. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993.

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