In 1865, Rockefeller borrowed money to buy out some of his partners and take control of the refinery, which had become the largest in Cleveland. Over the next few years, he acquired new partners and expanded his business interests in the growing oil industry. At the time, kerosene, derived from petroleum and used in lamps, was becoming an economic staple. In 1870, Rockefeller formed the Standard Oil Company of Ohio, along with his younger brother William (1841-1922), Henry Flagler (1830-1913) and a group of other men. John Rockefeller was its president and largest shareholder.
Standard Oil gained a monopoly in the oil industry by buying rival refineries and developing companies for distributing and marketing its products around the globe. In 1882, these various companies were combined into the Standard Oil Trust, which would control some 90 percent of the nation’s refineries and pipelines. In order to exploit economies of scale, Standard Oil did everything from build its own oil barrels to employ scientists to figure out new uses for petroleum by-products.
Rockefeller’s enormous wealth and success made him a target of muckraking journalists, reform politicians and others who viewed him as a symbol of corporate greed and criticized the methods with which he’d built his empire. As The New York Times reported in 1937: “He was accused of crushing out competition, getting rich on rebates from railroads, bribing men to spy on competing companies, of making secret agreements, of coercing rivals to join the Standard Oil Company under threat of being forced out of business, building up enormous fortunes on the ruins of other men, and so on.”
In 1890, the U.S. Congress passed the Sherman Antitrust Act, the first federal legislation prohibiting trusts and combinations that restrained trade. Two years later, the Ohio Supreme Court dissolved the Standard Oil Trust; however, the businesses within the trust soon became part of Standard Oil of New Jersey, which functioned as a holding company. In 1911, after years of litigation, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Standard Oil of New Jersey was in violation of anti-trust laws and forced it to dismantle (it was broken up into more than 30 individual companies).