Forbes list of 1918 gives a picture of the largest individual American
fortunes of its days, based on the assessment of leading bankers, which
were confided to Bertie C. Forbes, the editor of the famous magazine. A
more complete coverage of this important historical list is available at
From a historical perspective, the list deserves to be commented as to
certain shortcomings, which do not alter the quality of its basic content.
In most cases they are mere precisions, rather than actual corrections.
Some individual holders of large fortunes have been omitted or their
fortunes wrongly allocated to other members of their families :
Anna (Richardson) Harkness, the widow of Stephen Vanderburgh Harkness and
the mother of Edward Stephen Harkness (cited in the list) is absent
although her fortune was certainly as substantial, as her son’s. She was
the instigator of the great Commonwealth Foundation, which she initially
created in the honor of her deceased son Charles William Harkness. Her
fortune certainly exceed the one of Mrs Edward Henry Harriman, cited as
the richest woman in the list.
• Another conspicuously wealthy woman absent from the list is Anna Maria
(Weightman) Walker Penfield, the main heiress to the William Weightman
fortune of Philadelphia. Her wealth was put at $120 million in 1907 and
she lived until 1926.
• The $100 million estate of Henrietta Howland Green was in fact evenly
divided between her two children, the cited ‘Colonel’ Edward Howland
Robinson Green would thus be worth only $50 million, but his sister Silvia
Ann (Green) Wilkes should be on the list with an equivalent estate. She
eventually inherited her brother’s depleted estate, when the latter died
childless in 1936.
• Andrew Carnegie had already disposed of the major part of his $300
million plus fortune in a number of charitable foundations. John Davison
Rockefeller sr had done likewise and transferred much of the remainder to
his children and grandchildren to avoid estate taxes, which were
introduced in 1917 and thereafter increased gradually to the level of up
to 70%. Both men left relatively small estates when they died.
(Note that the consideration of the capital tied in a philanthropic
foundation as part of the fortune of the benefactor during his lifetime is
a widespread concept to which “A Classification of American Wealth” also
• Cyrus Hall McCormick (jr), Louis Franklin Swift and Daniel Guggenheim
were in all three cases only one of several active sons or heirs of the
fortune founder. In all cases they were the eldest son, which probably led
to the understanding that they were substantially richer than their
siblings. In the case of Louis Franklin Swift, we tend to agree with this,
as he was much longer active in the firm of Swift & Company, than any of
his younger brothers. Crosschecking the McCormick estate figures however
shows that Cyrus was not substantially richer than his four siblings. As
to the Guggenheims, their fortune was tied in a family partnership, called
M. Guggenheims’s Sons Company and later Guggenheim Brothers Company, in
which initially all seven brothers were equal partners. Two dropped out,
but the other remaining active brothers, Isaac, Murry, Solomon and Simon
should be classed in the same league as Daniel.
• Louise Clisby (Wise) Lewis was not the sole heiress of her wealthy aunt
Mary Lilly (Kenan) Flagler Bingham, who had herself inherited the fortune
of Standard Oil magnate and Florida developer Henry Morrison Flagler.
Louise actually inherited only the personal real estate holdings and a
trust fund, whereas the major part of the estate, including the railroads
and hotels in Florida as well as large blocks of Standard Oil stocks, was
divided among her two sisters and her brother William Rand Kenan jr.
• Finally we do miss a number of well known names in the list, such as :
(William) Payne Whitney (who inherited $75 million in 1917 from his uncle
Oliver Hazard Payne), Henry Edwards Huntington (whose fortune peaked
around 1918 at a similar amount) and the Mellons (Andrew William and
Richard Beatty), whose ascension to the ranks of richest Americans was
well under way in 1918.
one hand, a historical analysis is easier than the processing of a list
from present data, as ex post knowledge gives good guidance. On the other
hand, the data is older and the sources difficult to verify. Our advantage
is that the use of a modern publishing medium called Internet, which
allows us a more flexible way to treat the subject. The wealth
classification lists of our “Encyclopedia of American Wealth” are
certainly not free from errors and omissions. But they are subject of
frequent updates and corrections, as our insight into the subject of
American wealth classification improves.