Few business subjects fascinate people as much as the very wealthy.  Our obsession with celebrity goes back centuries but seems to have accelerated in recent decades.  Forbes produced its first list of the richest Americans in 1982 and later started publishing it annually, though such lists have been made off and on for over a century. 

The latest list was published last month, showing the top Americans as Jeff Bezos at $177 billion, Elon Musk at $151 billion, and Bill Gates at $124 billion.  Only one non-American was in this mix at the top of the list, French luxury goods baron Bernard Arnault (CEO, LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton) at $150 billion.  Of course these numbers are only estimates, given the difficulty of valuing real estate, art, and other assets, though Forbes works hard at it and has a lot of experience by now.  And the numbers change daily, especially for people with large holdings of public company stocks like Bezos and Musk. 

(Mark Zuckerberg, Warren Buffett, Larry Ellison, and Google founders Page and Brin are just below the $100 billion mark in the latest list.)

Our job here at the American Business History Center is always to add some historical context – how rich are these people compared to the superwealthy of the past?  That exercise requires adjusting historical dollar figures to today’s values and today’s economy.  There are several ways to make these adjustments. 

In our articles, we generally use an inflation index, which gives a rough idea of what those old dollars might buy today.  Some who have compared wealth over time have looked at people’s wealth relative to the US Gross Domestic Product when they were alive (or at the time of their death).  Authors Michael Klepper and Robert Gunther used this method in their popular book, The Wealthy 100: From Benjamin Franklin to Bill Gates – A Ranking of the Richest Americans, Past and Present, published in 1996.  At that time, their method listed Bill Gates as the richest living American but just thirty-first in the overall historical list of 100 individuals.

With all the controversy surrounding the superrich – and their taxes and divorces – it seems a good time to take another look.  And to try yet another method of adjusting the historical data. 

For our list, we looked at the wealth of the superwealthy compared with the total national wealth of all the people in the Untied States.  That total currently stands at about $130 trillion at yearend 2020, according to the latest government data.  (The total includes non-profit organizations, but they represent a small fraction of the total.)  Mr. Bezos holds about one-seventh of one percent of that total American wealth.

We used that same method to look back in time, using the estimated “wealth at time of death” numbers from The Wealthy 100 book.  We arrived at these “2020 equivalent” numbers for the top historical (and present) people:

When viewed in this way, the “concentration” of wealth, at least at the very top, is less now than it was one hundred years ago.  At the same time, the top current people are “far richer” than were the top billionaires (and eccentrics) in the mid-twentieth century, such as Howard Hughes, J. Paul Getty, HL Hunt, and Daniel Ludwig.

As in The Wealthy 100 book, today’s rich are not at the top of the historical list.  (If the inflation index is used to adjust the wealthy of the past, much lower numbers show up for the rich of bygone days, leaving today’s rich at the top.)

Taken together, it strikes us that no one today approaches the relative wealth achieved by John D. Rockefeller, and probably the other names in our list. At his 1913 peak, when his Standard Oil Trust was broken up by a Supreme Court Decision, Rockefeller was perhaps three times as wealthy as Bezos is today, using the method we have used.  He also had many partners whose wealth would show up not far below those listed above, including his brother William Rockefeller, Henry Rogers, Edward Harkness, Henry Flagler, and Oliver Payne. 

Others high on the list would include railroad barons Edward Harriman, Russell Sage, Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins, Charles Crocker, and CP Huntington.  Other industrial titans would also rank highly, such as financier JP Morgan, Carnegie partner Henry Frick, magazine publisher Cyrus Curtis, sewing machine magnate Edward Clark, and meatpacker Philip Armour.

All those individuals would be worth at least $40 billion in today’s economy based on their share of the national wealth at the time of their deaths, ranking them up with the twenty richest Americans in the newest Forbes list.

Among more recent billionaires, Sam Walton at the time of his 1992 death was worth an estimated $22 billion, which would convert to about $112 billion in 2020, just missing the list in the table above.

While we always enjoy “playing with numbers,” more interesting to us are the achievements and contributions to society made by these businesspeople, or lack thereof.  Rockefeller, Carnegie, Ford, Weyerhaeuser, and the Mellons created large enterprises that still exist today.  Most were also great philanthropists. 

Please check back on our website in 50 or 100 years to see how Bezos, Musk, and Gates appear in retrospect!

Gary Hoover

Executive Director

American Business History Center

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