I was disappointed that Michael Bloomberg’s presidential campaign was so short, not because I was supporting him for the nomination but because he brought silos of fodder for discussion: the good and bad during his New York City mayoralty; what, if anything, his incredible success as a businessman told us about his qualifications to be president (Quick. Name me all the presidents you regard highly who had successful business careers. Name all the highly regarded presidents who did not have successful business careers.); his philanthropic choices; his comments about women; his proposed policies and priorities; the use of his money in the campaign.
Even after his campaign ended, however, there was some breathless reporting on how much he had spent on his failed effort. Of course, he could spend enormous amounts because he has vast wealth. It has been widely reported that he is worth $54 billion.
I wondered where this placed him among the richest Americans, and a list I found of wealthy, contemporary Americans placed him eighth, headed by Jeff Bezos, worth $114 billion, which we can all agree is whole river of money. I did not find a ranking, however, that placed Bezos and Bloomberg on a list of all-time richest Americans. I only knew of some older attempts to compile such a ranking.
Of course, comparing fortunes over time is an inexact exercise, and compilers have done it in different ways. However, lists from 1996, 1998, and 2008 all agree that John D. Rockefeller was the all-time richest American followed by Andrew Carnegie, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and John Jacob Astor, although not always in the same order. (A 2014 study had Stephen Girard in fourth place and dropped Carnegie to sixth.)
These names were not a surprise to me. The others in the top twenty were not either, except for the one that occupied seventh place (eighth in a 2014 report): A. T. (Alexander Turney) Stewart. I had never heard of him, even though one study said that he was worth the equivalent of $55.6 billion in the 1996 economy, which adjusted for inflation would be $91.4 billion today, or less than Bezos but more than Bloomberg. (Rockefeller’s riches were calculated as $189.6 billion for 1996, which would equate to $311.74 today, making him by far the richest American ever.) I asked some friends, and none of them had heard of Stewart either. I wondered how someone who would still be ranked as one of the wealthiest Americans whoever lived could be forgotten. And then, by happenstance, I read a book about the fascinating Stewart and his corpse, Bag of Bones: The Sensational Grave Robbery of the Merchant Prince of Manhattan by J. North Conway.
Alexander Turney Stewart was born in Northern Ireland in 1803 and raised by a grandfather there. Stewart came to New York City when he was twenty but briefly returned to Belfast to collect a modest inheritance when grandpa died. He bought laces and other dry goods, returned to New York, married Cornelia Mitchell Clinch, the daughter of a wealthy businessman, and set up a small store on Broadway near City Hall. The store was successful–so successful that in 1846 he built a new store that occupied the entire block on the opposite side of the street. Faced with Tuckahoe marble punctuated with large windows, it was known as the “Marble Palace.” The interior had a central rotunda with a skylight, and the store was filled with natural light. He added European fashions and furs to his offerings and installed full-length mirrors for customers to view themselves. Perhaps most important for his success was that he changed the nature of shopping. He introduced the radical idea of one set price for all customers. Before this innovation a potential purchaser and a salesclerk had haggled. Stewart also allowed browsing. The salespeople, unlike in other establishments, did not try to intimidate anyone into making a purchase. As a result, his store became a fashionable place to spend time, and sales increased. Before the Civil War he was worth several million dollars.
New York City was moving north, and in 1862, Stewart built a larger store a mile farther up Broadway between Ninth and Tenth Streets. This one was faced with cast iron, said to be the first building in New York City with a cast iron front. His first large store, on the corner of Chambers and Broadway, is often said to be the first American department store, but if so, he perfected the idea with his new uptown store. Now there were departments not just for clothing and dry goods but also for bedding, carpets, and toys. He employed two thousand people in the store, some of whom could quickly alter clothes people wanted to buy. He built mills in New England to supply his store with fabrics. He started a successful mail order business, paving the way for Montgomery Ward and Sears Roebuck. And his fortune grew, some of which went into real estate.
He built a Tuckahoe marble mansion on the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and Thirty-Fourth Street, taking up the whole block front and eschewing the brownstone rowhouses that the fashionable people had built until then. Lavishly decorated and furnished, “palatial” was often used to describe the home.
He planned a Manhattan hotel for single women of modest means. His most ambitious real estate venture was Garden City. He bought seven thousand acres east of New York on Long Island. It was the country’s first planned workers’ community with streets, parks, affordable homes, stores and a hotel. He built a railroad from the new town to New York City so his workers could go back and forth.