Not far from the lovely Heidelberg on the Rhine, is the picturesque village of Walldorf, which is the birth place of John Jacob Astor, who was born in 1763. His father was a peasant, thus it is seen that he had not the advantages of family influence or assistance. He saved what little money he could earn, and at sixteen set out on foot for the sea coast, where he took passage in a vessel for London. He had a brother in that city who was, in a small way, a manufacturer of musical instruments. Here he remained until 1783, when he embarked for America, taking some flutes with him. On the voyage he made the acquaintance of a furrier. This individual he plied with numerous questions, until he was quite familiar with the business, and when he reached America he at once exchanged his flutes for furs, and hastening back to England succeeded in selling them at a fair profit over all expenses.
Having disposed of his business in London, he engaged passage in a ship which did not return for some weeks. In the meantime he purchased a lot of goods which he thought would prove salable in America. He also improved the time in visiting the Governor of the then great East India Company. The Governor was from his native town in Germany, and Astor, making the most of this fact, secured from him a permit to trade at any port subject to the East India Company. When he arrived in New York once more he at once closed a bargain with a West India trader, that gentleman furnishing a ship and cargo, Astor the permit, which was very valuable, as it gained them access to Canton, China, which was closed to all foreigners save the vessels of the East India Company. The terms of this bargain was that each should participate equally in the profits of the voyage, and Astor’s share was several barrels of milled dollars, the total profit being about $110,000.
He after this bought ships of his own, and shipped his own merchandise to the East, bringing back cargoes to be sold in the new world. The Government at Washington approved of Astor’s proposition to get possession of the fur business of the Interior, controlled at that time by British companies. He succeeded in raising a corporation with $1,000,000 capital, and within a few years Mr. Astor controlled the fur interests of the country. This was back in Jefferson’s time when the city of New York was a small village. Astor, with that keen foresight which marked his life’s history, had been buying land on Staten Island, and the marvelous growth of the city brought the price of his possessions up to fabulous amounts, and the latter part of his life his whole attention was occupied in taking care of his great blocks of real estate.
While other merchants went to their desks at nine, Astor could always be seen there at prompt seven. He early in life, before leaving his old home on the Rhine, resolved to be honest, to be industrious, and to avoid gambling. Upon this solid moral basis he built the superstructure of his fame and secured his great wealth.
The one great act of John Jacob Astor’s life, which must forever keep the name of Astor before the people, is the establishment of the Astor Library by donating for that purpose $400,000, to which have been added large contributions by his son William B., to whom the elder Astor left about $20,000,000. The library contains about two hundred thousand volumes, the catalogue alone contains two thousand five hundred pages alphabetically arranged. The Astors are the principal real estate owners of America.