He moved (1853) with his family to a farm near Cleveland and at age 16 went to work as a bookkeeper. Frugal and industrious, Rockefeller became (1859) a partner in a produce business, and four years later, with his partners, he established an oil refinery, entering into an industry already thriving in Cleveland.
In 1870 he and his associates—including S. V. Harkness, H. M. Flagler, and his brother William—organized the Standard Oil Company of Ohio, capitalized at $1 million. By enforcing strict economy and efficiency, through mergers and agreements with competitors, by ruthlessly crushing weaker competitors, and by accumulating large capital reserves, Rockefeller soon dominated the American oil-refining industry. Rebate agreements, which he forced from the railroads, and the control of pipeline distribution of refined oil strengthened the near monopoly of the Standard Oil Company.
In 1882 the diverse holdings of the various members of Rockefeller's combination were tied together into the Standard Oil trust. Court action compelled the trust to dissolve 10 years later, but in a few years the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey was chartered as a holding company, with a capitalization of $110 million. Rockefeller was also prominent in the affairs of railroads and banks, being second only to J. P. Morgan in the domain of finance. When the United States Steel Corporation was formed (1901), Rockefeller was one of the directors. In 1911 a decision of the U.S. Supreme Court required the holding company to dissolve and its directors to relinquish their control over the numerous subsidiaries. Rockefeller personally ruled over his enormous petroleum business until 1911, when he retired with a fabulous fortune.
Intensely religious, Rockefeller had an interest in philanthropy as deep as his interest in business. He gave generously to the Baptist Church, to the YMCA, and to the Anti-Saloon League. He also founded (1892) the Univ. of Chicago. The most prominent of the philanthropic enterprises to which he eventually turned over some $500 million were the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, founded (1901) in New York City and since 1965 known as Rockefeller Univ.; the General Education Board, organized (1902) to make gifts to various educational and research agencies; the Rockefeller Foundation, established (1913) to promote public health and to further the medical, natural, and social sciences; and the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial, founded (1918) in memory of his wife, for the furthering of child welfare and the social sciences. He wrote Random Reminiscences of Men and Events (1909).
See biographies of J. D. Rockefeller by A. Nevins (rev. ed. 1959), J. Abels (1965), and R. Chernow (1998); J. T. Flynn, God's Gold (1932, repr. 1971); W. Inglis, John D. Rockefeller Interview, 1917–1920 (1989); studies by D. Frost (1987) and J. Harr and P. Johnson (1988); biography of J. D. Rockefeller, Jr., by R. B. Fosdick (1956) and of Laurance Rockefeller by R. Winks (1997).
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