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’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.
In 1808, Astor founded the
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.
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.
Chinese trade with the United States
Fur trapping and trading
John D. Rockefeller