America’s First Multimillionaire
From our partners at Gothamist: In last night’s episode, Elizabeth Haverford and Norbert Morehouse – actually, make that Norbert Morehouse and Elizabeth Haverford – hold a fancy fundraiser in the Morehouse mansion to raise money for the 21st United States Colored Infantry Regiment (fundraisers for Civil War causes were very popular in 1864). When Morehouse warns Elizabeth not to invite that “salamander William Backhouse Astor,” he is referring to the second-oldest son of John Jacob Astor, America’s first multimillionaire.
John Jacob Astor built the family fortune through the fur trade and buying New York City land that would soon become valuable, and it’s believed that the $20 million he left at the time of his death in 1848 would be equivalent to over $110 billion in 2006 dollars. William Backhouse Astor Sr. inherited most of the family’s money and he managed to more than double it, by furthering the family’s investments in real estate.
According to Appleton’s, he followed the “example of his father” and “invested in real estate, principally situated below Central park, between 4th and 7th avenues – now known as Midtown – which rapidly increased in value. For about thirteen years prior to 1873 he was largely engaged in building, until much of his hitherto unoccupied land was covered by houses, mostly of the first class. He was said to own in 1867 as many as 720 houses.” Naturally, he would be a rival to Norbert Morehouse, who has real estate designs of his own! And his son, William Backhouse Astor Jr., and his wife Caroline would build the grandest NYC mansion known at the time – its ballroom could accommodate 1,200 guests – perfect for future extravagant gatherings of the city’s richest.
Another invitee to the Morehouse-Haverford fundraiser is Cornelius Vanderbilt, the “Commodore,” who turned his modest Staten Island-to-Manhattan business into a shipping and railroad empire. It’s believed that his fortune, $100 million at the time of his death in 1877, would be worth be around $168 billion in 2006 dollars.