Figure 1.--Here we see the Rockefeller family. The elderly man is John D. Sr. The middle age man is John D. Jr. with his wife Abby. With them are their six children. Here only the two oldest boys are deemed ready for Eton suits. The other boys wera white lacy blouses. Nelson's Eton suit has short pants, later the boys mostly wore knickers. Notice the clear age grading involved in the selection of their clothes.

The Rockefellers

The Rockefellers were as close to royalty as an American ever was. The family's wealth was created by John D. Rockefeller who turned the chaotic American oil industry into a huge monopoly and in the process made himself the richest man in the world. For decades, the Rockefeller name was despised in America, associated with John D. Rockefeller Sr.'s feared monopoly, Standard Oil. By the end of his life, Rockefeller had given away half his fortune--but even his vast philanthropy could not erase the memory of his predatory business practices. His only son, John D. Rockefeller Jr., would dedicate his life to recasting the family image. In the quest for redemption and respectability, Junior would give away hundreds of millions of dollars, and would insist that his six children behave impeccably. Their contributions transformed America. When he died at age 86, Junior left his six children and 22 grandchildren an invaluable inheritance: a name which stood not for corporate greed, but for "the well-being of mankind." The patriarch was raised frugally and despite great wealth raised his children frugally. The same was true to a lesser extent for the grand children who did wear more fashionable clothes.


The Rockefeller saga begins in the Christian revivalist fervor of the 1830s with a marriage of opposites: Eliza Davison, a pious young woman, and "Devil Bill" Rockefeller, swindler, snake-oil salesman, and eventually, bigamist. Their son, John D. Rockefeller, created an industrial empire, and a personal fortune, on a scale the world had never known. He ruthlessly crushed his competitors in the process, alienating the public and leaving a stain on the family name. His dutiful son, John D. Jr., was a self-sacrificing young man who devoted his life to redeeming his family's reputation. Junior's five sons scaled the heights of the American century. One, Nelson, reached highest, exposing the very private Rockefellers once again to the harsh judgment of public opinion. In the 1960s, a fourth generation of Rockefellers ("the Cousins") rebelled against their family, which had come to personify what was then known as "the establishment."

The Rockefellers transformed America, helping build many of the institutions that defined the United States in the 20th century: the United Nations, Spelman College, Acadia National Park, Grand Teton National Park, the United Negro College Fund, Lincoln Center, Chase Manhattan Bank, Riverside Church, Pan American Airlines, Radio City Music Hall, The Cloisters, the University of Chicago, Rockefeller Center, Colonial Williamsburg, and the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, to name just a few. Junior's wife, Abby, a leading patron of the arts, co-founded the Museum of Modern Art, known to the third generation of Rockefellers as "Mother's museum."


Rarely has a boy had such different parents.

William Avery ("Bill") Rockefeller

HBC knows nothing about the childhood or boyhood clothes of John D.'s father or details about his childhood. Bill Rockefeller was a travelling peddler and snake oil salesman, a strange choice for his very upright mother. He was known as "Devil Bill" by the locals and in many ways lived up to his reputation. He was a bigamist an an ascused rapist and eventually deserted the family.

Eliza Davison Rockefeller (18??-89)

John D's mother Eliza was a devout Baptist. She was stern, disciplined, and intensely religious. One wonders how she chose her husband. She embued her son with her serious, hard working ethic and devout Christianity.

John D. Rockefeller, Sr. (1839-1937)

The world's first billionaire, John D. Rockefeller Sr. held 90 percent of the world's oil refineries, 90 percent of the marketing of oil, and a third of all the oil wells. Working methodically and secretly, he did more than transform a single industry. When he formed his feared monopoly, Standard Oil, in 1870 he changed forever the way America did business. Because of the ruthless war he waged to crush his competitors, Rockefeller was to many Americans the embodiment of an unjust and cruel economic system. Yet he lived a quiet and virtuous life. "I believe the power to make money is a gift of God," Rockefeller once said. "It is my duty to make money and even more money and to use the money I make for the good of my fellow men." By the end of his life he had given away half his fortune. But Rockefeller's vast philanthropy could not erase the memory of his predatory business practices. In 1902, when McClure's Magazine published journalist Ida Tarbell's scathing exposé of Standard Oil, it unleashed a torrent of rage. In 1911, Standard Oil was declared in violation of antitrust laws and dissolved.


John Davison Rockefeller was born in 1839 in Richford, upstate New York. His father was often absent, but when he was home he filled the house with laughter. His mother insisted on order, schedules, and attention to duty. His father would loan him money--at the prevailing interest rate. He would try to cheat his sons to sharpen them up. He would sometimes call in the loans--to teach them the importance of keeping reserves.

Following allegations of rape in 1849, Bill Rockefeller moves his family to Owego, New York, close to the Pennsylvania border. John D. was ashamed of this. The Rockefeller family in 1853 moves again, to Strongsville, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland, to the home of Bill Rockefeller's sister and brother-in-law. A few years he is devestated when his father virtually deserts the family.

Childhood clothing

HBC knows little about how John D was dressed as a boy. His father was a flashy dresser and at times had money. I'm not sure what his mother thought about fancy clothes. The inmages I have seen suggest she was a very plain dresser.


John D's fellow students see him a very seirous. He had hoped to attend college, but had to drop out of highschool to support the family. Under pressure from his father, John D. Rockefeller drops out of high school two months shy of commencement. He enters a professional school, where he studies double-entry bookkeeping, penmanship, banking, and commercial law.


Riockerfeller began as clerk, reportedly scolding other employees for mistaken bookeeping. He borrowed money from his father and began trading commodities which led him to oil, and eventually the Standard Oil Monopoly. Interestingly, after Standard Oil was broken up by the courts, John D's wealth quadrupled because the resulting individual companies were more valuable to investors than the parent. At this time his wealth was estimated to constitute 2 percent of the American economy.


Although famous for his fortune and predatory business practices, Rockefeller at an early age contributed to charities. While still low paid clerk he purchased a slave's freedom and contributed to a Catholic orphanage. He lavished asttention on his church.

Civil War

Rockefeller purchases an exemption to the draft in the War--a comon practice for rich people.


Rockefeller marries Laura Celestia ("Cettie") Spelman during 1864 in a small, private ceremony, following a 9-year courtship. The two reportedly courted by going over his ledgers. She was in his highschool class, in fact the validictorian. She was an early feminist.


John D, and Laura have four children, three daughters and a son.
Elizabeth (1865-1906): Their first child was Elizabeth, called "Bessie".
Alta (1871- ):
Edith (1872-1932): Edith lives in Switzerland for 8 years.
John Jr. (1874- ): The only boy, John Jr. was the youngest child. He proved to be a dutiful son.

Raising the children

The Rockefellers move to Euclid Avenue, Cleveland's "Millionaires' Row" in 1868. John D. had already become a very wealthy individual and the family lived on a large estate. John D. and Laura are concerned that their new-found wealth will spoil the children and they decided that they should be raised frugally in a strict Christian household. Laura is the disciplinarian. John D. is playful with the children. The children are dressed and eat simply. The have chores and have to earn their pocket money. Their parents feel that the simple homelife is important in building character. The children are pushed to cleans their souls from sin. After Church, mother sits them down and examens their behavior for the week and discusses how they can improve themselves. The household while frugal and strict, was not an unhappy one. John D. Sr. delighted in playing with his children and taking bike rides in the palatial grounds. Junior was devoted to his father. The Rockefellers move to New York and build a mansion at 4 West 54th Street in 1883.

Figure 2.--John D. Junior's family is seen here. The younger boys wear juvenile outdfits and Fauntkleroy suits. The older boys wear Eton suits.

John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (1874- 19??)

John D.'s only son, Junior, faced an almost impossible task, says biographer Ron Chernow: "He had to figure out a way to change the image of this family without openly repudiating the father he loved." The struggle took its toll. Junior suffered from incapacitating headaches and was forced to take rest cures to relieve the strain. In his quest for redemption and respectability, Junior would give away hundreds of millions of dollars, and would demand impeccable behavior from his children." John D. was raised in a strict, but loving family. The furishings in the house were very simple in line with their parents decision to raise the children plainly. This was in stark contrast to the platial grounds. John Jr. and the other children were raised as if they were from a family of limited income. John D. Jr. was dressed very plainly as a boy. Available sources provide some conflicting information about his clothes which we have not yet been able to resolve. I know little aboyt John Jr's education. He appears to have primmarily been educated by tutors with his sisters. He enters Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island in 1893. He was intently consciencious. He memded his own clothes and continue keeping a leger of all his expenses. He began to relack, attended the theater and football games and to his mother's displeasure, learned to dance. John D. Jr. mairred Abby Aldrich (187?-1948) in 1901. John D. Jr tells his new bride that she will have to keep a ledger. She tells him, "No I won't!" She was a duitful wife and mother. And the two deeply cared for each other. She in many ways helped the children to understand their strict and formal father. John D. Jr. never played with the children like his father had played with him as a child. Later she was to develop an interest in modern art in which her husband disapproved. John D., Jr and Abby had six children.

Nelson Rockefeller

In 1962, Nelson tried to take the family one step higher: A liberal Republican, he made a bid for the presidency of the United States. But his divorce from Mary Todd Hunter and marriage to Margaretta "Happy" Murphy, together with a rising wave of national conservatism, crushed his aspirations. "His political career started to come to an end at the time of his divorce and remarriage," his brother, David, confirms. Ten years later, while still governor of New York, he was held responsible for the violent putdown of the rebellion at the Attica state prison and was even called a murderer.

The Grandchildren

It was a time of turmoil for the nation and for the Rockefellers. John D.'s grandchildren were caught up in the upheaval--civil rights, the women's movement, the war in Vietnam. "The Cousins found that they could no longer accept uncritically the role of being Rockefellers," says Steven. "You had to question the history of the family and your own identity." Wanting little to do with a fortune they saw as tainted, some of the Cousins joined the assault of the left against the Rockefellers. In 1976 the Cousins collaborated with the editors of the leading radical journal, Ramparts, in a tell-all book that described the Rockefeller family as "having an abundance of everything except feelings." The book's publication caused a deep rift in the family. "My father's generation was quite understandably very upset that their dirty laundry was being aired in public," says Peggy Dulany, a daughter of David Rockefeller. Abby, Winthrop, John, and Nelson had died by the end of the 1970's--Nelson under scandalous circumstances. Their deaths brought the family back together. "We came to realize that the real problem was the integration of power and goodness," says Steven. "And that if the family was going to continue to work together, philanthropic commitments and values would be at the center." In a society that has more millionaires--even billionaires--than ever, the story of the Rockefellers is both a cautionary tale and an exemplary one.


Aldrich, Nelson W. Jr. "Old Money: The Mythology of America's Upper Class." New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988.

Brinkley, Alan and Ellen Fitzpatrick. "America in Modern Times: Since 1890." New York: The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., 1997.

Cashman, Sean Dennis. "America in the Gilded Age: From the Death of Lincoln to the Rise of Theodore Roosevelt". New York: New York University Press, 1988.

Chernow, Ron. "Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller Sr." New York: Random House, 1998.

Collier, Peter and Horowitz, David. "The Rockefellers: An American Dynasty." New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1976.

Ernst, Joseph W., ed. " ‘Dear Father’ / ‘Dear Son’: Correspondence of John D. Rockefeller and John D. Rockefeller Jr." New York: Fordham University Press and Rockefeller Archive Center, 1994.

Fosdick, Raymond. "John D. Rockefeller Jr.: A Portrait." New York: Harper & Brothers, 1956.

Harr, John Ensor and Johnson, Peter J. "The Rockefeller Century: Three Generations of America's Greatest Family." New York: Scribner, 1988.

Harr, John Ensor and Johnson, Peter J. "The Rockefeller Conscience: An American Family in Public and in Private." New York: Scribner, 1991.

Hawke, David Freeman. "John D.: The Founding Father of the Rockefellers." New York: Harper & Row, 1980.

Kert, Bernice. "Abby Aldrich Rockefeller: The Woman in the Family." New York: Random House, 1993.

Morris, Joe Alex. "Nelson Rockefeller: A Biography." New York: Harper, 1960.

Nevins, Allan. "John D. Rockefeller: The Heroic Age of American Enterprise." New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1940.

______. "Study in Power: John D. Rockefeller, Industrialist and Philanthropist." New York: Scribner, 1953.

Persico, Joseph. "The Imperial Rockefeller: A Biography of Nelson A. Rockefeller." New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982.

Reich, Cary. "The Life of Nelson A. Rockefeller: Worlds to Conquer, 1908-1958." New York: Doubleday, 1996 (Part II, authored by Richard Norton Smith, forthcoming).

Rockefeller, John D.Sr. "Random Reminiscences of Men and Events." Salem, NH: Ayer, 1985 (originally published in 1909).

Schenkel, Albert F. "The Rich Man and the Kingdom: John D. Rockefeller Jr. and the Protestant Establishment." Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1995.

Stasz, Clarice. "The Rockefeller Women: Dynasty of Piety, Privacy, and Service." New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995.


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Created: October 15, 2000
Last updated: 9:06 PM 2/6/2011