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.
Furs, the prospects of which had been touted by a fellow passenger on one of Astor’s Atlantic voyages, were added to the portfolio; as with many of his businesses, Astor soon monopolized the trade. (On the frontiers of the fur trade, traders notoriously plied Native Americans into unfavorable deals with whiskey; Astor also managed to make a handsome profit selling the whiskey itself.) But Astor still occasionally dealt in pianos; as late as 1796, he brought six instruments by Broadwood, the preeminent English manufacturer, to America for resale, rebranding them with his own name. He also continued importing instruments through his brother’s company. Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe owned Astor pianos.
George Astor, who stayed in the music business, died in 1813. Though John tried to dissuade George’s widow from continuing (through a letter to her brother, John, famously stingy, advised her to “keep what little property she may have & not risk it in strange hands”), Elizabeth Astor successfully maintained the firm through various partnerships — and one more president: James Polk had one of Elizabeth Astor’s pianos.