11/29/06 - john d. rockefeller

In today's encore excerpt -  a young John D. Rockefeller immediately after the Civil War (circa 1865) begins to build his oil business:

"Perhaps no industry so beguiled the Civil War veterans with promises of overnight wealth than the oil industry. In astonishing numbers, a ragtag group of demobilized soldiers, many still in uniform and carrying knapsacks and rifles, migrated to northwest Pennsylvania. The potential money to be made was irresistible, whether in drilling or in auxiliary services: people could charge two or three times as much as they dared to ask in the city.

"The war had also disrupted the whaling industry and led to a doubling of whale-oil prices. Moving into the vacuum, kerosene emerged as an economic staple and was primed for a furious postwar boom. This burning fluid extended the day in cities and removed much of the lonely darkness from rural life. ... Congressman James Garfield alluded to the oil craze in a letter to a former staff officer: 'I have conversed on the general question of oil with a number of members who are in the business, for you know the fever has assailed Congress in no mild form. Oil, not cotton, is King now in the world of commerce.'

"In many ways, Rockefeller seemed a finely tuned instrument of the zeitgeist, the purest embodiment of the dynamic, acquisitive spirit of the postwar era ... shaped by his faith in economic progress, ... he steeled himself to persevere, subordinating his every impulse to the profit motive, working to master unruly emotions and striving for an almost Buddhist detachment from his own appetites and passions. ... As a self-made man in a new industry, Rockefeller wasn't stultified by precedent or tradition, which made it easier for him to innovate. ...

"Already by the late 1860s, stern prophecies were issued about the industry's impending demise. There were two types of oilmen: those who thought the sudden boom an insubstantial mirage and who cashed in their profits as soon as possible; and those, like Rockefeller, who saw petroleum as the basis of an enduring economic revolution."


Ron Chernow


Titan: the life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr


Vintage Books


Copyright 1998 by Ron Chernow


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