Wednesday, August 02, 2006

VICTORIAN FASTLANE: Part 2, John Jacob Astor I

America's Gilded Age began with the legendary John Jacob Astor. He is called "the first truly diversified capitalist in America" by Brian Trumbore, editor of Stocks and
Astor founded the dynasty that was America's richest family in the 19th century. The name Astor is still newsworthy. Recent headlines about the care of Brooke Astor, the 104 year old widow of John Jacob's great-great-great-grandson, William Vincent Astor (1891-1959), prove the Astors are still high profile.

Born in Waldorf, Germany, in 1763, the first American millionaire was given the name Johann Jakob Astor by his humble parents. He landed in this country with a small amount of money and seven flutes, which he promptly sold. While crossing the Atlantic he heard about the American fur trade. Astor went to work in his brother's New York butcher shop. He dreamed of supplying Europe's need for furs and bringing back the musical instruments so prized in America. In a few years, Astor went into fur trading beyond the western borders of the young nation. Within a year he was in London selling the furs he had purchased in America and buying trade goods to take back with him.

Back in America, he somehow found time to meet Sarah Todd. She came to buy furs from him and he was intrigued to learn she actually cut and sewed furs. They married and had three children, Magdalen Astor, 1788; John Jacob Astor II, 1791; and William Backhouse Astor, Sr., 1792.

In the 1790's Astor began investing in banks. By the age of 37, he was worth $250,000 - a fortune in 1800. He also owned a ship and imported wool and arms from Europe. In 1808, Astor founded the American Fur Company. One of his subsidiary companies established the trading post, Fort Astoria in 1811. It became Astoria, Washington. Astor succeeded largely through shrewd dealings with the Indian tribes and friendships with British officials who allowed him to branch out into the Northwest Territories.

By 1835, Astor retired from the fur trade to concentrate on New York real estate. A year later he opened the Astor House, a hotel on Broadway, adjacent to City Hall. It was called "astonishing" and a "marvel of the age." During its 80-year history, both Abraham Lincoln and the future King Edward VII were guests.

WHEN THE ASTORS OWNED NEW YORK, Blue Bloods and Grand Hotels in a Gilded Age, is the title of Justin Kaplan's new book. The Pulitzer Prize winning author's title is no exaggeration, since John Jacob bought acres of Manhattan farmland back when New York covered only the lowest tip of the island. This land, a part of which lies beneath the Empire State Building, added a colossal fortune to his legendary millions.
Kaplan's book focuses on the family's mania for building luxury hotels. As the fashionable people moved steadily uptown in Manhattan, the Astors built more sumptuous hotels, such as the Waldorf-Astoria, and introduced Americans to indoor plumbling, central heating, gas lighting, incandescent lighting, telephones, elevators, and air conditioning - as well as silver chafing dishes and velvet ropes.

John Jacob Astor died in 1848 at the age of 84. He was the richest man in America.


Brooke Astor is the author of three books:
PATCHWORK CHILD: Early Memories. Harper & Row, 1962.
FOOTPRINTS: An Autobiography. Doubleday, 1980.
THE LAST BLOSSOM ON THE PLUM TREE: A Period Piece. Random House, 1986.
Since the death of William Vincent Astor, Brooke Astor has given away 200 million dollars.


1 comment:

Fern said...

My husband and I stayed in the fabulous Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in NYC on our 20th wedding anniversary. I am really glad to learn about this family. Looking forward to another installment about the following generations of Astors. Is the 104 year old Brooke Astor really sleeping on dirty sheets? What happened in the intervening years???