The Million Milestone: Historic Firsts to Reach Seven Figures

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The number 1 million still stands as a measure of impressive achievement for many, though over time loftier goals have supplanted it. Still, one must get to 1 million before passing it on the way to greater records. Someone had to be the first to reach 1 million in any endeavor, in the arts, in compensation, in business reach, in number of customers. Sometimes, the claim of being the first to 1 million comes under dispute. For example, a certain fast food chain erected a sign at their first store in April 1955, with the claim “Hamburgers. We have sold over 15 million.” Today they claim “Over 99 billion sold.” How and when they reached 15 million has never been explained. Their claim, though, is generally accepted.

Here is a list of 10 entities who were the first to reach 1 million in categories selected for no particular reason other than trivia. Some are surprising, others mystifying, and at least a couple of them disputed for various reasons, which are pointed out. 

10. First artist to reach one million copies of one record sold

A recording of the aria Vesti la giubba, from the opera I Pagliacci became the first record to sell 1 million copies following its 1902 recording. In the opera, the aria is sung by the tenor portraying Canio, who costumes himself as the clown, Pagliacci at the end of the first act. Canio has just discovered his wife has been unfaithful to him, and sings of his pain as he dons the costume and makeup of a clown. The 1902 recording is by Enrico Caruso, singing the aria he had performed on stage many times. He later issued additional recordings of the aria. The title means “put on the costume” in Italian.

The tune of the aria is instantly recognizable as one of the most famous in the history of music. As such, it has been recorded by nearly every great tenor since Caruso. Its recognition factor has also made it the target of spoofs, perhaps most memorably by the Kellogg Corporation in a television advertisement. Caruso’s record setting performance of 1902 can be heard above, and Kellogg’s send-up of the famous aria can be heard and seen here.

9. First company to reach one million automobiles sold

Okay, a company isn’t a person, but this one was owned by a person who dominated all aspects of its operation. The first company to reach 1 million automobiles sold was the Ford Motor Company, a milestone it reached through its ubiquitous Model T. Ford sold its 1 millionth car in 1915, after seven years of production. Ford went on to sell 15 million Model Ts, and Henry was there to watch the last roll off the assembly line in 1927.

Ford’s success with the Model T came from several innovations, which continued to dominate how cars were built for over a century. The innovations weren’t limited to the simplicity of the vehicle or the methods of assembly. Ford made the Model T affordable while at the same time elevating the wages of his workers, making them able to afford the products they built. Henry said of his Model T, “I will build a motor car for the great multitude…so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one…” He then paid his workers the requisite good salary.

Yet Ford was so frugal he used wood scraps left over from Model T production to make charcoal. Over 100 board feet of lumber went into every Model T. Ford built a sawmill and company town in Michigan to produce the required wood. Scrap wood from the mill went to a charcoal production facility he built, design by his friend Thomas Edison. Originally sold as Ford Charcoal exclusively through his car dealers, it became Kingsford Charcoal in 1951.

8. First American to reach 1 million dollars in personal wealth

This one gets a bit tricky. Salem merchant and privateer owner Elias Hasket Derby amassed a considerable fortune during the American Revolutionary War, and in trade before and following that conflict. But the American dollar didn’t exist at the time a built most of his fortune, and his money consisted of Spanish, French, British, and Dutch currencies. Following the war he lost part of his fortune, but remained one of the wealthiest, if not the wealthiest, men in New England. Some claim him to be America’s first millionaire, though there were wealthier men than he when America was still British territory.

Others argue that George Washington’s wealth was the first in America to exceed $1 million, but Washington’s fortune was largely tied up in land. In fact, he was frequently cash-strapped. Probably the strongest argument comes from those who claim John Jacob Astor represents America’s first millionaire. He was indisputably America’s first multi-millionaire, amassing a fortune of about $20 million (just under $650 million today). Astor made his fortune through fur trading, opium smuggling, land speculation, and other lucrative investments. His great-grandson, John Jacob Astor IV, was considered by many the richest man in the world when he died in the sinking of the Titanic in 1912.

7. First actor to reach $1 million for a film role

During the years of studio dominance in Hollywood, actors and actresses were assigned roles under a contract system, which allowed the studios to control their salaries. Gradually during the 1950s the studio system faded, and actors became essentially independent contractors. As a result, they could leverage their popularity at the box office into higher and higher fees for their services. 

In 1962, an actor used his then immense popularity to receive the fee of $1 million for a role in a single film, the first to do so. The role was that of Fletcher Christian in the MGM remake of Mutiny on the Bounty, and the actor was Marlon Brando. However, only half of that fee was for his acting. The rest came from consultation fees and $5,000 per day for each day shooting ran over schedule. Before the picture was released, Marlon collected over $1.2 million. In the end, the film lost money. A lot of money.

Nonetheless, he was the first to reach $1 million for a film role. The troubled production of the film damaged his reputation and established him as difficult to work with. He consoled himself by buying an island near Tahiti and marrying his costar. The following year Elizabeth Taylor used a different technique to be the first actress to receive $1 million for a single role. According to actor Burt Reynolds, he advised her to ask for $1 million because she really didn’t want the lead role in Cleopatra. Reynolds assumed they would turn her down. They didn’t. It too became a troubled production, and led to Taylor’s first of two marriages to actor Richard Burton.

6. First novel to reach over 1 million copies sold

Some say the first novel to reach 1 million copies sold is Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Using estimates and longevity as measuring sticks possibly it was. But Don Quixote was originally published in two volumes, as two separate novels featuring some of the same characters. The volumes were published ten years apart, with the second serving as more of a sequel to the first. It was also published in many cases as revisions, abridged, usually as a result of inaccurate translations. There are more than two dozen English translations extant today, all of them varying in accuracy. There are also children’s versions, as well as young adult versions. In short, Don Quixote is what today would be called a franchise.


The first American novel, and many believe the first novel, to reach sales of 1 million copies is Uncle Tom’s Cabin, originally serialized and later published in book form 1852. It sold 300,000 copies in the United States in its first year, and another 200,000 when it appeared in Great Britain. By the time Lincoln entered office it had sold 1.5 million copies in Britain, a significant number of them pirated. Sales in the United States dwindled until the Civil War began in 1861, when they again soared in the Union and among the troops. During the 19th century it became the second best-selling book, and the best-selling novel, in the world, available in all major languages.

5. First newspaper to reach 1 million in circulation

Le Petit Journal (the small newspaper) began publication in Paris in 1863. Two years later it became the largest daily newspaper published in France. Its publishers decided early on to avoid controversy (and French jails) by ignoring politics, at least officially. By not pontificating on French politics the paper avoided the tax other French newspapers were forced to pay to exercise the privilege. That allowed it to be sold for roughly half the price of other French dailies. By 1886 its circulation reached 1 million copies per week. By 1895 its weekly illustrated supplement surpassed 2 million, giving the “small newspaper” the largest circulation in the world.

The vagaries of politics affected the paper adversely in early 20th century France, and circulation declined steadily, despite the paper’s foray into sensationalism, particularly its lurid coverage of criminal trials. The paper moved its operation to Clermont-Ferrand in 1940, remaining there during the Vichy Government until it shut down operations in August, 1944. By then its daily circulation across France had dropped below 100,000. It was a far cry from the 5 million readers the Journal claimed in an 1899 edition of the Illustrated Supplement.

4. First athlete to reach $1 million per year

In 1978 Dave Parker of the Pittsburgh Pirates signed a contract covering the five seasons from 1979-1983, at a value of $5 million. This allowed him to announce he was the first professional athlete to receive $1 million per year for his services. On paper, he appeared to be paid that amount, but in practice much of the money was deferred. So Parker has a claim as professional sports’ first $1 million per year man. But so do others.

In 1980 Nolan Ryan signed with the Houston Astros, accepting compensation of $1,125,000, but he too deferred some of the money, $250,000, to the tail end of his contract in 1984. A signing bonus offset the amount and Ryan became the first player to actually receive $1 million, actually a bit more including incentives. In 1981 Dave Winfield became baseball’s highest paid player, at $1.4 million.

Times have changed. In 2021 Trevor Bauer is paid $38 million for the year. If he chooses to opt out of the remaining two years on his contract, he gets another $2 million. Major league starting pitchers average 34 starts per season. That puts Bauer’s salary at more than $1 million dollars per appearance on the mound.

3. First television actor to reach $1 million per episode

seinfeld

Numerous actors have turned heads with the fees they command for television roles, which are of course based on the ratings for their programs. High ratings mean higher advertising fees for the network. It also helps capture an audience for the program following it on the schedule. Highly rated shows, particularly situation comedies which are cheaper to produce than dramas, are cash cows for the networks. During the 1980s they became cash cows for their casts as well, though nobody reached the $1 million per episode threshold until 1997.

That actor was Jerry Seinfeld, for his role in his eponymous sitcom. Jerry earned considerably more than his fellow performers on the series, though he was the only member of the cast to appear in every episode. That shouldn’t be surprising. After all, it was called Seinfeld. Jerry declined to perform in a tenth season of the show about nothing, as it was known, despite a reported offer of $5 million per episode, an indication of how much money the program made for NBC over the course of its run. Numerous actors have surpassed the $1 million per episode mark in the years since.

2. First person to reach 1 million followers on Twitter

According to Brandwatch, the list of people with the most Twitter followers leans heavily towards entertainers, though former president Barack Obama leads the list with over 130 million. Katy Perry has over 110 million. The only sports personality in the top twenty (as of April, 2021) is soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo. Talk show host Ellen DeGeneres is ensconced at number 9. Both CNN Breaking News and CNN appear on the list, at 15 and 20 respectively.

But none of the people or entities included in the top twenty list of the most Twitter followers were the first to reach 1 million. That title was achieved in April, 2009, by actor Ashton Kutcher. Kutcher beat out CNN in a challenge to see which of them could reach 1 million followers first. According to CNN reports, Ashton came from behind to nip the network in a close finish. Ashton eventually reached a total of over 17 million followers, far fewer than needed to make the top 20.

1. First brewery to reach over 1 million barrels sold per year

Before the American Civil War most beer consumed in the United States was brewed locally, served on tap, and enjoyed in local taverns and bars. A wide variety of styles of beers and ales existed, based on the ethnicity of the local populations. German immigrants enjoyed their lagers, Irish communities their ales and porters. Following the war, with the emergence of refrigerated rail cars, some brewers began shipping their beers to other markets. Anheuser-Busch commissioned a painting titled Custer’s Last Fight to market their Budweiser beer, appealing to patriotism in saloons and taverns across the country. It first appeared in 1896, as the St. Louis brewery struggled to compete for sales with those based in Milwaukee.

For it was Milwaukee’s Pabst Brewing Company which outsold all others as competition grew for national markets. In 1874 Pabst stood as the nation’s largest brewer. In 1893 Pabst sold over 1 million barrels of its beer, most under the name Pabst Best Select Lager. Pabst survived Prohibition by making cheese in its breweries. Most of the small local breweries around the country went out of business during the so-called Noble Experiment. Following Prohibition Anheuser-Busch surpassed Pabst in production and sales, becoming the nation’s largest brewer in 1957. Pabst remains in business, producing its own labels as well as several other formerly regional beers, though it is based in Los Angeles rather than Milwaukee.


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