But for farmers living and working in the rural Midwest or the Deep South, life wasn’t nearly so peachy. While farm production was at an all-time peak as a result of the post war agricultural boom, European farm capacity was on the rise and prices were crashing. For rural residents, the 1920s was the forgotten age. Rural telephone coverage actually decreased during the early part of the decade and the number of rural poor or unemployed spiked dangerously – even leading to the Hobo phenomenon of the era. Set against the glitz of the Jazz Age, rural life was doubly challenging.
Rockefeller - Peak wealth - $340 Billion
Born in New York in 1839, Rockefeller took his first regular job as a clerk in 1855 at the age of 16. Within just a few years he had worked up to a partnership in an Ohio oil refinery which, by 1882 had turned into the American Standard Oil Company which, at that time, controlled 90% of the American petroleum industry. Busted by the Supreme Court in 1911 for violating the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, Standard Oil was eventually broken into 30 separate companies. By this time, however, Rockefeller had already been in retirement for over 10 years and his personal fortune was left largely intact.
Joseph Kennedy - Peak wealth – Est. at $400 million
Patriarch of the most famous political family of the last 100 years, Joseph Kennedy was born in 1888 and by 1912, at the age of 25, had already been promoted to bank president. By 1920 he was heavily invested in alcohol distribution and owned a successful movie studio (through which he met and romanced actor Gloria Swanson). While I couldn’t find hard numbers for his total wealth during the 1920s, he had enough money to create a million dollar trust for each of his nine children by the time he died. It seems that most of the family money came from stock market investments that the Kennedys were able to hold through the depression era and latter sell for large profit margins. In any event, as the founder of a political dynasty and a self-made multi-millionaire, Kennedy absolutely makes our list.
Charles Ponzi - Peak Wealth about $8.5 Million.
Born in Italy in 1882, Ponzi immigrated to the United States in 1903 with just $2.50 to his name. A small time crook, he landed in prison twice during the next few years; first for forging bad checks in Canada and later for smuggling illegal immigrants into the United States. In the years leading up to 1920, Ponzi started an international stamp exchange rate fraud that gave him his biggest idea yet; the Pyramid Scheme. Offering investors a 50% return within 45 days, or 100% return in 90 days, Ponzi was able to turn a fast profit without doing any actual investing and by 1920 he is said to have made over $250,000 a day from his “Ponzi Scheme”. Unfortunately for him, the media became suspicious and he was eventually arrested and sent to prison for his efforts. Despite the short-lived nature of Ponzi’s fortune, his caricature perhaps best defines one aspect of the roaring 20’s financial scene and his name will live forever in infamy.
Henry Ford - Peak Wealth - $54 Billion
However, while Ford can safely be credited with successfully capitalizing on the newest production techniques, many of which his company pioneered, his personal life is a bit more shadowed. An anti-Semite, Ford published a multi-volume set expressing his sentiment (though he later recanted the work). In addition, Ford was staunchly anti-labor, even threatening to close the entire company during the 1930s to avoid signing a UAW contract (despite being the last auto company to do so). Regardless, his success in the board room places him number eleven on the list of the United States’ richest men of all time.
Andrew Mellon - Peak Wealth - $50.5 Billion
Despite his early successes, however, Mellon took heavy criticism for his ties to big industry and was partly blamed for the stock crash of 1929. He died under investigation for tax evasion (he was eventually found not-guilty) and never did live to see the completion of the National Art Gallery to which his fortune contributed.