|Chronicles of America:The Age of Big Business|
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THE AGE OF BIG BUSINESS, A CHRONICLE OF THE CAPTAINS OF INDUSTRY BY BURTON J. HENDRICK
A comprehensive survey of the United States, at the end of the Civil War, would reveal a state of society which bears little resemblance to that of today. Almost all those commonplace fundamentals of existence, the things that contribute to our bodily comfort while they vex us with economic and political problems, had not yet made their appearance. The America of Civil War days was a country without transcontinental railroads, without telephones, without European cables, or wireless stations, or automobiles, or electric lights, or sky-scrapers, or million-dollar hotels, or trolley cars, or a thousand other contrivances that today supply the conveniences and comforts of what we call our American civilization. The cities of that period, with their unsewered and unpaved streets, their dingy, flickering gaslights, their ambling horse-cars, and their hideous slums, seemed appropriate settings for the unformed social life and the rough-and-ready political methods of American democracy. The railroads, with their fragile iron rails, their little wheezy locomotives, their wooden bridges, their unheated coaches, and their kerosene lamps, fairly typified the prevailing frontier business and economic organization. But only by talking with the business leaders of that time could we have understood the changes that have taken place in fifty years. For the most part we speak a business language which our fathers and grandfathers would not have comprehended. The word "trust" had not become a part of their vocabulary; "restraint of trade" was a phrase which only the antiquarian lawyer could have interpreted; "interlocking directorates," "holding companies," "subsidiaries," "underwriting syndicates," and "community of interest"--all this jargon of modern business would have signified nothing to our immediate ancestors. Our nation of 1865 was a nation of farmers, city artisans, and industrious, independent business men, and small-scale manufacturers. Millionaires, though they were not unknown, did not swarm all over the land. Luxury, though it had made great progress in the latter years of the war, had not become the American standard of well-being. The industrial story of the United States in the last fifty years is the story of the most amazing economic transformation that the world has ever known; a change which is fitly typified in the evolution of the independent oil driller of western Pennsylvania into the Standard Oil Company, and of the ancient open air forge on the banks of the Allegheny into the United States Steel Corporation.
The slow, unceasing ages had been accumulating a priceless inheritance for the American people. Nearly all of their natural resources, in 1865, were still lying fallow, and even undiscovered in many instances. Americans had begun, it is true, to exploit their more obvious, external wealth, their forests and their land; the first had made them one of the world's two greatest shipbuilding nations, while the second had furnished a large part of the resources that had enabled the Federal Government to fight what was, up to that time, the greatest war in history. But the extensive prairie plains whose settlement was to follow the railroad extensions of the sixties and the seventies--Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, Oklahoma, Minnesota, the Dakotas--had been only slightly penetrated. This region, with a rainfall not too abundant and not too scanty, with a cultivable soil extending from eight inches to twenty feet under the ground, with hardly a rock in its whole extent, with scarcely a tree, except where it bordered on the streams, has been pronounced by competent scientists the finest farming country to which man has ever set the plow. Our mineral wealth was likewise lying everywhere ready to the uses of the new generation. The United States now supplies the world with half its copper, but in 1865 it was importing a considerable part of its own supply. It was not till 1859 that the first "oil gusher" of western Pennsylvania opened up an entirely new source of wealth. Though we had the largest coal deposits known to geologists, we were bringing large supplies of this indispensable necessity from Nova Scotia. It has been said that coal and iron are the two mineral products that have chiefly affected modern civilization. Certainly the nations that have made the greatest progress industrially and commercially--England, Germany, America--are the three that possess these minerals in largest amount. From sixty to seventy per cent of all the known coal deposits in the world were located in our national domain. Nature had given no other nation anything even remotely comparable to the four hundred and eighty square miles of anthracite in western Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Enormous fields of bituminous lay in those Appalachian ranges extending from Pennsylvania to Alabama, in Michigan, in the Rocky Mountains, and in the Pacific regions. In speaking of our iron it is necessary to use terms that are even more extravagant. From colonial times Americans had worked the iron ore plentifully scattered along the Atlantic coast, but the greatest field of all, that in Minnesota, had not been scratched. From the settlement of the country up to 1869 it had mined only 50,000,000 tons of iron ore, while up to 1910 we had produced 685,000,000 tons. The streams and waterfalls that, in the next sixty years, were to furnish the power that would light our cities, propel our street-cars, drive our transcontinental trains across the mountains, and perform numerous domestic services, were running their useless courses to the sea.
Industrial America is a product of the decades succeeding the Civil War; yet even in 1865 we were a large manufacturing nation. The leading characteristic of our industries, as compared with present conditions, was that they were individualized. Nearly all had outgrown the household stage, the factory system had gained a foothold in nearly every line, even the corporation had made its appearance, yet small-scale production prevailed in practically every field. In the decade preceding the War, vans were still making regular trips through New England and the Middle States, leaving at farmhouses bundles of straw plait, which the members of the household fashioned into hats. The farmers' wives and daughters still supplemented the family income by working on goods for city dealers in ready-made clothing. We can still see in Massachusetts rural towns the little shoe shops in which the predecessors of the existing factory workers soled and heeled the shoes which shod our armies in the early days of the Civil War. Every city and town had its own slaughter house; New York had more than two hundred; what is now Fifth Avenue was frequently encumbered by large droves of cattle, and great stockyards occupied territory which is now used for beautiful clubs, railroad stations, hotels, and the highest class of retail establishments.
In this period before the Civil War comparatively small single owners, or frequently copartnerships, controlled practically every industrial field. Individual proprietors, not uncommonly powerful families which were almost feudal in character, owned the great cotton and woolen mills of New England. Separate proprietors, likewise, controlled the iron and steel factories of New York State and Pennsylvania. Indeed it was not until the War that corporations entered the iron industry, now regarded as the field above all others adapted to this kind of organization. The manufacture of sewing machines, firearms, and agricultural implements started on a great scale in the Civil War; still, the prevailing unit was the private owner or the partnership. In many manufacturing lines, the joint stock company had become the prevailing organization, but even in these fields the element that so characterizes our own age, that of combination, was exerting practically no influence.
Competition was the order of the day: the industrial warfare of the sixties was a free-for-all. A mere reference to the status of manufactures in which the trust is now the all-prevailing fact will make the contrast clear. In 1865 thousands of independent companies were drilling oil in Pennsylvania and there were more than two hundred which were refining the product. Nearly four hundred and fifty operators were mining coal, not even dimly foreseeing the day when their business would become a great railroad monopoly. The two hundred companies that were making mowers and reapers, seventy-five of them located in New York State, had formed no mental picture of the future International Harvester Company. One of our first large industrial combinations was that which in the early seventies absorbed the manufacturers of salt; yet the close of the Civil War found fifty competing companies making salt in the Saginaw Valley of Michigan. In the same State, about fifty distinct ownerships controlled the copper mines, while in Nevada the Comstock Lode had more than one hundred proprietors. The modern trust movement has now absorbed even our lumber and mineral lands, but in 1865 these rich resources were parceled out among a multiplicity of owners: No business has offered greater opportunities to the modern promoter of combinations than our street railways. In 1865 most of our large cities had their leisurely horse-car systems, yet practically every avenue had its independent line. New York had thirty separate companies engaged in the business of local transportation. Indeed the Civil War period developed only one corporation that could be described as a "trust" in the modern sense. This was the Western Union Telegraph Company. Incredible as it may seem, more than fifty companies, ten years before the Civil War, were engaged in the business of transmitting telegraphic messages. These companies had built their telegraph lines precisely as the railroads had laid their tracks; that is, independent lines were constructed connecting two given points. It was inevitable, of course, that all these scattered lines should come under a single control, for the public convenience could not be served otherwise. This combination was effected a few years before the War, when the Western Union Telegraph Company, after a long and fierce contest, succeeded in absorbing all its competitors. Similar forces were bringing together certain continuous lines of railways, but the creation of huge trunk systems had not yet taken place. How far our industrial era is removed from that of fifty years ago is apparent when we recall that the proposed capitalization of $15,000,000, caused by the merging of the Boston and Worcester and the Western railroads, was widely denounced as "monstrous" and as a corrupting force that would destroy our Republican institutions. Naturally this small-scale ownership was reflected in the distribution of wealth. The "swollen fortunes" of that period rested upon the same foundation that had given stability for centuries to the aristocracies of Europe. Social preeminence in large cities rested almost entirely upon the ownership of land. The Astors, the Goelets, the Rhinelanders, the Beekmans, the Brevoorts, and practically all the mighty families that ruled the old Knickerbocker aristocracy in New York were huge land proprietors. Their fortunes thus had precisely the same foundation as that of the Prussian Junkers today. But their accumulations compared only faintly with the fortunes that are commonplace now. How many "millionaires" there were fifty years ago we do not precisely know. The only definite information we have is a pamphlet published in 1855 by Moses Yale Beach, proprietor of the New York Sun, on the "Wealthy Men of New York." This records the names of nineteen citizens who, in the estimation of well-qualified judges, possessed more than a million dollars each. The richest man in the list was William B. Astor, whose estate is estimated at $6,000,000. The next richest man was Stephen Whitney, also a large landowner, whose fortune is listed at $5,000,000. Then comes James Lenox, again a land proprietor, with $3,000,000. The man who was to accumulate the first monstrous American fortune, Cornelius Vanderbilt, is accredited with a paltry $1,500,000. Mr. Beach's little pamphlet sheds the utmost light upon the economic era preceding the Civil War. It really pictures an industrial organization that belongs as much to ancient history as the empire of the Caesars. His study lists about one thousand of New York's "wealthy citizens." Yet the fact that a man qualified for entrance into this Valhalla who had $100,000 to his credit and that nine-tenths of those so chosen possessed only that amount shows the progress concentrated riches have made in sixty years. How many New Yorkers of today would look upon a man with $100,000 as "wealthy"?
The sources of these fortunes also show the economic changes our country has undergone. Today, when we think of our much exploited millionaires, the phrase "captains of industry" is the accepted description; in Mr. Beach's time the popular designation was "merchant prince." His catalogue contains no "oil magnates" or "steel kings" or "railroad manipulators"; nearly all the industrial giants of ante-bellum times--as distinguished from the socially prominent whose wealth was inherited--had heaped together their accumulations in humdrum trade. Perhaps Peter Cooper, who had made a million dollars in the manufacture of isinglass and glue, and George Law, whose gains, equally large, represented fortunate speculations in street railroads, faintly suggest the approaching era; yet the fortunes which are really typical are those of William Aspinwall, who made $4,000,000 in the shipping business, of A. T. Stewart, whose $2,000,000 represented his earnings as a retail and wholesale dry goods merchant, and of Peter Harmony, whose $1,000,000 had been derived from happy trade ventures in Cuba and Spain. Many of the reservoirs of this ante-bellum wealth sound strangely in our modern ears. John Haggerty had made $1,000,000 as an auctioneer; William L. Coggeswell had made half as much as a wine importer; Japhet Bishop had rounded out an honest $600,000 from the profits of a hardware store; while Phineas T. Barnum ranks high in the list by virtue of $800,000 accumulated in a business which it is hardly necessary to specify. Indeed his name and that of the great landlords are almost the only ones in this list that have descended to posterity. Yet they were the Rockefellers, the Carnegies, the Harrimans, the Fricks, and the Henry Fords of their day.
Before the Civil War had ended, however, the transformation of the United States from a nation of farmers and small-scale manufacturers to a highly organized industrial state had begun. Probably the most important single influence was the War itself. Those four years of bitter conflict illustrate, perhaps more graphically than any similar event in history, the power which military operations may exercise in stimulating all the productive forces of a people. In thickly settled nations, with few dormant resources and with practically no areas of unoccupied land, a long war usually produces industrial disorganization and financial exhaustion. The Napoleonic wars had this effect in Europe; in particular they caused a period of social and industrial distress in England. The few years immediately following Waterloo marked a period when starving mobs rioted in the streets of London, setting fire to the houses of the aristocracy and stoning the Prince Regent whenever he dared to show his head in public, when cotton spindles ceased to turn, when collieries closed down, when jails and workhouses were overflowing with a wretched proletariat, and when gaunt and homeless women and children crowded the country highways. No such disorders followed the Civil War in this country, at least in the North and West. Spiritually the struggle accomplished much in awakening the nation to a consciousness of its great opportunities. The fact that we could spend more than a million dollars a day--expenditures that hardly seem startling in amount now, but which were almost unprecedented then--and that soon after hostilities ceased we rapidly paid off our large debt, directed the attention of foreign capitalists to our resources, and gave them the utmost confidence in this new investment field. Immigration, too, started after the war at a rate hitherto without parallel in our annals. The Germans who had come in the years preceding the Civil War had been largely political refugees and democratic idealists, but now, in much larger numbers, began the influx of north and south Germans whose dominating motive was economic. These Germans began to find their way to the farms of the Mississippi Valley; the Irish began once more to crowd our cities; the Slavs gravitated towards the mines of Pennsylvania; the Scandinavians settled whole counties of certain northwestern States; while the Jews began that conquest of the tailoring industries that was ultimately to make them the clothiers of a hundred million people. For this industrial development, America supplied the land, the resources, and the business leaders, while Europe furnished the liquid capital and the laborers.
Even more directly did the War stimulate our industrial development. Perhaps the greatest effect was the way in which it changed our transportation system. The mere necessity of constantly transporting hundreds of thousands of troops and war supplies demanded reconstruction and reequipment on an extensive scale. The American Civil War was the first great conflict in which railroads played a conspicuous military part, and their development during those four years naturally left them in a strong position to meet the new necessities of peace. One of the first effects of the War was to close the Mississippi River; consequently the products of the Western farms had to go east by railroad, and this fact led to that preeminence of the great trunk lines which they retain to this day. Almost overnight Chicago became the great Western shipping center, and though the river boats lingered for a time on the Ohio and the Mississippi they grew fewer year by year. Prosperity, greater than the country had ever known, prevailed everywhere in the North throughout the last two years of the War.
So, too, feeding and supplying an army of millions of men laid the foundation of many of our greatest industries. The Northern soldiers in the early days of the war were clothed in garments so variegated that they sometimes had trouble in telling friend from foe, and not infrequently they shot at one another; so inadequately were our woolen mills prepared to supply their uniforms! But larger government contracts enabled the proprietors to reconstruct their mills, install modern machines, and build up an organization and a prosperous business that still endures. Making boots and shoes for Northern soldiers laid the foundation of America's great shoe industry. Machinery had already been applied to shoe manufacture, but only to a limited extent; under the pressure of war conditions, however, American inventive skill found ways of performing mechanically almost all the operations that had formerly been done by hand. The McKay sewing machine, one of the greatest of our inventions, which was perfected in the second year of the war, did as much perhaps as any single device to keep our soldiers well shod and comfortable. The necessity of feeding these same armies created our great packing plants. Though McCormick had invented his reaper several years before the war, the new agricultural machinery had made no great headway. Without this machinery, however, our Western farmers could never have harvested the gigantic crops which not only fed our soldiers but laid the basis of our economic prosperity. Thus the War directly established one of the greatest, and certainly one of the most romantic, of our industries--that of agricultural machinery.
Above all, however, the victory at Appomattox threw upon the country more than a million unemployed men. Our European critics predicted that their return to civil life would produce dire social and political consequences. But these critics were thinking in terms of their own countries; they failed to consider that the United States had an immense unoccupied domain which was waiting for development. The men who fought the Civil War had demonstrated precisely the adventurous, hardy instincts which were most needed in this great enterprise. Even before the War ended, a great immigration started towards the mines and farms of the trans-Mississippi country. There was probably no important town or district west of the Alleghanies that did not absorb a considerable number. In most instances, too, our ex-soldiers became leaders in these new communities. Perhaps this movement has its most typical and picturesque illustration in the extent to which the Northern soldiers opened up the oil-producing regions of western Pennsylvania. Venango County, where this great development started, boasted that it had more ex-soldiers than any similar section of the United States.
The Civil War period also forced into prominence a few men whose methods and whose achievements indicated, even though roughly and indistinctly, a new type of industrial leadership. Every period has its outstanding figure and, when the Civil War was approaching its end, one personality had emerged from the humdrum characters of the time--one man who, in energy, imagination, and genius, displayed the forces that were to create a new American world. Although this man employed his great talents in a field, that of railroad transportation, which lies outside the scope of the present volume, yet in this comprehensive view I may take Cornelius Vanderbilt as the symbol that links the old industrial era with the new. He is worthy of more detailed study than he has ever received, for in personality and accomplishments Vanderbilt is the most romantic figure in the history of American finance. We must remember that Vanderbilt was born in 1794 and that at the time we are considering he was seventy-one years old. In the matter of years, therefore, his career apparently belongs to the ante-bellum days, yet the most remarkable fact about this remarkable man is that his real life work did not begin until he had passed his seventieth year. In 1865 Vanderbilt's fortune, consisting chiefly of a fleet of steamboats, amounted to about $10,000,000; he died twelve years later, in 1877, leaving $104,000,000, the first of those colossal American fortunes that were destined to astound the world. The mere fact that this fortune was the accumulated profit of only ten years shows perhaps more eloquently than any other circumstance that the United States had entered a new economic age. That new factor in the life of America and the world, the railroad, explains his achievement. Vanderbilt was one of the most astonishing characters in our history. His physical exterior made him perhaps the most imposing figure in New York. In his old age, at seventy-three, Vanderbilt married his second wife, a beautiful Southern widow who had just turned her thirtieth year, and the appearance of the two, sitting side by side in one of the Commodore's smartest turnouts, driving recklessly behind a pair of the fastest trotters of the day, was a common sight in Central Park. Nor did Vanderbilt look incongruous in this brilliant setting. His tall and powerful frame was still erect, and his large, defiant head, ruddy cheeks, sparkling, deep-set black eyes, and snowy white hair and whiskers, made him look every inch the Commodore. These public appearances lent a pleasanter and more sentimental aspect to Vanderbilt's life than his intimates always perceived. For his manners were harsh and uncouth; he was totally without education and could write hardly half a dozen lines without outraging the spelling-book. Though he loved his race-horses, had a fondness for music, and could sit through long winter evenings while his young wife sang old Southern ballads, Vanderbilt's ungovernable temper had placed him on bad terms with nearly all his children--he had had thirteen, of whom eleven survived him--who contested his will and exposed all his eccentricities to public view on the ground that the man who created the New York Central system was actually insane. Vanderbilt's methods and his temperament presented such a contrast to the commonplace minds which had previously dominated American business that this explanation of his career is perhaps not surprising. He saw things in their largest aspects and in his big transactions he seemed to act almost on impulse and intuition. He could never explain the mental processes by which he arrived at important decisions, though these decisions themselves were invariably sound. He seems to have had, as he himself frequently said, almost a seer-like faculty. He saw visions, and he believed in dreams and in signs. The greatest practical genius of his time was a frequent attendant at spiritualistic seances; he cultivated personally the society of mediums, and in sickness he usually resorted to mental healers, mesmerists, and clairvoyants. Before making investments or embarking in his great railroad ventures, Vanderbilt visited spiritualists; we have one circumstantial account of his summoning the wraith of Jim Fiske to advise him in stock operations. His excessive vanity led him to print his picture on all the Lake Shore bonds; he proposed to New York City the construction in Central Park of a large monument that would commemorate, side by side, the names of Vanderbilt and Washington; and he actually erected a large statue to himself in his new Hudson River station in St. John's Park. His attitude towards the public was shown in his remark when one of his associates told him that "each and every one" of certain transactions which he had just forced through "is absolutely forbidden by the statutes of the State of New York." "My God, John!" said the Commodore, "you don't suppose you can run a railroad in accordance with the statutes of the State of New York, do you?" "Law!" he once roared on a similar occasion, "What do I care about law? Hain't I got the power?"
These things of course were the excrescences of an extremely vital, overflowing, imaginative, energetic human being; they are traits that not infrequently accompany genius. And the work which Vanderbilt did remains an essential part of our economic organization today. Before his time a trip to Chicago meant that the passenger changed trains seventeen times, and that all freight had to be unloaded at a similar number of places, carted across towns, and reloaded into other trains. The magnificent railroad highway that extends up the banks of the Hudson, through the Mohawk Valley, and alongside the borders of Lake Erie--a water line route nearly the entire distance--was all but useless. It is true that not all the consolidation of these lines was Vanderbilt's work. In 1853 certain millionaires and politicians had linked together the several separate lines extending from Albany to Buffalo, but they had managed the new road so wretchedly that the largest stockholders in 1867 begged Vanderbilt to take over the control. By 1873 the Commodore had acquired the Hudson River, extending from New York to Albany, the New York Central extending from Albany to Buffalo, and the Lake Shore which ran from Buffalo to Chicago. In a few years these roads had been consolidated into a smoothly operating system. If, in transforming these discordant railroads into one, Vanderbilt bribed legislatures and corrupted courts, if he engaged in the largest stock-watering operations on record up to that time, and took advantage of inside information to make huge winnings on the stock exchange, he also ripped up the old iron rails and relaid them with steel, put down four tracks where formerly there had been two, replaced wooden bridges with steel, discarded the old locomotives for new and more powerful ones, built splendid new terminals, introduced economies in a hundred directions, cut down the hours required in a New York-Chicago trip from fifty to twenty-four, made his highway an expeditious line for transporting freight, and transformed railroads that had formerly been the playthings of Wall Street and that frequently could not meet their pay-rolls into exceedingly profitable, high dividend paying properties. In this operation Vanderbilt typified the era that was dawning--an era of ruthlessness, of personal selfishness, of corruption, of disregard of private rights, of contempt for law and legislatures, and yet of vast and beneficial achievement. The men of this time may have traveled roughshod to their goal, but after all, they opened up, in an amazingly short time, a mighty continent to the uses of mankind. The triumph of the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad under Vanderbilt, a triumph which dazzled European investors as well as our own, and which represented an entirely different business organization from anything the nation had hitherto seen, appropriately ushered in the new business era whose outlines will be sketched in the succeeding pages.