Sunday, June 24, 2007

Book Review: John Jacob Astor

Axel Madsen describes John Jacob Astor as "America's first multimillionaire" (a label which arguably should be attributed to Stephen Girard) and chronicles his rise from the relative poverty of his childhood in Germany through his immigration, initially to England and then to the United States in 1784.

In financial terms, Astor began his career as a butcher's apprentice in his home town of Waldorf (following his father), moved to London for four years to learn how to make flutes before arriving in Baltimore with a consignment of flutes for trade at the age of 20. He moved to New York a few weeks later once he had sold enough of his flutes to In historical terms, Astor's arrival in the new world was shortly after the United States had declared independence from England.

In New York, Astor took a job peddling for a baker, before once again switching career to work for a local fur dealer. During this early stage of his career he continued to supplement his income by selling musical instruments, some made by his brother, imported from London (although advertising them as German in view of the anti-English sentiment prevailing at the time). Profits and savings were invested in more musical instruments and furs. The former were imported from the old world to the new while the furs were exported from the new world to the old where the prices were better.

One of two noticeable feature of Astor's business career is how he used the profits of each business activity to invest in other businesses, each of which was both rapidly growing and tremendously profitable at the time. Money made in trading musical instruments was invested in the fur business, which he eventually dominated and would ultimately form the basis of his staggering fortune. In turn, the profits of the fur business were invested in international trade (with China among other countries) and real estate in the rapidly growing city of New York.

The second noticeable feature was Astor's involvement in political matters - as a means of furthering his business interests.

While Madsen's book provides an interesting chronology of Astor's career, the background information on the age in which Astor lived is quite limited and conveyed little of life in that era and it left only a very superficial impression of what Astor was like as a person.

In short, the book was an interesting read but could have been a lot more interesting.

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