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.

The Age of Big Business Page 04

Business Books

Free Books in the public domain from the Classic Literature Library ©

Business Ebooks
Classic Literature

All Pages of This Book
Business Entrepreneur
A Man of Business