John Pitcairn: Uncommon Entrepreneur
Born in Scotland in 1841, John Pitcairn emigrated with his family to Pittsburgh at the age of five. Soon afterward John and the rest of the family were baptized into the New Church. The New Church is a Christian faith founded on the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg, an eighteenth-century Swedish scientist, philosopher, and theologian. Pitcairn attended a New Church Sunday school and sang in the choir with Andrew Carnegie, another Scottish immigrant who was to become, like Pitcairn, a self-made man and captain of industry. On his fourteenth birthday Pitcairn left home and school to earn his own living with a copy of the Bible and Swedenborg’s True Christian Religion in his knapsack.
Beginning his career as a telegraph operator, he worked his way up to the position of Superintendent on a branch of the Pennsylvania Railroad and began investing his savings in Pennsylvania oil, coal, and natural gas. Pitcairn made his fortune during the “oil boom” of the 1870s in oil production and refining as well as the newly developing pipelines. Later in life he became involved in manufacturing and was cofounder of Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company in 1883. He was still serving as the company’s Chairman of the Board when he died in 1916 at the age of 75. Although a highly successful industrialist during an age of “robber barons,” Pitcairn had earned a reputation for fair play and having the highest personal character.
As cofounder of Pittsburgh Plate Glass, John Pitcairn was one of the leading industrialists of his time with business and social contacts that included Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Henry Clay Frick, and Henry Flagler. Often traveling abroad and throughout the United States, Pitcairn met Gertrude Starkey in Philadelphia in 1877. Two years later he asked her to marry him. She gently turned down his proposal. Her hesitation lay in her strong New Church beliefs, particularly its ideal of marriage, which required her to examine the depth and spiritual nature of her feelings for him. Undeterred by her rejection, John Pitcairn persisted in his courtship of Gertrude for four and a half more years before he prevailed and she said yes in the fall of 1883.