Jacob Schiff was born in Frankfurt, Germany in 1847, part of a distinguished Jewish family with a long rabbinical lineage. His family had traced their history as far back as 1370, and his father had served as a broker for the Rothschilds.
Schiff came to the United States just after the Civil War had ended, and he became a licensed broker in New York City shortly after his arrival. He’d already worked as an apprentice in 1861, so he’d gained experience in finance at that time. By 1867, he was one of the partners in Budge, Schiff & Company and had become a naturalized citizen.
That company dissolved and Schiff looked for more stable work. He found it in Kuhn, Loeb & Company in 1874. Schiff had made some powerful connections during his time on his own, including Sir Ernest Cassel of London and the Paris Bank.
Schiff’s immense wealth allowed him to bankroll several projects that were of severe importance of the day. He helped finance the Eastern Pennsylvania Railroad, and provided financial aid to Westinghouse throughout its lifespan. He was also known for his philanthropy. One of the more famous acts of charitable giving was the purchase of 265 Henry Street, which became part of the Henry Street Settlement in 1895.
Schiff was also highly active in Jewish politics. He tackled many important issues such as denying funds to the Russian Empire, which was actively persecuting Jews at that time. Schiff died in 1920 with a net worth of more than half a billion dollars by today’s standards.