8 Facts About John D. Rockefeller

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

There’s rich, there’s wealthy, and then there’s John D. Rockefeller. Considered by many to be the most financially-prosperous individual in modern history with an estimated $900,000,000 bank balance (unadjusted for inflation) in the early 1910s, Rockefeller (1839-1937) made his massive fortune by dominating the oil industry. While Rockefeller was prone to controversy—he was accused of being a monopoly in the fuel business—he was also a generous philanthropist, donating over a half-billion dollars in his lifetime (and that's also unadjusted for inflation). Take a look at some things you might not have known about the legendary tycoon.

1. HIS DAD PRETENDED TO BE A DOCTOR.

While his son would go on to want for nothing in life, William Avery Rockefeller was not a man of resources. The one thing he could depend on was a somewhat diabolical gift for conning others. Before his son was born, William spent time as an itinerant, going from place to place pretending to be deaf and soliciting free meals. (Eliza, the daughter of one such target, became his wife and John’s mother.) In other towns, he would hand out sheets referring to himself as “doctor” and pretend to have found a “cure” for cancer. The elder Rockefeller also insisted that his mistress, Nancy, live in the same house as his family, where she bore him two children. William Rockefeller would continue peddling “medicines,” sometimes under the pseudonym of William Levingston—and when he died in 1906, that was the name on his tombstone.

2. HE CELEBRATED HIS OWN PERSONAL HOLIDAY.

More important to Rockefeller than his own birthday was what he called “Job Day.” The future oil magnate was born and raised in upstate New York and took on his first real job at the age of 16 for a grain and coal supplier/shipper after his family relocated to Cleveland, Ohio. The date he started—September 26, 1855—was when Rockefeller believed he got his official start in business. As an adult, he celebrated the day every year.

3. HE DID EVERYTHING HE COULD TO DOMINATE THE OIL INDUSTRY.

A portrait of John D. Rockefeller
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Rockefeller’s wealth was a consequence of his obsession with owning the oil industry. He struck deals with railroads to ship his goods cheaply, bought out smaller companies, and helped usher in the concept of a monopoly in modern times. Smaller businesses were faced with a choice: be consumed or attempt to compete with his massive corporation. His buying spree was referred to as the “Cleveland Massacre.” By 1882, his company, Standard Oil, owned or controlled 90 percent of all refineries in the United States. “Competition is a sin,” he was allegedly quoted as saying.

4. HE HIRED A STAND-IN SOLDIER TO SERVE FOR HIM IN THE CIVIL WAR.

John D. Rockefeller stands in a field
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Due to be drafted to serve the Union in the Civil War in 1863, the 23-year-old Rockefeller did what many men of means had done: He paid for someone to serve in his place. This practice was allowed by the U.S. government, which granted draftees the ability to offer up a substitute. No record exists of who the man who took Rockefeller’s spot was. His brother, Frank, chose to serve at age 16, telling a recruiting sergeant he was 18. Despite being wounded in battle, he survived.

5. HE HELPED REDUCE HOOKWORM IN THE UNITED STATES.

With his fortune, Rockefeller pursued a number of philanthropic efforts in his lifetime. In 1910, that funding led directly to the widespread treatment of a mostly-forgotten illness: hookworm. The larvae enter the soles of the feet and travel the bloodstream to the lungs before settling in the intestine, where sufferers can experience stunted growth, anemia, and exhaustion. More than 40 percent of the population in southern states had hookworm infection in the early 20th century. The Rockefeller Sanitary Commission for the Eradication of Hookworm Disease used Rockefeller’s $1 million donation to map out high-risk areas and made a concentrated effort to cure infected residents with Epsom salts and thymol while educating the public on the need for improved sanitation systems.

While it was thought for decades that hookworm had been essentially eradicated in the United States, a recent study found that it still occurs in impoverished areas of Alabama and possibly other regions of the deep south—but not with the severity of the early 20th century.

6. HE LIKED HANDING OUT DIMES TO STRANGERS.

John D. Rockefeller hands a coin to a child
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In the early 1900s, Rockefeller often traveled by ferry from his home in Tarrytown across the Hudson River and into Nyack, New York. When his ferry docked, he would typically be greeted by children. Rockefeller came prepared, handing out dimes to his welcoming party. Rockefeller was also known to hand out coins to adults. He reportedly did this in part to instill habits of savings and thrift in people. Many of them hung on to their famous “Rockefeller dimes” as a keepsake.

7. SOMEONE PLANNED TO BLOW HIM UP.

At the turn of the century, bomb threats and detonations were often used to make a point against capitalism by radicals looking to upend the system; business barons like J.P. Morgan and Rockefeller were targeted. In the case of Rockefeller, it’s been proposed that he was targeted for his family’s role in the Ludlow Massacre in Colorado, when several striking miners—and even children—were killed during fighting with the Colorado National Guard and mine guards. Fortunately for Rockefeller, his would-be assassins never made it to his Tarrytown home: On July 4, 1914, an explosion went off in a Harlem tenement, killing several anarchists who had been storing dynamite at the location. Their plan had been to leave it at Rockefeller’s doorstep.

8. MARK TWAIN PLAYED A ROLE IN STANDARD OIL'S DOWNFALL.

A portrait of writer Mark Twain
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1900, Ida Tarbell, the daughter of one of Rockefeller's business rivals, decided to even the score with Rockefeller by writing an extensive 19-part expose on his questionable business practices for McClure’s magazine. A key source was Henry Rogers, who worked for Rockefeller as an executive for Standard Oil for roughly 25 years. Rogers heard of the series Tarbell was working on and felt Standard Oil should be involved, asking his friend Mark Twain to inquire with McClure’s. Twain eventually asked, “Would Miss Tarbell see Mr. Rogers?” and a meeting was arranged. Rogers later grew upset when he saw Tarbell’s articles, but it was too late. Her reporting led to a 1911 Supreme Court ruling that broke up Standard Oil for good, mincing it into a series of companies that later became known as Chevron, ExxonMobil, and others. Tarbell didn’t spare words about her vendetta or potential lack of objectivity. In the copy, she referred to the slim Rockefeller as a “living mummy.”

8 Surprising Facts and Misconceptions About Recycling

iStock.com/KatarzynaBialasiewicz
iStock.com/KatarzynaBialasiewicz

If you pat yourself on the back for just remembering to separate the recycling or haul that big blue bin to the curb each week, you're not alone. Despite the strides we appear to be making toward eco-consciousness as a country, we have a long way to go in helping the Earth, as evidenced by our complicated relationship with recycling. These facts about the most prevalent of the three Rs will make you pause the next time you throw anything away.

1. The United States's recycling rate is low—really low.

Figures from the Environmental Protection Agency show that America recycles about 34.7 percent of the garbage it produces. (The world's top recyclers—Germany, Austria, Wales, and South Korea—report a rate between 52 and 56 percent.) But Mitch Hedlund, founder and Executive Director of the organization Recycle Across America isn't even sure the recycling rate often quoted is accurate because there is so much junk mixed in with actual recyclables.

Recycle Across America is currently working to encourage the use of standardized labels for recycling bins to eliminate the confusion over what actually belongs in these receptacles. "If the U.S. gets the recycling number up to 75 percent, which we believe is completely possible once the confusion (over what to place in the bins) is removed, it will be the CO2 equivalent of removing 50 million cars from the roads each year in the U.S. and it will create 1.5 million permanent new jobs in the U.S. (net)."

2. Proper recycling can result in monetary savings.

Businessman stepping on green squares with recycling symbols
iStock.com/Rawpixel

While Hedlund admits the idea of providing universal labels clearly stating what should be placed in the bins is a simple one, it's making a serious impact on those who have jumped on the bandwagon. "Many schools are seeing dramatic increases in their recycling levels since using the society-wide standardized labels on their recycling bins," she says. "For instance, in the pilot program at Culver City schools in Los Angeles [County], their recycling levels doubled when they started using the standardized labels and the materials they were collecting in their recycling bins were so much less contaminated with garbage." Another story, she says, is that "as a result of a donation from Kiehls (who makes a donation to Recycle Across America each April in the sum of $50,000), all of the schools in the San Diego Unified School District and San Diego County started using the standardized labels. San Diego Unified School District reduced their landfill hauling fees by about $200,000 (net) in the first year."

3. Recent changes from China have severely impacted the recycling industry.

Until 2018, China took 40 percent of the United States's recycled paper, plastic, and metal. But in January of that year, China imposed strict new rules on the levels of contamination (think food or other garbage mixed in with the recyclables) it's willing to accept—standards American cities are largely unable to meet. Because of that, and a lack of suitable destinations closer to home, many cities have been forced to incinerate or stockpile recyclables until they can find a better solution.

4. Only 9 percent of plastic is recycled in the U.S.

The nation recycles less than 10 percent of its plastic, compared to 67 percent for paper materials, 34 percent for metals, and 26 percent for glass. And China's restrictions have especially affected plastic—while exports of scrap plastic to China were valued at more than $300 million in 2015, they amounted to $7.6 million in the first quarter of 2018, down 90 percent from the year before.

5. Clothing can be recycled, but it rarely is.

Clothing at a garage sale
iStock.com/alexeys

Unfortunately, most curbside haulers don't accept textiles, and America has a serious problem with old clothes ending up in the trash. In 2019, the nation is on track to throw away more than 35 billion pounds of textiles, according to the Council for Textile Recycling—almost double the number from 1999. On the plus side, some cities have set up drop-off points for unwanted clothes, and there are a variety of ways to sell or donate unwanted items. Some brands, including Eileen Fisher and Patagonia, have also introduced buy-back programs for their items.

6. Aluminum is the world's most-recycled packaging product.

Crushed aluminum cans
iStock.com/hroe

Nearly 70 percent of aluminum cans are recycled internationally, according to Novelis, a leader in rolled aluminum products and recycled aluminum. Aluminum is infinitely recyclable without degrading, meaning it can be reused in a way completely different from what it was in its previous life, or recast into its original form. Not only is aluminum the world's most-recycled product, it's also the most profitable and the most energy-efficient. Using recycled aluminum instead of virgin materials saves about 95% of the energy, compared to 60% for paper and 34% for glass [PDF].

7. That soda can you're drinking from could find its way back to you more quickly than you think.

According to Novelis's research, an aluminum can that is recycled can be back on a grocery store shelf within 60 days [PDF]. That's a seriously speedy turnaround.

8. Scrap recycling is big business.

While the words scrap recycling might have you humming the Sanford & Son theme song, it's far from being a junkyard industry. According to the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), in 2017 U.S. scrap recyclers processed more than 130 million tons of scrap metal, paper, plastic, glass, textiles, and more—material that was sold back to industrial consumers in the U.S. and around the world, generating close to $18 billion in export sales. All told, scrap recycling was a $117 billion industry in 2017 [PDF].

This list first ran in 2015 and was updated by Mental Floss staff in 2019.

From Cocaine to Chloroform: 28 Old-Timey Medical Cures

YouTube
YouTube

Is your asthma acting up? Try eating only boiled carrots for a fortnight. Or smoke a cigarette. Have you got a toothache? Electrotherapy might help (and could also take care of that pesky impotence problem). When it comes to our understanding of medicine and illnesses, we’ve come a long way in the past few centuries. Still, it’s always fascinating to take a look back into the past and remember a time when cocaine was a common way to treat everything from hay fever to hemorrhoids.

In this week's all-new edition of The List Show, Mental Floss editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy is highlighting all sorts of bizarre, old-timey medical cures. You can watch the full episode below.

For more episodes like this one, be sure to subscribe here.

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