How to Become Rich: Claus Spreckels on his Career and his Business Principles

November 12, 1892

Public interest in the rich and the super-rich was often a product of the notion that one could succeed in American society as an immigrant. Claus Spreckels and many other successful immigrants were willing to present their lives as part of the American Dream. In this document, Claus Spreckels shares his ideas on how he became one of the leading American entrepreneurs. It is an exceptional story, which was used to promote the United States as a land of nearly unlimited opportunities. Claus Spreckels presented himself as an exponent of the American dream —it is instructive to see how he reduces his success to individual attitudes and his own initiative. The German-American immigrant entrepreneur was one of many propagandists of American capitalism, fed by European and protestant moral economy.

From: “Living on Twenty Dollars a Week. Our Millionaires Tell the People How They Could Do It,” San Francisco Morning Call, November 12, 1892, 3.

“’One man can get along with a sum of money with which another would go entirely ‘broke,’’ said Claus Spreckels. ‘One man can rise above obstacles which would entirely crush another. A great deal depends upon that. The first month I worked in America I did so for my board. I can’t say I saved anything; I hadn’t the opportunity. I then got $4 a month, and was raised $2 a month progressively until l was receiving $16 and board all the time. That was in Cantonville or Charleston. I went there in ‘48. A man has a good chance here now, I think, as I had there then. I attended thoroughly to the details of business—there is a great deal in that. Even now I look as carefully after everything as I did when I had little. I mean I pay strict attention to all the details. When I was in a much smaller way in comparison to my present standing, and not long ago either, I was constantly in and among the work. You know in brewing great attention has to be paid to the thermometer. If the mercury goes too high the beer will turn sour and spoil. The men would all knock off at a certain hour and think no more of business, but I have frequently gone into the brewery after all hands have left and found the thermometer making unpleasant records, and I have slipped on my overalls and worked all night by myself. Why at one time I only took four hours sleep in the twenty-four for months; but it began to tell upon me and I fell away. Well, I established myself in the confidence of the firm I was working for and I obtained a credit on goods up to $1200, which I cleared off within a year. It was in the grocery line. It was harder for me to get $15.000 together than it has been ever since. After I took my first credit I made a strict rule of cash purchasing. When I came to California I was worth $8000. I started a grocery-store and also founded the Albany Brewery. I then went to New York to learn the sugar-refining trade. I waded right in. I went to learn the trade and I learned it. But I kept the brewery going all the time. When I had learned the business I came back and started the sugar refinery. When that was placed in a working condition I sold the brewery and devoted myself to the sugar industry. I prospered. When the attempt was made to form a treaty with the Hawaiian Islands I fought it, as I saw it would ruin the refining business. I fought it bitterly, but they beat me. When the treaty was passed I went to Hawaii and bought some plantations and established several new ones, and I can now produce 43,000 tons of sugar a year, which I ship here and refine. The next thing I did was to go to Europe and buy beet machinery to establish a beet factory, which I did at Watsonville, Santa Cruz County, and also built twenty-two miles of a narrow-gauge line from Watsonville to Salinas City to carry freight to Moss Landing and bring the beets from Salinas Valley to the factory. Then I went to Philadelphia and erected the largest sugar refinery in the world. Now that is an outline of how I have lived from the time I worked for my board alone until I became a millionaire; my life has been full of incident and would fill a book which, if not interesting, would be comprehensive. A man can very well live on $20 a week. Why should he not? Living in this country is not dear. He could even live on $20 a month.’ ‘How about it if he had a family?’ ‘That would be hard, he could not, but that depends on his wife. If she earned something he might pull through, but then again that would not be living on $20 a month. You must look after details, that is the main thing. You would not know me when I am around the factory. I will tell you a story. I was having a lot of goods shipped at Santa Cruz City depot and I was superintending, that is practically, I was working at loading the stuff. I had on my old overalls and blouse and slouched hat. When we had finished I was around the platform, and a gentleman came up and spoke to me. He was a doctor from St. Louis, well up in cane-sugar matters, and traveling for his health through California. We talked sugar and sugar cane and beets and beet sugar and had an interesting time. At last he said, ‘This Spreckels must be a mighty smart man, do you know him?’ ‘Oh, yes,’ said I, ‘I know him quite well.’ ‘Ah,’ said he. ‘I would like to meet him. Do you know when I started for California I made up my mind that whatever else I saw or did not see I would not leave until I had seen him. What sort of a man is he?’ ‘Now, you look at me, examine me well. He’s a man about my size and weight and looks exactly like me; in fact you would not know us apart.’ ‘What! You do not mean to tell me that you are Mr. Spreckels, do you?’ ‘I do so.’ ‘Then, I must say, although I do not wish to be offensive, that I do not believe it.’ ‘I had been expecting my wife from the city, but she had not come. I had ordered the carriage for her and was waiting for it in order to go home in it myself, so I said: ‘You would perhaps know me if you were to see me in San Francisco, but anyway there will be a handsome carriage and pair here directly. Now, if you see me get into that carriage in my dirty old clothes and order the coachman where to drive to will you be convinced?’ This was agreed and presently the carriage arrived. I stepped in, seated myself, and it drove off. I looked around at my late companion, who immediately took off his hat and waved it around in the air. Yes, sir. I think a man can live on $20 a week and even $20 a month, and if he can, he also has as good chances to eventually got on as I had.’ The cigars were now finished and so was the interview.”