July 17 is the 250th birthday of John Jacob Astor (1763-1848), the richest man in America in his day. The bulk of Astor’s $20 million fortune came from the fur trade and, later, real estate — Astor (inset) was New York’s biggest landlord (and slumlord). But the fortune’s foundation was musical.
Young Astor’s first stop after leaving home in Walldorf, Germany, was London, where his brother George was manufacturing flutes. The two opened a shop together, selling the flutes, pianos, and other instruments. John brought the business to America, arriving in the early 1780s with a shipment of flutes, the sale of which (one story goes) provided capital to open his own shop in New York.