John Jacob Astor* (1763-1848)

Above: the pair of marble lions that sit by the entrance of the New York Public Library Main Branch at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street were originally named Leo Astor and Leo Lenox, after John Jacob Astor and James Lenox, who founded the library from his own collection. Next, they were called Lord Astor and Lady Lenox (both lions are males). Mayor Fiorello La Guardia renamed them “Patience” and “Fortitude” during the Great Depression.

Johann Jakob Astor was born in Walldorf, near Heidelberg, Germany, in the Electoral Palatinate. He immigrated to England as a teenager and worked as a musical instrument manufacturer. Following the American Revolutionary War, Astor left for Baltimore, Maryland, in 1783. He was active first as a dealer in woodwind instruments, then in New York as a merchant in furs (he abandoned this line in 1830), pianos, and real estate. He later became a famed patron of the arts.

John Jacob was the first prominent member of the Astor family and the first multi-millionaire in the United States. In his will, he bequeathed $400,000 to build the Astor Library for the New York public, which was later consolidated with other libraries to form the New York Public Library.

Astor is buried in Trinity Church Cemetery in Manhattan, New York. Many members of his family had joined its congregation, but Astor remained a member of the local German Reformed congregation to his death.

Herman Melville used Astor as a symbol of men who made the earliest fortunes in New York in his short story Bartleby, the Scrivener.

In 1908, when the association football club FC Astoria Walldorf was formed in Astor’s birthplace in Germany, the group added “Astoria” to its name in his, and the family’s, honour.

For many years, the members of the Astor family were known as “the landlords of New York”. Their New York City namesakes are the famous Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, an Astor Row, Astor Court, Astor Place, and Astor Avenue in the Bronx, where the Astors used to stable horses. The neighborhood of Astoria, Queens, is named after the family as well.

*Southern French and German: from Occitan astor ‘goshawk’ (from Latin acceptor, variant of accipiter ‘hawk’), used as a nickname characterizing a predacious or otherwise hawklike man. The name was taken to southwestern Germany by 17th-century Waldensian refugees from their Alpine valleys above Italian Piedmont.

Dictionary of American Family Names

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