Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography/Astor, John Jacob

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ASTOR, John Jacob, merchant, b. in Waldorf, near Heidelberg, Germany, 17 July, 1763; d. in New York, 29 March, 1848. He was the fourth son of a butcher in Waldorf, and until he was sixteen years of age he worked with his father. He then joined an elder brother in London, who was employed in the piano and flute factory of their uncle, of the firm of Astor & Broadwood, widely known afterward as Broadwood & Co. His brother Henry had settled in New York, and his intention was to emigrate to the United States as soon as he could save enough money. In 1783 he sailed for Baltimore with a small invoice of musical instruments to sell on commission. On shipboard he met with a furrier, who told him of the profits to be made in buying furs from the Indians and frontiersmen and selling them to the large dealers, and, in order to become familiar with the fur business, he entered into the employ of a Quaker furrier in New York and, when he had mastered the numerous details of the trade, began business on his own account, opening a shop in Water street, in which he worked early and late, except when absent on his purchasing trips. Soon after he established himself in New York he visited London, formed connections with houses in the fur trade, and made arrangements with Astor & Broadwood to become their agent in America. After his return to New York he opened a wareroom for the sale of musical instruments, becoming the first regular dealer in such articles in the United States. He married Sarah Todd, who brought him a dowry of only $300, but who possessed a frugal mind and a business judgment that he declared to be better than that of most merchants, and she assisted him in the practical details of his business. Before the close of the century Astor possessed, as the result of fifteen years of constant work, a fortune of $250,000. He then for the first time took a house separate from his store. With sagacious management the business prospered to such an extent that he was able to ship furs in his own vessels and bring back European goods. He made frequent voyages up the Mohawk, to buy directly from the Indians, and also dealt largely with the great English fur companies. About 1809 he conceived a national scheme to render American trade independent of the Hudson bay company, and to carry civilization into the wilderness, for which he asked the aid of congress. His project was to establish a chain of trading posts from the lakes to the Pacific, to plant a central depot at the mouth of Columbia river, and to acquire one of the Sandwich islands and establish a line of vessels between the western coast of America, and the ports of China and India. Two expeditions were sent, one by land and the other by sea, to open up intercourse with the Indians of the Pacific coast. In 1811 the settlement of Astoria was planted at the mouth of the Columbia river, but the war of 1812 interfered with Astor's gigantic enterprise and caused its abandonment. The story of this far-reaching scheme has been well told in Irving's “Astoria.” At this time Astor bought American government securities at 60 or 70 cents, which after the war doubled in value. After the conclusion of peace he carried on his operations without government support, and established a trade with many countries, particularly China, but never realized the project of founding settlements in the northwest. He invested his gains in real estate outside the compact portion of the city of New York, and as the city extended he erected many handsome buildings. His judgment in business was remarkably sagacious, his habits industrious and methodical, and his memory exceedingly tenacious, retaining the slightest details. For the last twenty-five years of his life he lived in quiet retirement. In this period, in consultation with literary and practical men, he matured a plan for establishing a public library in New York, the first suggestion of which had come from Washington Irving. He left $400,000 for founding the Astor library, which provision was carried out by his son, William B. Astor.

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He made other bequests for benevolent objects, in addition to liberal gifts during his lifetime, one of which was $50,000 to found the Astor House in Waldorf, his birthplace, an institute for the education of poor children, combined with an asylum for the aged and needy. His fortune at the time of his death was estimated at $20,000,000. Fitz-Greene Halleck, the poet, who was his secretary for seventeen years, expressed the opinion that Mr. Astor would have been eminently successful in any profession. —

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His eldest son, William Backhouse, capitalist, b. in New York, 19 Sept., 1792; d. in that city, 24 Nov., 1875. Until he was sixteen he went to the public schools, employing his spare hours and vacations in assisting his father in the store. He was then sent to Heidelberg, and after two years went to Göttingen in 1810, and chose as his tutor a student, afterward known as the Chevalier Bunsen, with whom he also travelled. On his return to New York at the age of twenty-three, his father engaged in the China trade, and took him into partnership. The house was known as John Jacob Astor & Son from 1815 till 1827. In the latter year the firm, which was one of the largest in the China trade, was dissolved, the Astors retired from the Canton trade, and the American fur company was formed, with William B. Astor as its president, though the father took the more active part in the business, which for several years yielded large profits. Finally the elder Astor withdrew, and was soon followed by his son, and from that time forth neither of them engaged again in commerce. When John Jacob Astor died in 1848, he made his eldest son his sole heir, although he provided well for his other relatives. William was already rich, having been successful in business, and having received from his uncle, Henry, a fortune of $500,000, and from his father the title to the Astor House property as a gift. William B. Astor, then fifty-six years of age, gave himself to the preservation and growth of the vast property. He added to the bequest of his father for the Astor library the sum of $250,000, of which he paid during his lifetime $201,000 in land, books, and money. The edifice was completed under his directions in May, 1853. In 1855 he presented to the trustees the adjoining lot, and erected thereon a similar structure, which was completed in 1859. He next gave $50,000 for the purchase of books. He gave much patient attention for many years to the administration of the library. Following the example of his father, he invested in real estate, principally situated below Central park, between 4th and 7th avenues, which rapidly increased in value. For about thirteen years prior to 1873 he was largely engaged in building, until much of his hitherto unoccupied land was covered by houses, mostly of the first class. He was said to own in 1867 as many as 720 houses, and he was also heavily interested in railroad, coal, and insurance companies. Besides other charitable gifts, he gave $50,000 to St. Luke's hospital, and in his will he left $200,000 to the Astor library, in addition to $49,000, the unexpended balance of his earlier donation. His estate, estimated at $100,000,000, was divided by his will between his two sons, John Jacob and William Astor, who were given only a life interest in the residuary estate, which descends to their children. The gifts and bequests of William B. Astor to the Astor library amounted altogether to about $550,000. In 1879 his eldest son, John Jacob, presented three lots adjoining the library building, and erected on them a third structure similar to the others, and added a story to the central building. The edifice is represented on page 112. His outlay, exclusive of land, was about $250,000, making the entire gift of the Astor family more than $1,000,000. — William Waldorf, son of John Jacob, was graduated at Columbia law school in 1875. He served one term in the New York state senate, and was an unsuccessful candidate for congress. He was U. S. minister to Italy from 1882 till 1885, and has published “Valentino,” an Italian romance (New York, 1886), and “Sforza, a Story of Milan” (1889).