JOHN JACOB ASTOR was born a century before our other subjects in this series ((1763). He emigrated from Germany in 1779 when he was sixteen, to work with his brother in London making musical instruments, but in 1783 (at twenty) he sailed for America to make his fortune.
Straightaway he got into the flourishing fur trade, and by 1800 he had established the beginnings of a commercial empire. He chartered the ships that carried precious furs across the Pacific and the Atlantic. He founded the American Fur Company in 1808, and dominated trade on the plains and in the mountains within ten years.
Around 1834 he sold out his interests in furs, and settled down to managing his vastly profitable property holdings. Later Astors moved to Europe, made suitable marriages, became aristocrats, Members of Parliament, and bought or built mansions. Cliveden, near London on the Thames, was built by a Lord Astor. His wife Lady Astor (left) was the first woman to enter the House of Commons
ANDREW WILLIAM MELLON was born in 1885, to a family already bursting with riches. He was interested by politics, and served as Secretary of the Treasury from 1921 to 1932 when he was in his thirties. The Presidents he worked for were Warren Harding, J. Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover.
As Secretary Mellon (right) was opposed to high taxes, worked to get them lower, and also hated high governmental expenditure – completely the opposite of the purposes of today’s politicians. He was mainly responsible for the Boom of the 1920s, because of his convincing argument that government administration should be run on the lines of big business. He cut taxes to the rich because he claimed this would help their investments, which in turn would bring employment and many other benefits to the burgeoning lower and middle classes of America.
When the unwanted and unheralded Depression arrived, Mellon had no other policy but a hardening of his own ideas. He donated most of his huge art collection to the country, along with funds to open and maintain museums, libraries and art galleries. Like most of the others in our list, he had become a philanthropist. This is what seems to separate American billionaires from their European counterparts, who have never shown much eagerness to give away their fortunes. Self-aggrandisement has always been favoured among the very rich in Europe, though there are of course exceptions. Mellon established the US National Gallery of Art in 1937, the year of his death. He was eighty-two.
CORNELIUS VANDERBILT was born at the very end of the eighteenth century. His immense fortune came from development of the American railroad, as it is called. He made his start by ferrying passengers and freight around New York City. Then he acquired most of the ferry rights along the Hudson and East Coast. These businesses made him rich, but then the famous Gold Rush started, and Vanderbilt, who knew how to move faster than anyone else, connected California to New York by managing his own shipping line to San Francisco via Nicaragua. He also built his own roads across the United States for making the overland journey with more comfort and safety.
The Civil War (q.v.) gave him an even better chance to use his powerful initiative, and rapidly he came to dominate the network in and out of New York and and as far west as Chicago.
As is to be expected, Vanderbilt amassed an extraordinarily large fortune, but he was not one to give it all away. Before his death 1877 he did however endow the Vanderbilt University (seen above) with $1 million. He was eighty-four when he died.