John D. Rockefeller: The First Billionaire's Biography (And Things You Didn't Know)

Seated portrait of John Davison Rockefeller (1839-1937), American oil magnate, early twentieth century. (Interim Archives/Getty Images)

America's first billionaire, John D. Rockefeller, was either a Victorian villain or the epitome of the self-made man, depending on who you ask. Today, the original oil tycoon's name is synonymous with wealth and luxury, but there was much more to Rockefeller than cartoonish top hats and canes.

Rockefeller's Early Life

Whatever faults Rockefeller had, he almost certainly learned them from his father. William Avery Rockefeller was a travelling snake oil salesman who often pretended to be deaf and mute and then miraculously cured by the folk medicine he was selling. He also posed as an eye and ear specialist named Dr. William Levingston and even married another woman under the pseudonym while still married to his first wife. This was only one of many affairs William Rockefeller undertook, including one with his family's live-in housekeeper and nanny that resulted in a daughter. Not exactly a role model.

If little John learned anything from his father, it was certainly the entrepreneurial spirit. At the age of 14, when his family moved to Ohio, he immediately launched several small businesses to make his own money. He earned a reputation as a hard worker, and at just 16, he took a bookkeeping job with a company called Hewitt & Tuttle that shipped produce and other goods on commission and gave Rockefeller his first real taste of the business world. He regarded it as such a pivotal event in his life that he celebrated the anniversary of landing that job every September 26. Four years later, he formed a commission merchant business that sold grain, meats, hay, produce, and more. The company was so successful that it grossed more than $400,000 in its first year in business.