John Jacob Astor (1763-1848) was America’s first multimillionaire. He made his fortune in the fur business, which at that time, was an honorable and necessary profession. In those mean, frigid times before the invention of Gore-Tex and Holofill, fur didn’t mean murder; it meant survival. Astor was a renowned furrier and his witty wife Sarah would often quip, “Oh you’re a furrier alright. In fact you’re furrier than anyone I’ve ever seen.”
Astor was born in Germany and emigrated to the United States after the Revolutionary War. He settled in New-York City, which at the time was just Manhattan and not yet the 5 boroughs we’re so familiar with today. Astor’s monopolistic fur trading empire stretched from the Great Lakes into Canada and all the way to the West Coast, which at that time was not yet part of the United States. That concludes the book report aspect of his life, which at this point has not yet become interesting.
It seems there’s a lot that hasn’t been done yet in this 938 page biography. But it gets done. It always gets done. In the next 100’s of pages I’ll confine myself to more interesting details, which at this juncture I’ve not yet teased out.
Flavor of the Times: Very Brown
In the early 19th century everything moved at the speed of hooves. And instead of dealing with global warming, humanity was dealing with Global Horsesh!t. Back then you couldn’t be a Global Horsesh!t denier in good conscience – the stuff was everywhere. All you had to do was cross the street – roads were paved with this sh*t. Today Broadway is known as the Great White Way. In 1810 Broadway was known as the Great Brown Way.
It was a heartbreakingly gloomy time of 9-day old porridge hanging in the fireplace cauldron looking more like primordial soup than nourishing gruel. It was so bad none other than Oliver Twist would take one look at this gruel and plead, “No more sir!”
It was an era when drinking wells were contaminated by proto-graffiti artists who, in the absence of spray paint, would throw feral cats down wells to mark their territory. It’s where we get the expression, “My God, this water tastes like sh*t.”
This was a benighted time when the closest thing to a “remote” was telling your youngest child to throw another log on the fire. Fire was TV. It was what you watched at night and you changed the channel by burning cherry instead of oak. This was a dark, dystopian world where germs held surprise parties for white blood cells and dentistry was discussed thusly: “Hey ma, I’m going to the barber to have a couple of molars trimmed.” That was the world of John Jacob Astor and 50,000 other New Yorkers.
There were no arguments about universal health care coverage back in the day when daylight savings time was known as lighting a candle. Health care was universal then – everyone universally didn’t have it. It was a difficult time with contradictory sentiments. For example there were optimists who said upliftingly oblique things like, “Everyone is cracked and that’s how the light gets in.” While pessimists lamented, “Everyone is cracked and that’s how the blood gets out.”
There were an angelic few who broke through this pervasive Dickensian despair to bring light unto the world. Most of them were hookers. I kid you not there were scores of brothels operating in NYC in the early 18th century. This was another kind of fur business. According to the guidebooks of the day, these houses of prostitution had varying reputations which, if you think about it, could never be that highly-rated in the first place. One wonders how bad the low-rated ones were. Everyone in the brothels was a little cracked. Some cracks were bigger than others. Maybe that’s how the ***** got in.
JJ Astor: Furrier to the Nation and Furrier than You Might Think
Mr. Astor was phenomenally wealthy, but in the 1830s when a sooty fireplace mantle was a hallmark of affluence (“Oh yeah, we got plenty of wood to burn.”) there weren’t many worthwhile things a king’s ransom could lay up. That is, money can’t buy creature comforts that don’t exist. You could purchase the most elegant carriage imaginable, replete with cool wood spoke wheels and numerous mug holders, but you still needed horsepower to move the thing. Oops, I meant to say horse power, not horsepower. These were no-wheel drive vehicles that ran on high octane oats and alfalfa which only contributed to the Global Horsesh*t problem. I’m sure someone in the future will write about our current state of technology and express the same idea; that today’s available material possessions pale in comparison to what is available in the future.
All I can do is to be here now and write about the present, or at least from the “present’s” point of view. Mr. Astor was a Knickerbocker through and through. He shared his wealth with the city. His generosity was both phil and thropic. He slowly withdrew from the fur business and began purchasing vast swaths of unoccupied farmland in Upper Manhattan, which, unbelievably, was located around Times Square and its environs. Eventually he leased the land and generally superintended it with great long term care.
All work and no play made John Jacob Astor a very rich boy. How rich? He was so rich there were pictures of him on the money he spent. Not everyone liked him, but accounts reveal no one could stay mad at him either. Competitors would grit their teeth and remark, “Oh, that bastard Astor,” and then crack-up when they heard themselves say “Bastard Astor.” Crack-up – it’s how you get the joy in.
As his health began failing (gout, heart disease) he received the best health care money could buy. For example (and I’m not embellishing or making-up this part) to supplement his diet he hired a wet nurse to breast feed him. When substantially bedridden, for exercise he had strong men rock him back and forth in suspended bed sheets to circulate his fluids. It sounds truly decadent, but again this was about his survival through improved nutrition and assisted fitness. Even back then Mr. Astor was heard to grouse about his health, “It shouldn’t be this way. Thanks a lot Obama.” OK that last part I made up.
As I finally finish this 938 page biography of John Jacob Astor 2 years in the works, I realize a major malfunction has occurred. No, not the flippant cursoriness of this biography, but the fact that it’s missing the other 934 pages! What happened? God-damned Microsoft Word – your “delete” function is killing me, which at this time has not yet become a reality.