How often are we bombarded with requests for money, especially this time of year? Even the most generous among us has to say no much of the time. Indeed, the more generous you are, the more you are asked, and the more you are asked, the more you have to say no.

Take Andrew Carnegie. He came to America at 13. His first job was as a bobbin-boy for $1.20 a week. I don’t know exactly what a bobbin-boy did (how much yarn could a bobbin-boy bob if a bobbin-boy could bob yarn?), but I know that even in 1848 this would not have been a lot of money. His mother took in washing.

With time, he moved up to “stoker” in the cotton-mill furnace room, then became a messenger, then a telegraph operator, then personal telegraph operator for Thomas Scott, superintendent of the Pennsylvania Railroad.

In 1856, at Scott’s urging, he bought ten shares of Adams Express. By 1863, if I’ve gotten all this straight, his investments provided him an income of over $45,000 a year. No Vanguard Index funds for him. He had “the touch.” He was also an accomplished stock manipulator. This was long before enactment of the securities laws.

One thing led to another and, in the course of his lifetime (1835-1919), he gave away $350 million. A good chunk of this came from selling, in 1901, his 58% interest in U.S. Steel for $250 million, 90% of which he immediately set about giving away.

Can you imagine how many people wanted a piece?

But he took his philanthropy seriously. “Surplus wealth is a sacred trust which its possessor is bound to administer in his lifetime for the good of the community,” he wrote. (And he further believed — not wholly irrelevant to the debate today — “there is no use whatever trying to help people who do not help themselves. You cannot push anyone up a ladder unless he is willing to climb himself.”)

So you can imagine how he reacted to the young couple that had apparently written to him in June, 1905, hoping he might join in their anniversary celebration. From the sound of it, they were complete strangers, and not in dire straits, either. I don’t have their letter, but you can more or less imagine it from Carnegie’s response:

Dear Sir and Madam [he writes, in his own hand, from Scotland]

I am in receipt of your notification that you are about to celebrate your 3rd wedding anniversary and while I am interested to know the facts, do not see how it can possibly make any difference to me.

I have so many calls on my pocket book that it is impossible to respond to 1/650,000,000th of them [written out as a nice fraction, with 1 over 650,000,000]. However I suppose you expect something and therefore forward the enclosed sum which is to be retained by you SOLELY ON CONDITION that you change the name of your boat “Felicia” to “Carnegia.” If you don’t care to do this, please return the money by return of mail or I will put the matter in the hands of my solicitors.

Very truly yours,

Andrew Carnegie [with a flourish]

One has the feeling from this letter — on Andrew Carnegie & Company note paper that features the profile of a Scotsman drinking what appears to be a hot toddy — that Mr. Carnegie lived life with a permanent twinkle.

Tomorrow: Last-Minute Funny Money Gift Ideas


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