Born in Germany in 1763, John Jacob Astor’s first job was working in his father’s butcher shop. At seventeen he left for England to work with his older brother making and selling musical instruments. There didn’t seem to be much of a future in that so he joined on with a fur trading company in London. This led to his emigrating to America where he explored Western New York state for furs. In conjunction with furriers from Montreal, Astor began to ship the furs back to London and hence began his fortune. In March 1784 he moved to New York and lived at 362 Pearl Street. When he first arrived in the city, New York was still less than a year removed from the Revolutionary War. The city was in a state of disrepair as a result of the war and still largely a trading post. The trading business continued to grow and in 1808 Astor started the American Fur Company which was the first great monopoly in American history. Astor was making huge profits from the fur business, but he saw an even greater opportunity for wealth.
Around 1810 he began to buy land in Manhattan. Unlike most real estate investors he did engage in short-term speculation or develop property for sale. He simply bought land at low prices and waited for the market to change and for urban growth to drive up the value of his properties.
While waiting for these market changes he collected large income in rents from his extensive commercial and residential holdings, making so much money of his property that he sold his fur business in 1834. During the panic of 1837 is where he really cleaned up, buying distressed properties for a song as well as foreclosing on other for which he held mortgages. By 1840 he was America’s wealthiest man owning an estate of more than $20 million (about $500 million in today’s dollars).
Astor later lived at 586 Broadway in a building that became the Astor House hotel in 1836. he also had a summer home at Astoria, located at East 87th Street between York and East End Avenues.
When he passed away on the morning of March 29, 1848 John Jacob Astor’s estate was estimated to be in excess of $60 million. He lies buried in the cemetery of the Old Trinity Church.