Charles Pratt (2 October, 1830 - 4 May, 1891) was a United States capitalist, businessman and philanthropist.
Pratt was a pioneer of the U.S. petroleum industry, and established his kerosene refinery Astral Oil Works in Brooklyn, New York. Pratt's product later gave rise to the slogan, "The holy lamps of Tibet are primed with Astral Oil." He recruited Henry H. Rogers into his business, forming Charles Pratt and Company, which became part of John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil in 1874.
Pratt became an advocate of education, and founded and endowed the Pratt Institute which bears his name. He and his children built mansions on what became known as the Gold Coast of Long Island, New York. In 1916, Standard Oil had a steamship tanker, S.S. Charles Pratt, first of its class, built at Newport News, Virginia.
Charles Pratt was born in Watertown, Massachusetts, one of eleven children. His father, Asa Pratt, was a carpenter. Of modest means, he spent three winters as a student at Wesleyan Academy , and is said to have lived on a dollar a week at times.
Whale Oil, Petroleum, Astral Oil
In nearby Boston, Massachusetts, Pratt joined a company specializing in paints and whale-oil products. In 1850 or 1851, he came to New York City, where he worked for a similar company.
Pratt was also a pioneer of the natural oil industry, and established his kerosene refinery Astral Oil Works in Brooklyn, New York. Pratt's product later gave rise to the slogan, "The holy lamps of Tibet are primed with Astral Oil."
Henry H. Rogers, Charles Pratt and Company
In the mid 1860s, Pratt met two aspiring young men, Charles Ellis and Henry H. Rogers in the area of the new oil fields of western Pennsylvania. Pratt had bought whale oil from Charles Ellis in Fairhaven, Massachusetts, the young mens' hometown. They sold the the entire output of their small venture, Wamsutta Oil Refinery, at McClintocksville near Oil City to Pratt's company at a fixed price.
Ellis and Rogers had no wells and were dependent upon purchasing crude oil to refine and sell to Pratt. A few months later, crude oil prices suddenly increased due to manipulation by speculators. The young entrepreneurs struggled to try to live up to their contract with Pratt, but soon their surplus was wiped out. Before long, they were heavily in debt to Pratt.
Charles Ellis gave up, but in 1866, Henry Rogers went to Pratt in New York City and told him he would take personal responsibility for the entire debt. This so impressed Pratt that he immediately hired him for his own organization. In the next few year Rogers became, in the words of Elbert Hubbard, Pratt's "hands and feet and eyes and ears" (Little Journeys to the Homes of Great Businessmen, 1909).
Pratt made Rogers foreman of his Brooklyn refinery, with a promise of a partnership if sales ran over fifty thousand dollars a year. Rogers and his wife Abbie moved to the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn. The Rogers continued to live frugally and young Henry worked very hard. Abbie brought his meals to the "works," and often he would sleep but three hours a night rolled up in a blanket by the side of a still. Rogers moved steadily from foreman to manager, and then superintendent of Pratt's Astral Oil Refinery. Pratt finally gave Rogers an interest in the business. In 1867, with Henry Rogers as a partner, he established the firm of Charles Pratt and Company.
In the early 1870s, Pratt and Rogers became involved in conflicts with John D. Rockefeller's infamous South Improvement Company, which was basically a scheme to obtain favorable net rates from the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) and other railroads through a secret system of rebates. Rockefeller and the South Improvement Company scheme outraged independent oil producers in western Pennsylvania and refineries there and afar alike.
The opposition to the South Improvement Company scheme among the New York refiners was led by Rogers. The New York interests formed an association, and about the middle of March, 1872, sent a committee of three, with Rogers, of Charles Pratt and Company, as head, to Oil City to consult with the the Oil Producers' Union there. Their arrival in the oil regions was a matter of great satisfaction. Working with the Pennsylvania independents, they managed to forge an agreement with the PRR and other railroads whose leaders eventually agreed to open rates to all promised to end their shady dealings with South Improvement. The oil men were most exultant, but their joy was to be short-lived, for Rockefeller had already begun forming his Standard Oil organization and was busy trying another approach, which included frequently buying-up opposing interests.
Rockefeller approached Charles Pratt with his plans of cooperation and consolidation. Pratt talked it over with Rogers, and they decided that the combination would benefit them. Rogers formulated terms, which guaranteed financial security and jobs for Pratt and himself. John D. Rockefeller quietly accepted the offer on Rogers' exact terms. Charles Pratt and Company (including Astral Oil) became one of the important formerly independent refiners to join Rockefeller's organization, and it was to become part of the Standard Oil Trust in 1874. Pratt's son, Charles Millard Pratt (1858-1913) became Secretary of Standard Oil.
Pratt's protégé, Henry H. Rogers soon rose to become one of the key men of Standard Oil, and was a Vice-President by 1890. Rogers, who kept his residence in New York after moving there at Pratt's request, invested outside of Standard Oil and became one of the wealthiest men in the world. He had interests in oil, gas, steel, copper, coal, and railroads, and eventually founded and built the Virginian Railway at the end of his own career.
Charles Pratt is credited with recognizing the growing need for trained industrial workers in a changing economy. In 1886, he founded and endowed the Pratt Institute, which opened in Brooklyn, New York in 1887.
Long Island Gold Coast mansions
Pratt settled in Glen Cove, Long Island, New York about 1890. In an effort to keep his family near him, he purchased large tracts of land surrounding his estate, totaling 1,100 acres (4.5 km²). However, he died the next year, 1891, in New York City.
At Glen Cove, on Long Island, Charles Pratt's six sons and two daughters later built their homes. In 2004, most of the extant Pratt mansions along the Gold Coast there are still in use:
- Welwyn, originally the home of Harold I. Pratt, is now owned by the Nassau County Museum.
- The Braes, originally owned by Herbert L. Pratt, is now the Webb Institute of Navel Architecture.
- The Manor House, built for John Teale Pratt, is now Harrison House Conference Center.
- Poplar Hill, the Frederick B. Pratt house, is now owned by Glengariff Nursing Home.
- Killenworth, originally the house of George D. Pratt, is now the retreat for the Soviet Delegation to the United Nations.
Steamship tanker S.S. Charles Pratt
In March, 1916, Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company launched the SS H.H. Charles Pratt, a tanker of 8,807 tons with a capacity of 119,410 barrels of oil. It became the first ship of the Pratt class, and was joined by the S.S. H.H. Rogers in May, 1916. Both ships were operated by Panama Transport Co., a subsidiary of Standard Oil of New Jersey after 1939.
At the beginning of World War II, on December 21, 1940, the S.S. Charles Pratt was torpedoed and sunk by a German u-boat in the Indian Ocean 220 miles off the coast of Africa while en route from Aruba to Freeport, Sierra Leone . Of the American crew of 42, 2 lives were lost and 40 saved.
- Elbert Hubbard, 1909, Little Journeys to the Homes
- Tarbell, Ida M. 1904, The History of Standard Oil