THE GREATEST GIFT OF ALL
Alan Cochrane questions recent rewilding decisions The ragsto-riches tale of Andrew Carnegie
The cherubic face, stocky build and eyes with a glint of steel were about the only things about Andrew Carnegie that never changed. Today, the two parts of his birthplace museum really make you think about the amazing quirks of fickle fortune that can transform a life. For the still-extant Dunfermline weaver’s cottage where he was born into nearpoverty in 1835 contrasts starkly with the newer attached ‘memorial treasure house’ that tells the story of his hugely rich later life. Rich literally, and rich in a much wider sense.
In this centennial year of his passing, the remarkable philanthropic legacy of the diminutive-but-dynamic Scot who became the world’s wealthiest man continues to resonate. Largely because, in his later years, he dedicated the bountiful fruits of his life not so much to his own enjoyment as to the improvement of our tomorrows; to the ‘real and permanent good’ of humankind.
How successful that has been so far is perhaps measurable by events marking the 100th anniversary of his death this August, most notably the eightmonth exhibition currently running at the Carnegie Hall in New York City until October. It’s the Hall’s first show about its founder and features archival documents, photos, and artefacts on loan from the Carnegie family, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and – among others – the Andrew Carnegie Birthplace Museum.
Both centres of life-tracing celebration are proving magnetic to interested passers-by, and the Carnegie Hall show doubtless aims to attract at least as many as the permanent Scottish one – which last year pulled in 15,500 people, 2,000 of them from the States, while expecting renewed awareness of the man to boost the figure considerably by the end of 2019.
A century on from the death of Dunfermline-born philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, Rick Wilson tells the rags-to-riches tale of the world’s wealthiest man who became the patron saint of libraries
As they emerge, visitors are well familiarised with Carnegie’s classic rags-to-riches tale. When he was 13, changing technology in weaving drove his family from their Moodie Street home in Dunfermline to America – made possible only with a £20 loan from the local baker, which was quickly repaid. He started work as a bobbin boy in a mill before becoming a telegrapher at the Pennsylvania Railroad, where his penmanship and energy won his bosses’ trust and speedy promotion – while he learned investment lessons from them.
On receiving his first dividend cheque from the Adams Express Company, barely eight years after arrival in the US, he exclaimed: ‘Eureka! Here’s the goose that lays the golden eggs.’ And later he said: ‘I’ll remember that cheque as long as I live... It gave me the first penny of revenue from capital; something I had not worked for with sweat of my brow.’
With his web of steel interests largely consolidated into the Carnegie Steel Company, he earned most of his money from steel production boosted by the American Civil War. Ironically, he became intensely anti-war, describing it as ‘the foulest blot upon our civilisation’, and less than enamoured with tycoonery for its own sake.
‘The man who dies rich dies disgraced,’ said the man who became a millionaire at 33, and when he sold his company in 1901 for a massive $480million – to be congratulated by the organising financier of JP Morgan ‘on being the richest man in the world’ – he seemed stricken by conscience and turned his life’s focus into pushing his fortune back into society.
That came to a grand total of $350million and, in pursuit of other people’s self-improvement all over the world, he became known as ‘the patron saint of libraries’. In all, he founded 2,811 of them. By his death in 1919, every US state had at least one Carnegiebuilt public library, Britain and Ireland had 660, Canada 156, New Zealand 23, South Africa 13, and so it went on, until Singapore with one. Scotland, of course, was favoured with relatively more than the rest with 147.
But his philanthropy extended well beyond libraries to the establishment of a remarkable 26-strong worldwide range of trusts and foundations in the USA, Europe and Britain. With the help of Carnegie funding, these organisations carry on work today in fields as diverse as art, education, international affairs, the promotion of peace, and scientific research. The Carnegie Council for Ethics, for instance, is today’s leading institute for research and education in ethics and international policy.
But for the average person, it is the world-famous bricks-and-mortar monuments to his missions that most impress, working as hard today as they ever did – such as the International Court of Justice in The Hague, and the
aforementioned 3,000-seat Carnegie Hall in New York.
There is another Carnegie Hall, of course: the much smaller 500-seat one he built in Dunfermline which has featured in this year’s centennial events – with a descendant, Perth music teacher Joe Whiteman, taking the stage for two nights in May as the great man in The Star Spangled Scotchman. Great-great-great grandson Whiteman is descended from Carnegie on his mother’s side.
Another event, planned for August, is a service featuring the presentation of a Carnegie gift to Dunfermline Abbey – for the second time – of a Tiffany-designed stained-glass window. ‘As a nature scene, it was not considered religious enough when first offered in 1913,’ says the birthplace museum manager/curator Kerke Kook. ‘But we’re glad that this time it will finally be finding its rightful home. Times have changed.’
The youthful Estonian seems to represent a new wave of Carnegie enthusiasts as she recalls his widow Louise saying, on opening the new part of the museum in 1928, that she hoped her husband’s life would inspire future generations. ‘I believe my contemporaries are responding to a man who was well ahead of his time,’ says Ms Kook. ‘Though I work here, I keep discovering amazing things he did – such as funding scholarships for a research team for Marie Curie’s Nobel Prize-winning breakthrough on radioactivity.’
Unsurprisingly, Carnegie’s home town has enjoyed special attention, with the Carnegie Dunfermline Trust managing since 1903 to make good use of a £4million gift in a variety of projects – a library, of course, but also swimming baths, bowling greens, clinics, a college, a school of handicrafts, music institute, women’s centre, youth centre, and the magnificent Pittencrieff Park.
Indeed, setting aside his proud purchase of Skibo Castle as his Scottish home, perhaps Carnegie’s most satisfying ‘native’ achievement concerned that park – from which, as a ragged-trousered boy, he was barred by the then-laird for being of a family campaigning for the people’s right to enjoy it. In 1902, he bought the park for £45,000 and became the Laird of Pittencrieff – ‘the grandest title on earth in my estimation’.
The intense satisfaction he felt at the ‘true romance’ of this development, which even saw a statue of him erected in the park, moved him to say: ‘This is the crowning mercy of my career! I set it apart from all other public gifts. Truly, the whirligig of time brings in some strange revenges.’
He seemed stricken by conscience and turned his life’s focus into pushing his fortune back into society
Above: Carnegie photographed on 17 October 1913.
left: Carnegie’s birthplace, Moodie Street, Dunfermline.
Left: Carnegie with boyhood friend and business partner Tom Miller. Far
Below: At Skibo in 1914.
Above: Skibo Castle was Carnegie’s Scottish home.
Above left: Trip from Brighton to Inverness in 1881. Andrew is holding a whip, his mother Margaret is next to him.
Above right: Andrew and Louise Carnegie on honeymoon in Scotland, 1887.
Below: Statue of Carnegie, Dunfermline.