In Cleveland, in Pittsburgh, in Philadelphia, in New York, and in the oil regions, the business of refining and selling petroleum had reached extensive proportions. Europe, although it had great undeveloped oil-fields of its own, drew upon this new American enterprise to such an extent that, eleven years after Drake's "discovery," petroleum had taken fourth place among our exported articles.
The very year that Bissell had organized his petroleum company a boy of sixteen had obtained his first job in a produce commission office on a dock in Cleveland. As the curtain rises on the career of John D. Rockefeller, we see him perched upon a high stool, adding up figures and casting accounts, faithfully doing every odd office job that came his way, earning his employer's respect for his industry, his sobriety, and his unmistakable talents for business. Nor does this picture inadequately visualize Rockefeller's whole after-life, and explain the business qualities that made possible his unexampled success. It is, indeed, the scene to which Mr. Rockefeller himself most frequently reverts when, in his famous autobiographical discourses to his Cleveland Sunday School, he calls our attention to the rules that inevitably lead to industrial prosperity. "Thrift, thrift, Horatio," is the one idea upon which the great captain of the oil business has always insisted. Many have detected in these habits of mind only the cheese-paring activities of a naturally narrow spirit. Rockefeller's old Cleveland associates remember him as the greatest bargainer they had ever known, as a man who had an eye for infinite details and an unquenchable patience and resource in making economies. Yet Rockefeller was clearly more than a pertinacious haggler over trifles. Certainly such a diagnosis does not explain a man who has built up one of the world's greatest organizations and accumulated the largest fortune which has ever been placed at the disposal of one man. Indeed, Rockefeller displayed unusual business ability even before he entered the oil business. A young man who, at the age of nineteen, could start a commission house and do a business of nearly five hundred thousand the first year must have had commercial capacity to an extraordinary degree.
Fate had placed Rockefeller in Cleveland in the days when the oil business had got well under way. In the early sixties a score or so of refineries had started in this town, many of which were making large profits. It is not surprising that Rockefeller, gazing at these black and evil-smelling buildings from the vantage point of his commission office, should have felt an impulse to join in the gamble. He plunged into this new activity at the age of twenty-three. He possessed two great advantages over most of his adventurous competitors; one was a heavy bank account, representing his earnings in the commission business, and the other a partner, Samuel Andrews, who was generally regarded as a mechanical genius in the production of illuminating oil. At the beginning, therefore, Rockefeller had the two essentials which largely explain his subsequent career; an adequate liquid capital and high technical resources. In the first few years the Rockefeller houses--he rapidly organized three, one after another--competed with a large number of other units in the oil business on somewhat more than even terms. At this time Rockefeller was merely one of a large number of successful oil refiners, yet during these early days a grandiose scheme was taking shape in that quiet, insinuating, far-reaching brain. He said nothing about it, even to his closest associates, yet it filled his every waking hour. For this young man was taking a comprehensive sweep of the world and he saw millions of people, in the Americas, in Europe, and in Asia, whose need for the article in which he dealt would grow more insistent every day. He saw that he was handling a product which was becoming as much a necessity of life as the air itself. The young man reached out to grasp this business.