1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Astor, John Jacob

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ASTOR, JOHN JACOB (1763-1848), American merchant, was born at the village of Walldorf, near Heidelberg, Germany, on the 17th of July 1763. Until he was sixteen he worked in the shop of his father, a butcher; he then joined an elder brother in London, and there for four years was employed in the piano and flute factory of an uncle, of the firm of Astor & Broadwood. In 1783 he emigrated to America, and settled in New York, whither one of his brothers had previously gone. On the voyage he became acquainted with a fur-trader, by whose advice he devoted himself to the same business, buying furs directly from the Indians, preparing them at first with his own hands for the market, and selling them in London and elsewhere at a great profit. He was also the agent in New York of the firm of Astor & Broadwood. By his energy, industry and sound judgment he gradually enlarged his operations, did business in all the fur markets of the world, and amassed an enormous fortune,—the largest up to that time made by any American. He devoted many years to carrying out a project for organizing the fur trade from the Great Lakes to the Pacific Ocean, and thence by way of the Hawaiian Islands to China and India. In 1811 he founded at the mouth of the Columbia river a settlement named after him Astoria, which was intended to serve as the central depot; but two years later the settlement was seized and occupied by the English. The incidents of this undertaking are the theme of Washington Irving’s Astoria. A series of disasters frustrated the gigantic scheme. Astor made vast additions to his wealth by investments in real estate in New York City, and erected many buildings there, including the hotel known as the Astor House. The last twenty-five years of his life were spent in retirement in New York City, where he died on the 29th of March 1848, his fortune then being estimated at about $30,000,000. He made various charitable bequests by his will, and among them a gift of $50,000 to found an institution, opened as the “Astor House” in 1854, for the education of poor children and the relief of the aged and the destitute in his native village in Germany. His chief benefaction, however, was a bequest of $400,000 for the foundation and endowment of a public library in New York City, since known as the Astor library, and since 1895 part of the New York public library.

See Parton’s Life of John Jacob Astor (New York, 1865).

His eldest son, William Backhouse Astor (1792-1875), inherited the greater part of his father’s fortune, and chiefly by judicious investments in real estate greatly increased it. He was sometimes known as the “Landlord of New York.” Under his direction the building for the Astor library was erected, and to the library he gave about $550,000, including a bequest of $200,000. His son, John Jacob Astor (1822-1890), was also well known as a capitalist and philanthropist, giving liberally to the Astor library.

The son of the last named, William Waldorf Astor (1848-  ), served in the New York assembly in 1877, and in the state senate in 1880-81. He was United States minister to Italy from 1882 to 1885. He published two romances, Valentine (1885) and Sforza (1889). His wealth, arising from property in New York, where also he built the New Netherland hotel and the Waldorf hotel, was enormous. In 1890 he removed to England, and in 1899 was naturalized. In 1893 he became proprietor of the Pall Mall Gazette, and afterwards started the Pall Mall Magazine.