John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Library
As the Brown University Library celebrates the 50th anniversary of the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Library, we pause to acknowledge the incredible life and accomplishments of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. and, most notably, the tradition of philanthropy that he engendered within his family and throughout his groundbreaking charitable organizations.
One hundred seventy five years ago today, John Davison Rockefeller was born on July 8, 1839 in Richmond, NY. Born into a modest household, the second of six children, Rockefeller, Sr. was raised to value hard work, saving money, and charitable giving. At the age of 12, with savings earned raising turkeys, he loaned money to a local farmer at 7% interest and discovered he had a knack for putting money to work for him. At 16, he began a job at Hewitt & Tuttle, commission merchants and produce shippers, as an assistant bookkeeper in Cleveland, OH, where the family now lived. Before long, he had impressed his employers and the business community with his hard work and business acumen.
A few years later, in 1859, he started his own commission merchant business—Clark & Rockefeller—with neighbor Maurice Clark. The business did well and boomed during the Civil War; however, Rockefeller realized there was a limit to the success of the commission merchant business in Ohio and instead turned his focus to oil.
In 1870, after two permutations of oil companies, Rockefeller and his brother William plus four other partners formed the Standard Oil Company. From this union, the Standard Oil Trust was created in 1882—a vertically integrated organization that controlled the twenty companies that comprised Standard’s entire oil enterprise. The Trust was incredibly successful, supplying products to 80% of American towns by 1904 and providing the country with affordable fuel for lighting. After losing an anti-trust suit, the Trust was dissolved in 1892, though all the companies continued on, with shares instead of trust certificates held by the stakeholders.
During the days of the Trust, Rockefeller became extraordinarily wealthy. (His worth was estimated at $900 million in 1912.) He hired Frederick Gates to manage his fortune, including investments and charitable giving. Gates was joined in this endeavor by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. in 1897. Retiring that same year, Rockefeller, Sr. turned all his energy toward philanthropy. When he died in 1937, his worth was estimated at $26.5 million, with most of his fortune having been given to charity and his heirs.
A trustee for his church by age 21, Rockefeller, Sr. had always made charitable giving part of his approach to earning, saving, and spending. He gave to and supported the causes he thought would have the greatest positive impact on the human condition, and indeed, many of his philanthropic efforts had a profound influence. He is credited with the creation of the University of Chicago; he founded the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research (now Rockefeller University), which developed, among many things, a serum treatment for spinal meningitis and pneumonia; he founded the General Education Board (now the Rockefeller Foundation), which bolstered public education in the South; he established the Rockefeller Sanitary Commission, whose efforts resulted in the elimination of hookworm in the South and laid the blueprint for modern public health services.
Many organizations received Rockefeller’s financial support, including Brown University, where his son, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., attended college, matriculating in 1893. While at Brown, Rockefeller, Jr. met Abby Aldrich, a Rhode Island native, who would become his wife (and a prominent philanthropist in her own right). Rockefeller, Jr. took up his father’s doctrine of philanthropy, giving generously to Brown, which he loved so well. Known at Brown as “Johnny Rock,” Rockefeller, Jr. received an honorary master of arts degree in 1914 at the time of Brown’s sesquicentennial celebration. The John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Library was dedicated 50 years later in 1964. As the University celebrates its 250th anniversary, we remember and honor the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Rock and the spirit of giving that made its existence possible, begun over a century ago by a remarkable man who considered charity as important as industry.