Standard Oil was a predominant American integrated oil producing, transporting, refining, and marketing company. Esta-blished in 1870 as an Ohio corporation, it was the largest oil refiner in the world and operated as a major company trust and was one of the world's first and largest multinational corporations until it was broken up by the United States Supreme Court in 1911. John D. Rockefeller was a founder, chairman and major shareholder, and the company made him a billionaire and eventually the richest man in history.
Standard Oil began as an Ohio partnership formed by the well-known industrialist John D. Rockefeller, his brother William Rockefeller, Henry Flagler, chemist Samuel Andrews, silent partner Stephen V. Harkness, and Oliver Burr Jennings, who had married the sister of William Rockefeller's wife. In 1870 Rockefeller incorporated Standard Oil in Ohio. Of the initial 10,000 shares, John D. Rockefeller received 2,667; William Rockefeller, Flagler, and Andrews received 1,333 each; Hark-ness received 1,334; Jennings received 1,000; and the firm of Rockefeller, Andrews & Flagler received 1,000. Using highly effective tactics, later widely criticized, it absorbed or destroyed most of its competition in Cleveland in less than two months in 1872 and later throughout the northeastern United States.
In the early years, John D. Rockefeller dominated the combine, for he was the single most important figure in shaping the new oil industry.One of the world's first and biggest multinationals - see Daniel Yergin, The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991, (p.35). He quickly distributed power and the tasks of policy formation to a system of committees, but always remained the largest shareholder. Authority was centralized in the company's main office in Cleveland, but decisions in the office were made in a cooperative way.
In response to state laws trying to limit the scale of companies, Rockefeller and his associates developed innovative ways of organizing, to effectively manage their fast growing enterprise. In 1882, they combined their disparate companies, spread across dozens of states, under a single group of trustees. By a secret agreement, the existing thirty-seven stockholders conveyed their shares "in trust" to nine Trustees: John and William Rockefeller, Oliver H. Payne, Charles Pratt, Henry Flagler, John D. Archbold, William G. Warden, Jabez Bostwick, and Benjamin Brewster. This organization proved so suc-cessful that other giant enterprises adopted this "trust" form.
The company grew by increasing sales and also through acquisitions. After purchasing competing firms, Rockefeller shut down those he believed to be inefficient and kept the others. In a seminal deal, in 1868, the Lake Shore Railroad, a part of the New York Central, gave Rockefeller's firm a going rate of one cent a gallon or forty-two cents a barrel, an effective 71% dis-count off of its listed rates in return for a promise to ship at least 60 carloads of oil daily and to handle the loading and unload-ing on its own. Smaller companies decried such deals as unfair because they were not producing enough oil to qualify for discounts.
In 1872, Rockefeller joined the South Improvement Company which would have allowed him to receive rebates for shipping and receive drawbacks on oil his competitors shipped. But when this deal became known, competitors convinced the Pen-nsylvania Legislature to revoke South Improvement's charter. No oil was ever shipped under this arrangement.
In one example of Standard's aggressive practices, a rival oil association tried to build an oil pipeline to overcome Standard's virtual boycott of its competitors. In response, the railroad company at Rockefeller's direction denied the association permis-sion to run the pipeline across railway land, forcing consortium staff to laboriously decant the oil into barrels, carry them over the railway crossing in carts, and pump the oil manually into the pipeline on the other side. When Rockefeller learned of this tactic, he instructed the railway company to park empty rail cars across the line, thereby preventing the carts from crossing his property.
Standard's actions and secret transport deals helped its kerosene price to drop from 58 to 26 cents from 1865 to 1870. Competitors disliked the company's business practices, but consumers liked the lower prices. Standard Oil, being formed well before the discovery of the Spindletop oil field and a demand for oil other than for heat and light, was well placed to con-trol the growth of the oil business. The company was perceived to own and control all aspects of the trade. Oil couldn't leave the oil field unless Standard Oil agreed to move it: the "posted price" for oil was the price that Standard Oil agents printed on flyers that were nailed to posts in oil producing areas, and producers had no power to negotiate those prices.
In 1885, Standard Oil of Ohio moved its headquarters from Cleveland to its permanent headquarters at 26 Broadway in New York City. Concurrently, the trustees of Standard Oil of Ohio chartered the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey (SOCNJ) to take advantages of New Jersey's more lenient corporate stock ownership laws. SOCNJ eventually became one of many im-portant companies that dominated key markets, such as steel and the railroads.
Also in 1890, Congress passed the Sherman Antitrust Act the source of all American anti-monopoly laws. The law for-bade every contract, scheme, deal, or conspiracy to restrain trade, though the phrase "restraint of trade" remained subjec-tive. The Standard Oil group quickly attracted attention from antitrust authorities leading to a lawsuit filed by then Ohio Attor-ney General David K. Watson.
From 1882 to 1906, Standard paid out $548,436,000 in dividends at 65.4% payout ratio. As is common practice in business, a fraction of the profits was put back into the business, rather than being distributed to stockholders. The total net earnings from 1882 to 1906 amounted to $838,783,800, exceeding the dividends by $290,347,800. The latter amount was used for plant expansion.
In 1897, John Rockefeller retired from the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey, the holding company of the group, but re-mained a major shareholder. Vice-president John Dustin Archbold took a large part in the running of the firm. At the same time, state and federal laws sought to counter this development with "antitrust" laws. In 1911, the US Justice Department sued the group under the federal antitrust law and ordered its breakup into 34 companies.
Standard Oil's market position was initially established through an emphasis on efficiency and responsibility. While most companies dumped gasoline in rivers (this was before the automobile was popular), Standard used it to fuel its machines. While other companies' refineries piled mountains of heavy waste, Rockefeller found ways to sell it. For example, Standard created the first synthetic competitor for beeswax and bought the company that invented and produced Vaseline, the Chese-brough Manufacturing Company, which was a Standard company only from 1908 until 1911.
One of the original "muckrakers" was Ida M. Tarbell, an American author and journalist. Her father was an oil producer whose business had failed due to Rockefeller's business dealings. After extensive interviews with a sympathetic senior ex-ecutive of Standard Oil, Henry H. Rogers, Tarbell's investigations of Standard Oil fueled growing public attacks on Standard Oil and on monopolies in general. Her work was published in 19 parts in McClure's magazine from November 1902 to Octo-ber 1904, then in 1904 as the book The History of the Standard Oil Company.
The Standard Oil Trust was controlled by a small group of families. Rockefeller stated in 1910: "I think it's true that the Pratt family, the Payne-Whitney family (which were one, as all the stock came from Colonel Payne), the Harkness-Flagler family (which came into the Company together) and the Rockefeller family controlled a majority of the stock during all the history of the Company up to the present time".
These families reinvested most of the dividends in other industries, especially railroads. They also invested heavily in the gas and the electric lighting business (including the giant Consolidated Gas Company of New York City). They made large purchases of stock in US Steel, Amalgamated Copper, and even Corn Products Refining Company.
Monopoly charges, anti-trust litigation and breakup
By 1890, Standard Oil controlled 88% of the refined oil flows in the United States. The state of Ohio successfully sued Stan-dard, compelling the dissolution of the trust in 1892. But Standard only separated off Standard Oil of Ohio and kept control of it. Eventually, the state of New Jersey changed its incorporation laws to allow a company to hold shares in other companies in any state. So, in 1899, the Standard Oil Trust, based at 26 Broadway in New York, was legally reborn as a holding com-pany, the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey (SOCNJ), which held stock in 41 other companies, which controlled other companies, which in turn controlled yet other companies. This conglomerate was seen by the public as all-pervasive, con-trolled by a select group of directors, and completely unaccountable.
In 1904, Standard controlled 91% of production and 85% of final sales. Most of its output was kerosene, of which 55% was exported around the world. Standard's plants were about as cost efficient as competitors'. After 1900 it didn't try to force competitors out of business by underpricing them. The federal Commissioner of Corporations concluded that beyond ques-tion, Standard's dominant position in the refining industry was due "to unfair practices, to abuse of the control of pipe-lines, to railroad discriminations, and to unfair methods of competition." Standard's market share fell gradually to 64% by 1911. It didn't try to monopolize the exploration and pumping of oil (its share in 1911 was 11%).
In 1909, the US Department of Justice sued Standard under federal anti-trust law, the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, for sustaining a monopoly and restraining interstate commerce by:
"Rebates, preferences, and other discriminatory practices in favor of the combination by railroad companies; restraint and monopolization by control of pipe lines, and unfair practices against competing pipe lines; contracts with competitors in re-straint of trade; unfair methods of competition, such as local price cutting at the points where necessary to suppress com-petition; [and] espionage of the business of competitors, the operation of bogus independent companies, and payment of re-bates on oil, with the like intent." The lawsuit argued that Standard's monopolistic practices took place in the last four years:
"The general result of the investigation has been to disclose the existence of numerous and flagrant discriminations by the railroads in behalf of the Standard Oil Company and its affiliated corporations. With comparatively few exceptions, mainly of other large concerns in California, the Standard has been the sole beneficiary of such discriminations. In almost every sec-tion of the country that company has been found to enjoy some unfair advantages over its competitors, and some of these discriminations affect enormous areas." The government identified four illegal patterns: 1) secret and semi-secret railroad rates; (2) discriminations in the open arrangement of rates; (3) discriminations in classification and rules of shipment; (4) discriminations in the treatment of private tank cars. The government alleged:
"Almost everywhere the rates from the shipping points used exclusively, or almost exclusively, by the Standard are relatively lower than the rates from the shipping points of its competitors. Rates have been made low to let the Standard into markets, or they've been made high to keep its competitors out of markets. Trifling differences in distances are made an excuse for large differences in rates favorable to the Standard Oil Company, while large differences in distances are ignored where they are against the Standard. Sometimes connecting roads prorate on oilthat is, make through rates which are lower than the combination of local rates; sometimes they refuse to prorate; but in either case the result of their policy is to favor the Stan-dard Oil Company. Different methods are used in different places and under different conditions, but the net result is that from Maine to California the general arrangement of open rates on petroleum oil is such as to give the Standard an unreas-onable advantage over its competitors The government said that Standard raised prices to its monopolistic customers but lowered them to hurt competitors, often disguising its illegal actions by using bogus supposedly independent companies it controlled.
"The evidence is, in fact, absolutely conclusive that the Standard Oil Company charges altogether excessive prices where it meets no competition, and particularly where there's little likelihood of competitors entering the field, and that, on the other hand, where competition is active, it frequently cuts prices to a point which leaves even the Standard little or no profit, and which more often leaves no profit to the competitor, whose costs are ordinarily somewhat higher." On May 15, 1911, the US Supreme Court upheld the lower court judgment and declared the Standard Oil group to be an "unreasonable" monopoly un-der the Sherman Antitrust Act. It ordered Standard to break up into 34 independent companies with different boards of direc-tors.
Standard's president, John Rockefeller, had long since retired from any management role. But, as he owned a quarter of the shares of the resultant companies, and those share values mostly doubled, he emerged from the dissolution as the richest man in the world.
World War II
In 1941, an investigation exposed a "marriage" cartel between John D. Rockefeller's United States-based Standard Oil Co. and I.G. Farben. (see and) It also brought new evidence concerning complex price and marketing agreements between Du-Pont, a major investor in and producer of leaded gasoline, U.S. Industrial Alcohol Co. and their subsidiary, Cuba Distilling Co. The investigation was eventually dropped, like dozens of others in many different kinds of industries, due to the need to enlist industry support in the war effort. However, the top directors of many oil companies agreed to resign and oil industry stocks in molasses companies were sold off as part of a compromise worked out. (see but see)
IG Farben built a factory (named Buna Chemical Plant) for producing synthetic petroleum and rubber (from coal) in Ausch-witz, which was the beginning of SS activity and camps in this location during the Holocaust. At its peak in 1944, this factory made use of 83,000 slave laborers. The pesticide Zyklon B, for which IG Farben held the patent, was manufactured by De-gesch (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Schädlingsbekämpfung), which IG Farben owned 42.2 percent of (in shares) and which had IG Farben managers in its Managing Committee. Zyklon B is the primary form of gas used throughout WWII in Nazi death camps.
By 1911, with public outcry at a climax, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that Standard Oil must be dissolved and split into 34 companies. Two of these companies were Jersey Standard ("Standard Oil Company of New Jersey"), which eventually became Exxon, and Socony ("Standard Oil Company of New York"), which eventually became Mobil.
Over the next few decades, both companies grew significantly. Jersey Standard, led by Walter C. Teagle, became the larg-est oil producer in the world. It acquired a 50 percent share in Humble Oil & Refining Co., a Texas oil producer. Socony pur-chased a 45 percent interest in Magnolia Petroleum Co., a major refiner, marketer and pipeline transporter. In 1931, Socony merged with Vacuum Oil Co., an industry pioneer dating back to 1866, and a growing Standard Oil spin-off in its own right.
In the Asia-Pacific region, Jersey Standard had oil production and refineries in Indonesia but no marketing network. Socony-Vacuum had Asian marketing outlets supplied remotely from California. In 1933, Jersey Standard and Socony-Vacuum merged their interests in the region into a 50-50 joint venture. Standard-Vacuum Oil Co., or "Stanvac," operated in 50 count-ries, from East Africa to New Zealand, before it was dissolved in 1962.
Other Standard Oil breakup companies include "Standard Oil of Ohio" which became SOHIO, "Standard Oil of Indiana" which became Amoco after other mergers and a name change in the 1980s, "Standard Oil of California" became the Chev-ron Corporation. Additional subsidiary 'breakup information' can be found under Seven Sisters (oil companies).
Mobil Chemical Company was established in 1960. As of 1999, its principal products included basic olefins and aromatics, ethylene glycol and polyethylene. The company produced synthetic lubricant base stocks as well as lubricant additives, pro-pylene packaging films and catalysts. Exxon Chemical Company (first named Enjay Chemicals) became a worldwide orga-nization in 1965 and in 1999 was a major producer and marketer of olefins, aromatics, polyethylene and polypropylene along with specialty lines such as elastomers, plasticizers, solvents, process fluids, oxo alcohols and adhesive resins. The com-pany was an industry leader in metallocene catalyst technology to make unique polymers with improved performance.
In 1955, Socony-Vacuum became Socony Mobil Oil Co. and in 1966 simply Mobil Oil Corp. A decade later, the newly incor-porated Mobil Corporation absorbed Mobil Oil as a wholly owned subsidiary. Jersey Standard changed its name to Exxon Corporation in 1972 and established Exxon as a trademark throughout the United States. In other parts of the world, Exxon and its affiliated companies continued to use its Esso trademark.
Legacy and criticism of breakup
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1911 that antitrust law required Standard Oil to be broken into smaller, independent com-panies. Among the "baby Standards" that still exist are ExxonMobil and Chevron. If not for that court ruling, Standard Oil would be worth more than $1 trillion today. Whether the breakup of Standard Oil was beneficial is a matter of some contro-versy. Many economists agree that Standard Oil wasn't a monopoly, citing its much reduced market presence by the time of the antitrust trial. They also argue that the intense free market competition resulted in cheaper oil prices and more diverse petroleum products for consumers. In 1890, Rep. William Mason, arguing in favor of the Sherman Antitrust Act, said: "trusts have made products cheaper, have reduced prices; but if the price of oil, for instance, were reduced to one cent a barrel, it wouldn't right the wrong done to people of this country by the trusts which have destroyed legitimate competition and driven honest men from legitimate business enterprise".
The Sherman Act prohibits the restraint of trade. Defenders of Standard Oil insist that the company didn't restrain trade; they were simply superior competitors. The federal courts ruled otherwise.
Some economic historians have observed that Standard Oil was in the process of losing its monopoly at the time of its breakup in 1911. Although Standard had 90% of American refining capacity in 1880, by 1911 that had shrunk to between 60 and 65%. Numerous regional competitors (such as Pure Oil in the East, Texaco and Gulf Oil in the Gulf Coast, Cities Ser-vice and Sun in the Midcontinent, Union in California, and Shell overseas) had organized themselves into competitive verti-cally integrated oil companies, the industry structure pioneered years earlier by Standard itself. In addition, demand for petro-leum products was increasing more rapidly than the ability of Standard to expand. The result was that although in 1911 Stan-dard still controlled most production in the older US regions of the Appalachian Basin (78% share, down from 92% in 1880), Lima-Indiana (90%, down from 95% in 1906), and the Illinois Basin (83%, down from 100% in 1906), its share was much lower in the rapidly-expanding new regions that would dominate US oil production in the 20th century. In 1911 Standard con-trolled only 44% of production in the Midcontinent, 29% in California, and 10% on the Gulf Coast.
Some analysts argue that the breakup was beneficial to consumers in the long run, and no one has ever proposed that Stan-dard Oil be reassembled in pre-1911 form. ExxonMobil, however, does represent a substantial part of the original company.
The successor companies from Standard Oil's breakup form the core of today's US oil industry. (Several of these compa-nies were considered among the Seven Sisters who dominated the industry worldwide for much of the twentieth century.) They include:
Standard Oil of New Jersey (SONJ) - or Esso (S.O.) renamed Exxon, now part of ExxonMobil. Standard Trust companies Carter Oil, Imperial Oil (Canada), and Standard of Louisiana were kept as part of Standard Oil of New Jersey after the break-up.
Standard Oil of New York or Socony, merged with Vacuum renamed Mobil, now part of ExxonMobil.
Standard Oil of California or Socal renamed Chevron, became ChevronTexaco, but returned to Chevron.
Standard Oil of Indiana - or Stanolind, renamed Amoco (American Oil Co.) now part of BP.
Standard's Atlantic and the independent company Richfield merged to form Atlantic Richfield or ARCO, now part of BP. Atlantic operations were spun off and bought by Sunoco.
Standard Oil of Kentucky or Kyso was acquired by Standard Oil of California - currently Chevron.
Continental Oil Company or Conoco now part of ConocoPhillips.
Standard Oil of Ohio or Sohio now part of BP.
The Ohio Oil Company more commonly referred to as "The Ohio", and marketed gasoline under the Marathon name. The company is now known as Marathon Oil Company, and was often a rival with the in-state Standard spinoff, Sohio.
Other Standard Oil spin-offs:
Standard Oil of Iowa pre-1911 became Standard Oil of California.
Standard Oil of Minnesota pre-1911 bought by Standard Oil of Indiana.
Standard Oil of Illinois - pre-1911 - bought by Standard Oil of Indiana.
Standard Oil of Kansas refining only, eventually bought by Indiana Standard.
Standard Oil of Missouri pre-1911 dissolved.
Standard Oil of Louisiana always owned by Standard Oil of New Jersey (now ExxonMobil).
Standard Oil of Brazil always owned by Standard Oil of New Jersey (now ExxonMobil).
Other companies divested in the 1911 breakup:
Anglo-American Oil Co. acquired by Jersey Standard in 1930, now Esso UK.
Buckeye Pipeline Co.
Borne-Scrymser Co. (chemicals)
Chesebrough Manufacturing (now Unilever, manufacturer of Vaseline)
Crescent Pipeline Co.
Cumberland Pipe Line Co.
Eureka Pipe Line Co.
Galena-Signal Oil Co.
Indiana Pipe Line Co.
National Transit Co.
New York Transit Co.
Northern Pipe Line Co.
Prairie Oil & Gas.
Southern Pipe Line Co.
South Penn Oil Co. eventually became Pennzoil, now part of Shell.
Southwest Pennsylvania Pipe Line Co.
Swan and Finch.
Union Tank Lines.
Washington Oil Co.
Standard Oil of Colorado wasn't a successor company; the name was used to capitalize on the Standard Oil brand in the 1930s. Standard Oil of Connecticut is a fuel oil marketer not related to the Rockefeller companies.