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


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Comments to a historical wealth classification list : the Forbes list of 1918

The 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 www.forbes.com

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 adheres).

• 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.

On 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.

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