A Classification of American Wealth
History and genealogy of the wealthy families of America - Sponsors

 Part 1 : Colonial and Mercantile America  Part 2 : America in the Gilded Age
 Part 3 : America in the Twentieth Century  Encyclopedia of American Wealth

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  Chronicles of American Wealth / Nr 26 / December 30, 2005

<<  List of chronicles   

Content :

1 – New Chapter 9 – " Retailers and Merchant Princes " now online
2 – Updated thematic list : "
Merchant Princes (1910) "
3 –
Milestones of “A Classification of American Wealth”


New Chapter 9 : " Retailers and Merchant Princes "

During the colonial and mercantile periods, American merchants were the driving factor of economic progress, the class which as a group accumulated most wealth and reinvested it into other fields, leading on the path towards the industrial revolution. Always driven by the prospect to enlarge their mercantile profits, the merchants of the early 19th century built ships and factories to supply their stores. Over time, these investments proved so profitable, that their patrons abandoned their stores to concentrate on shipping or manufacturing, leaving the retailing of their goods to other merchants, who operated on the smaller scale of their specialty or general dry goods stores.

Thus by 1850, America’s most prosperous merchants were either engaged in international trade or acting as auctioneers on a wholesale scale, whilst the scores of smaller merchants, although reasonably well-to-do, were hardly accumulating large fortunes by tending to their stores. But the tremendous growth of American cities, fuelled by immigration and the industrial revolution which took place during the Gilded Age, created the opportunity for retailers to participate in the race to great wealth. Larger stores featuring a wide range of products organized in departments appeared in New York and other large cities and through advertising and attractive prices, soon capitalized on the people’s increased purchasing power.

Thus appeared a new breed of merchant princes who thoroughly changed the face of retailing and merchandising and in the process made fortunes which stood in no way behind those of contemporaneous railroad tycoons or industrialists. A. T. Stewart and R. H. Macy in New York, the Wanamakers in Philadelphia, Marshall Field and his partners, Potter Palmer and Levi Z. Leiter in Chicago, and numerous others, including a large proportion of Jewish families, set up the large department stores that characterized the inner city shopping miles of America’s largest towns.

In similar ways, F. W. Woolworth, S. S. Kresge and others spread their “Nickel and Dime” stores throughout America’s small towns and suburbs. Capitalizing on the improved transportation system, the mail order business was started by Montgomery Ward to serve the hitherto neglected farmer’s community and perfected by Richard Sears and Julius Rosenwald. The obscure Henry Siegel started Siegel & Cooper with a department store in Chicago, used Goldman Sachs to finance a landmark store in New York City and after the turn of the century, built one of the first chains of department stores in the USA. 

Siegel failed in 1913 and J. P. Morgan & Company stepped in to merge his shattered empire with John Claflin’s chain, creating the Associated Dry Goods corporation, not a great success in the long term. In 1928, Fred Lazarus, a third generation descendant of a Jewish family who started retailing in Columbus Ohio, founded Federated Department Stores and gathered some of the country’s most successful firms under its wings, including Abraham & Straus (Brooklyn), Filene’s (Boston) and Bloomingdales’s (New York). Lazarus’ group outgrew all other chains of department stores and in 2005, merged with the similarly large May Department Stores group, creating a behemoth corporation with almost 950 department stores and over 700 specialty stores in 49 states

more about the men who founded America’s great department stores and the fortunes they made in our new Chapter 9 “Merchant Princes” or about other wealthy American dynasties at “A Classification of American Wealth”.


Updated thematic list : " Merchant Princes (1910) "

Along with the publication of chapter 9, about retailers and merchant princes, we also updated the thematic list of Merchant Princes , first introduced on October 31, 2005. With now 130 millionaires who made their money as retailers in department stores, chain stores, large specialty retail stores or in the mail order business, the list is still not quite complete but certainly representative for this class of wealthy Americans of the past.

The year (1910) was chosen as representative of the momentum for American retail merchant princes of the Gilded Age, after the grand opening of the Straus family’s new Macy’s in New York (1902), just ahead of John Wanamaker’s new landmark store in Philadelphia (1911) and the merger of F. W. Woolworth’s chain store empire with its loose competitors (1912), and before the demise of Henry Siegel, whose scandalous failure in 1913 reminds us, that not all great capitalists prevailed. 

Some representatives of wealthy merchant families on the list are heirs with no direct influence or no relation at all with the stores that made their family’s fortune. Most prominent of course are the two grandsons of Marshall Field who head the list, although most of their wealth was in Chicago real estate at the time. But there are also the nephews and nieces of Cornelia Clinch Mitchell, better known as Mrs Alexander Turney Stewart. As usual in these lists, people with large fortunes made or inherited from retailing, which could not be more precisely assessed, are listed with the amount of $1’000’000.

Browse the list of Merchant Princes or other wealth classification lists and read more about the wealthy Americans and wealthy American families of the past at Encyclopedia of American Wealth 
at " Encyclopedia of American Wealth ".



A Classification of American Wealth
and  Encyclopedia of American Wealth

Since it has first been published at www.raken.com in May 2000 (Chapter 1 Patroons and Manor Lords), “A Classification of American Wealth”, our online book about the history and genealogy of the wealthy families of America, has grown to 426 pages (including 58 free) in 13 chapters, covering the colonial & mercantile periods, the Gilded Age and still only partially the Twentieth Century. Please use the sitemap to know precisely what is presently available.

Encyclopedia of American Wealth, first published in May 2001, also grew much in content during time, with useful new features being introduced recently. Here are a few figures as to its present stage of completion :
Number of records in the database : 6885 wealthy individuals and 194 families.
Number of profiles : 397 full profiles and 98 partial profiles of wealthy individuals and 33 profiles of wealthy American families.
There are now 33 wealth classification lists of individuals or families, (some featuring up to 1327 entries), ranging in time from 1675 to 1950, including historical lists, thematic lists and lists of wealthy American politicians.
For 602 of the wealthy individuals featured in the AW database, there are now family trees listing their descendants. The latter can be accessed directly through the wealth classification lists..


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