Andrew Carnegie

View item information

A photo of Andrew Carnegie, 1875. Courtesy of The New York Public Library.

Steel magnate Andrew Carnegie became one of the wealthiest industrialists in America but gave much of his fortune away for the "improvement of mankind." When asked about the best philanthropic gift he could give to a community, his answer was a free library.

Carnegie, who was born in Scotland and moved with his family to Pittsburgh at thirteen years old, grew up in poverty. A turning point for young Carnegie, which would help guide his work as a philanthropist years later, was spending Saturday afternoons at a local private library at the invitation of a wealthy Pittsburgh man.

Carnegie eventually became superintendent of the city's division of the Pennsylvania Railroad, but quit after seeing new opportunities in the iron industry after the Civil War. It proved a risk that paid off in a big way. Carnegie's Keystone Bridge Company (which worked to replace wooden bridges with iron ones), his later Carnegie Steel Company, and investments in the United States Steel Corporation, made Carnegie a fortune as a steel tycoon. But some of his big business choices had dire consequences for working-class Americans—like the Homestead Strike and the Johnstown Flood—that tarnished his reputation and then fueled his desire to rehabilitate it through philanthropy.

In his autobiography, Carnegie remembered that, as a child, "I resolved, if wealth ever came to me, that it should be used to establish free libraries." And he did, providing public libraries to communities across the country, all engraved, at his request, with an image of a rising sun and "Let there be light."