The Scottish kid who gave America the art of philanthropy
When the need arises and the cause inspires, Americans give, and our instinct to organize generosity has reinvented itself a thousand times since the 1770s.
How and why entrepreneurs Charles Adler, Perry Chen, and Yancey Strickler invented Kickstarter in Brooklyn—the new kid on the philanthropic block—to benefit cultural advancement is a compelling American success story, but they did not invent philanthropy. We always think we invented reality last week. Civilization seldom comes prepackaged with perspective.
Philanthropy as an organized, systematic human endeavor was made in America. And one person, a Scottish immigrant, invented it.
Indeed, a 13-year-old kid who’s nearly bankrupt family sailed from Scotland to America in 1848 likely invented philanthropy. Or more accurately, he gave it a shape, and a reason. He gave it sinew, lasting power, and permanent reality. In fact, he literally tried to give everything he had to that idea.
We have always given. He just showed how to do it better than anyone who had ever lived.
Will and Margaret’s family came from Dunfermline, Scotland’s medieval capital and famed for its homemade linen weaving. They pronounced their name “car-NEG-ee.” The older of two sons, 13-year-old Andrew came equipped with unbounded energy, but no middle name.
Industrial progress has made home-weaving obsolete, and the family yanked up stakes and sailed for America and eventually Allegeny City, Pa., across the river from Pittsburgh. The family understood poverty.
The story of Andrew Carnegie’s role in American industry is now woven into the national legend. He was a tough-as-nails steel-making “robber baron” from the Gilded Age when the term carried far less caricature than it does now. He built fabulous wealth in an epoch before corporate regulation, taxes, or limiting rules of any kind on business. Mostly, he invented the modern steel industry.
Today, we have Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. They had Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller.
Carnegie might seem a musty ghost now, but he is a complicated spirit.
If you wish to understand how Carnegie’s handprint spans the country and grows with every passing day, you need to visit two places that began as outposts for the same concept. One is 208 E. State Street in Mason City, Iowa, and the other stands at 1 North Sheridan Road on the bluff overlooking Lake Michigan in Waukegan.
Both are stone-constructed libraries designed by the same Chicago architectural firm, Patton and Miller. They were built in 1904 with money that Carnegie gave the hometowns. As he did with all his philanthropies, the money came with strings. He gave $20,000 to Mason City and $25,000 to Waukegan on the condition the cities contribute the rest in tax monies to operate the libraries and make them open to all citizens.
He repeated that pattern across the English-speaking world at a time when most libraries required users to pay.
His libraries were the most substantial buildings and institutions in small-town America at the turn of the 20th century. Double front doors often led to wide stairs flowing up to the receiving station. It was a symbolic architectural flourish reflecting Carnegie’s personal experience that books were the lifting force for all personal growth, and those who entered his libraries were taking steps skyward to their betterment.
Of the 1,679 Carnegie libraries in America, 106 were built in Illinois from $1,751,200 in grants. He called the proliferating libraries his “book foundry.”
Why focus on Mason City and Waukegan?
Libraries are merely human ideas wrapped inside brick and mortar. They are springboards for the soul. They are magical cathedrals. The ideas inside the buildings make imaginations soar, and Carnegie was first a man of ideas that he absorbed voraciously from libraries though his formal education ended at 13.
Carnegie could recite long passages of Shakespeare by heart. He was both a rapacious tycoon and a renaissance man of letters and culture. Both were self-made achievements. It was a rare combination.
In Mason City, the son of a young music teacher camped at Carnegie’s library almost every day. He would reformulate that memory decades later when he wrote “Marian the Librarian” as a signature musical scene in his Iowa homage, “The Music Man.” Marian Paroo, the winsome music teacher, was not so different than his mother.
American composer and “The Music Man” playwright Meredith Willson dreamed big in Carnegie’s library.
In Waukegan, one young kid during the Depression could not get enough of Poe, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Jules Verne. Books and adventures that unfolded inside those pages mesmerized him. That Carnegie Library was his temple, and he worshipped there every day of his childhood.
And when Ray Bradbury grew up, he became his generation’s Poe and Burroughs as the 20th century’s finest writer of science fiction. Just as he made Waukegan famous as a literary device in many novels, the Carnegie Library was long a topic of his devotion.
“My idea of living was every Monday to run down Washington Street directly to the library … the Carnegie Library built by Andrew Carnegie at the turn of the century,” he told an interviewer in 2006. “I loved opening the library door and looking in and listening to all my friends in there. All the books talked to me, they all whispered. The stacks were dark and mysterious and wonderful.”
The historic Waukegan Carnegie Library at 1 North Sheridan Road, built in 1903 with Carnegie dollars, served the public for more than a half century when it ceased operating as a library space in 1966. It was young Ray Bradbury’s go-to place. Having outgrown the Classic Revival treasure, the Waukegan Public Library built a bigger building to serve the public elsewhere in town.
Since 1966, Waukegan’s irreplaceable Carnegie Library stood empty yet somehow defeated the possibilities of destruction by man, weather, and sheer age. Today, the library that Waukegan’s native son Ray Bradbury enjoyed in person and wrote about in his novels is being reimagined by The Ray Bradbury Waukegan Carnegie Library, Inc. team, and will become a center dedicated to its most famous author.
The “Ray Bradbury Playhouse of the Mind” will keep the author’s life and works alive for the rest of the world, invite interaction, and offer an unforgettable Ray Bradbury experience.
To learn more, visit www.bradburycarnegie.org.
Within months of reaching western Pennsylvania, young Carnegie was working full-time at $1.20 a week as a “bobbin carrier” in a textile factory.
He became a telegrapher, railroad worker, and a rail executive. At 18, he was earning enough to buy his mother the home where they lived together.
What he wanted most was to own by investing. Organized acquisitions became his incessant compulsion. He eventually mortgaged that home for cash to invest in other businesses. By 50 he was a multi-millionaire with an empire in heavy industry.
He always had given to good causes, but he now articulated a larger plan. He wrote of it often.
He retired in 1901 at age 61 and revealed that plan. He was dining with fellow baron J.P. Morgan who asked what his price would be to sell. Carnegie wrote “480 million” on a piece of paper. It was a deal, thus allowing for the birth of U.S. Steel.
But Carnegie launched what he had predicted two years earlier when he published “The Gospel of Wealth.” He proclaimed that philanthropy was not only a good instinct, it was morally imperative for the rich to provide modestly for their families and then give away everything else.
“The man who dies thus rich dies disgraced,” the lifelong pacifist wrote, and spent the rest of his life doing that. A dozen foundations bearing his name and operated by professional, independent managers remain the linchpin of modern philanthropy, always investing as he demanded in people and causes that would grow for the good of all.
Bill Gates’ Microsoft fortune is $108 billion. He is the richest person in the world today.
In 2015 dollars, Carnegie’s fortune translated to $308 billion and he managed to divest all but $30 million. He was the even richest man in the world. Institutions he funded discovered the expansion of the universe, proved DNA is the genetic material, devised applications as varied as radar and hybrid corn and opened Mayan ruins in Central America. His gifts trained thousand of physicians, scientists, and artists.
Carnegie spent the last decades of his life giving America a gift. You see his dollars at work every day. In 1911, the Carnegie Corps of New York was established “to promote the advancement and diffusion of knowledge and understanding.” That foundation established the Sesame Workshop. The kid from Scotland not only inspired Ray Bradbury and “The Music Man”, but he gave us Big Bird, too.
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David Rutter is a regular contributor to Quintessential Barrington.
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Quintessential America is a recurring series of stories reflecting American values and community achievement. Some will be big stories. Some will be small. They’ll all be about Americans doing what we do best—sharing, helping, living.