The Men Who Built America: John D. Rockefeller

This is part four of a series on “The Men Who Built America.”

As I continue on with this series on men who built America, I would like to introduce you to John D. Rockefeller. Most of us are familiar with the Rockefeller name. Be it either a U.S. Senator or the famous Rockefeller center in New York City, some way or another we have heard of the name. But why?


Rockefeller is most known for bringing oil to the homes of American families at an affordable cost between the 1860s and 1910. Coming from very humble beginnings, Rockefeller wanted to save consumers money. He once wrote to a partner, “Let the good work go on. We must ever remember we are refining oil for the poor man and he must have it cheap and good.”

And “cheap and good” the poor man had it! Prior to the 1870s, only wealthy people could afford whale oil and candles to light their homes at night. But Rockefeller was able to introduce a new oil (kerosene) and offer it at such a cheap price that all American homes (including working class) could afford the one cent per hour to light their homes. This allowed people to be much more productive—they could now work and read at night. Imagine what life was like before we had light after 6pm!

Rockefeller’s bookkeeping style of entrepreneurship led to important savings where other similar companies had waste. For example, where others had considered the byproducts of refining oil for kerosene as waste (some dumped gasoline in rivers), Rockefeller and his partners founds ways to use gasoline for fuel and tar for paving. Another savings that helped consumers was by transporting oil in bulk quantities via Vanderbilt’s railroad company.

Another example of Rockefeller’s greatness was his ability to look down the corridor of the marketplace. Where other entrepreneurs thought Lima oil (known for having a foul stench) wasn’t worth the effort to refine, Rockefeller hired two chemists to discover how to purify the oil from the odor. Meanwhile, Rockefeller was stockpiling the low-cost oil that others wanted to stay away from. Eventually, the chemists succeeded and Rockefeller was deemed a genius. In a similar scenario, Rockefeller invested $40 million in Mesabi iron in the Great Lakes region that other thought was poor ore. Instead, Rockefeller turned it into large profits.

But Rockefeller wasn’t an outgoing, cutthroat robber baron, as the History Channel’s mini-series makes him out to be (though Vanderbilt was quite fierce). Rockefeller was also devotedly religious and would eventually become America’s greatest philanthropist. I will explore that in my next post.

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