Caspar Wistar


Caspar Wistar established the first successful glass manufacturing business in North America.


Caspar Wistar (born February 3, 1696 in Waldhilsbach, Electoral Palatinate; died: March 21, 1752 in Pennsylvania Colony, British North America) belonged to the vanguard of German immigrants to British North America. Within a short time of his arrival in Philadelphia, he managed to establish himself as a brass button maker and importer of European goods. In 1739, he founded the first successful glass manufacturing operation in British North America. His most profitable enterprise both financially and socially, however, was land speculation, which made him both one of the wealthiest men in Pennsylvania and a patron of the German immigrant community. Little is known about his personality and personal life. According to his obituary he lived modestly, gave generously to charities, and had an “incorruptible” character. His rise from impecunious wage laborer to artisan, merchant, and land speculator was all the more remarkable since he belonged to an ethnic minority in a British-dominated colony, where he became possibly the first German-born example of an eighteenth-century, self-made American entrepreneur.


Caspar Wistar (born Hans Caspar Wüster) was born in Waldhilsbach, a community in the Electoral Palatinate (now part of the southwest German state of Baden-Württemberg), in 1696 and was the oldest of nine children. His father, after whom he was named, worked as the forester, a government-appointed, hereditary position, in Amt Dilsberg near Heidelberg. His mother was Anna Catharina Müller, daughter of the magistrate in Waldhilsbach. While his mother belonged to the Reformed Church and his father was a Lutheran, Caspar was baptized into the Reformed congregation since this was the dominant confession (religious affiliation) in their area. As a means for professional and social advancement, confessional allegiance was of critical importance in the Palatinate, especially for government officials like Wistar’s father.

According to his short memoir written in the 1740s, Wistar received little education since his village was too poor to employ a schoolmaster, though he did learn how to read and write. At the age of sixteen he became a forester’s apprentice for the chief hunter at Bruchhausen for four years, but saw little future in this profession. In 1717, Elector Karl Philipp (1661-1742) instituted a series of government reforms resulting in salary freezes for the forestry department. In addition, the department was reorganized and numerous positions were cut. At the same time, Wistar’s father was caught in a battle for control of resources in Waldhilsbach, which threatened to rob him of his position as forester, his social status in the community, and his ability to bequeath his job to his son. In 1717, at age twenty-one, Wistar decided to immigrate to the Pennsylvania Colony against the wishes of his family. He was part of the first significant wave of German-speaking immigrants to migrate to British North America. At the time, knowledge about the colonies was mainly spread by immigration agents through pamphlets and word of mouth. Although Wistar came from one of the main regions of German migration to America, he was not a typical German immigrant for this period. He did not migrate due to religious persecution, he had no existing family connections or friends in America, and he was neither a peasant nor an indentured servant.

Arrival in Pennsylvania and Early Success

In his memoir, Wistar claimed that he arrived in Philadelphia on September 16, 1717, with no more than nine pence to his name. One of the busiest seaports in British North America, Philadelphia had a population, which consisted primarily of British-born merchants and shopkeepers, most of whom were Quakers. Wistar quickly realized he would not be able to work in his profession as a forester or a hunter, and thus found work collecting ashes for a soap maker. As a wage laborer he found himself in the lowest stratum of colonial society, his situation exacerbated by the fact that he did not speak English. He stayed with the soap maker for sixteen months until he managed to begin an apprenticeship with a brass button maker in January 1719. Wistar’s rise from wage laborer to artisan not only marked his first step towards entrepreneurial success, but it also immersed him in English culture and an English-language environment, and thus enabled him to eventually access Anglo-American colonial society. In 1721, he signed a declaration of allegiance to the British king, and the following year he anglicized his last name to Wistar (sometimes spelled Wister).

He began purchasing land as early as 1721, scarcely four years after his arrival, possibly with money borrowed from a wealthy Germantown Quaker. In 1724 he purchased another tract of land on which he subsequently set up his own button making shop. The availability of inexpensive, fertile land in America was the main incentive for most German immigrants, yet they faced a legal dilemma since foreigners could not pass land to their children unless they became naturalized. Moreover, foreigners were prohibited from participating in overseas trade by the Navigation Acts. In order to be naturalized, immigrants had to petition the provincial government. Wistar submitted his naturalization petition in December 1723 and it was promptly granted in the spring of 1724, a step that both further enhanced his social status and testified to his good reputation. Having thus secured his legacy, as well as his right to engage in transatlantic trade, he bought a share in the Abbington Iron Furnace in New Castle County, Pennsylvania (now New Castle County, Delaware) in 1725. Not only did this investment open up a new source of income, it also enabled him to establish business and social connections to the other shareholders, most of whom were wealthy and politically influential Philadelphia merchants.

Drawing on his family’s experience in the Palatinate, Wistar understood the importance of affiliating with the dominant religious denomination of a region. Church membership provided access to a social network of co-religionists, which offered a means for social and economic advancement. By 1726 he had joined the Quakers, who dominated Philadelphia’s political and economic life at the time, especially the city’s community of merchants and traders. In May of the same year he married Catherine Jansen (1703-1786), the daughter of a Dutch-German Quaker family from Germantown. Thus by 1726 he had become an established and well-connected member of Philadelphia society. Caspar and Catherine had seven children, six of whom lived to adulthood. Encouraged by Wistar’s success, his brother Johannes (1708-1771) immigrated to Pennsylvania in 1727, changed his name to John Wister, and eventually became a wealthy wine merchant.

Land Speculation and Wealth

The majority of Wistar’s land purchases occurred between 1728 and his death in 1752. During this time, he purchased more than 22,000 acres of land in Pennsylvania, which he then subdivided and sold at tremendous profit. He sold mostly to German-speaking immigrants, which stimulated the development of ethnic enclaves in the Pennsylvania countryside. Hailing from various German territorial states with varying cultural and religious backgrounds and speaking different dialects, the shared experience of immigration to a foreign colony united the diverse group of immigrants into an ethnic and cultural community. Wistar and his fellow immigrants were often labeled “Palatines” rather than Germans by colonial officials, yet the fact that his clientele included German-speaking immigrants from various backgrounds shows that his understanding of ethnic and cultural identity transcended territorial boundaries. Besides becoming the primary source of his wealth, and supplying a legacy for his family, Wistar’s real estate dealings also garnered him social standing as a patron for the growing German immigrant community. In this role, he vouched for German immigrants seeking to buy land, paid money on their behalf, and extended credit to them.

The enormous success of Wistar’s real estate pursuits resulted in part from his understanding of land as a marketable commodity rather than mere patrimony, yet Wistar also benefitted greatly from timing and circumstance. In the 1720s William Penn’s heirs became embroiled in a legal conflict over land ownership in Pennsylvania following Penn’s death in 1718. The Penn family, in trying to secure their legacy, got tied up in lawsuits that would last for fourteen years. During this time, the colonial land office did not sell any land since it could not guarantee cleared titles. At the same time, German immigrants eager to buy land kept arriving in substantial numbers at Philadelphia. For the period between 1720 and 1734, about 8,000 new arrivals from the German-speaking territories are recorded, and their numbers continued to grow steadily throughout the 1730s and 1740s.[1] Since the property commissioners refused to sell land titles, the new immigrants simply squatted on tracts of land. As the number of squatters grew constantly, so did the Penn family’s need for money, which eventually led the commissioners to agree to sell land to Wistar in 1729. The high price he paid—16£ Pennsylvania currency per hundred acres instead of the going rate of 10£—shows his willingness to assume a financial risk in this pursuit. The purchase also documents that he had managed to establish credit networks in the Anglo-American merchant community by this time since the bills of exchange he passed were drawn on a London coal factor with close ties to his Abbington Furnace business partners. In addition, Wistar made large cash payments, thus becoming one of the few sources of income for the debt-ridden Penn family. His frequent and steady land purchases throughout the 1730s and 1740s proved profitable both financially and socially since they generated good contacts with the commissioners of property and other government officials in the colony. Acting as an intermediary between the German squatters and the colonial government, he assumed further financial risks in buying the occupied tracts in Philadelphia County for cash and extending credit to the immigrants through mortgages and bonds. All of his land holdings in Philadelphia County and most of those in other counties (Berks, Bucks, Lancaster, Montgomery, and Northampton) were sold to German-speaking immigrants or their descendants. He further secured his real estate business by writing an open letter to prospective German immigrants in November 1732 describing life in Pennsylvania and cautioning them to bring enough funds for their land purchases.

In his eagerness to buy land and buy it early, Wistar also provided funds to the Penn family to purchase Native American land, in some cases ignoring Native American claims and acquiring land that had, in fact, not yet been bought from them. In 1735, for example, he participated in the Penn’s controversial land lottery schemes, acquiring additional land in a “lottery” that had never been sold by the Indians in the first place.

Transatlantic Trade

In 1730 Wistar established a trade connection with Georg Friedrich Hölzer, a family friend in the Palatinate. He ordered goods from Germany, which were then transported by German immigrants in their personal belongings in order to avoid British duties and then sold in his shop in Philadelphia. Using the immigrant transportation system for illicit trade was quite common among non-British immigrants at the time since the restrictions and duties imposed by the Navigation Acts were prohibitive. Although nowhere near as profitable as his land speculation, Wistar’s trade in imported commodities from the Rhine and Neckar Valleys represented an important step in his entrepreneurial and personal affairs. Establishing himself as the main supplier in an emerging market, he was able to furnish his fellow immigrants with specialized services since the items he imported (knives, scissors, needles, brass and iron goods, copper kettles, mirrors, eyeglasses, tobacco pipes, ivory combs, lace, and custom-made rifles) were not readily available in the colonies at the time. He only ordered high quality items and managed to attain market dominance in rifles by making sure his source in Germany was kept secret.

Moreover, regular communication and commerce with his home region enabled him, the oldest son, to retain his role as family patriarch after his father died in 1726. On Wistar’s request, his business partner Hölzer looked after his remaining family during the French-Palatine War (1733-1736) and secured legacies for his family, friends, and associates. In his trade dealings, Wistar relied on a network of brokers each of whom had their own set of contacts. Thus he managed to build a web of relationships of mutual obligation and dependence that stretched from Pennsylvania to the Rhine and Neckar Valleys.

The United Glass Company

By 1738 Wistar had decided to invest in a new enterprise. After successfully petitioning for naturalization in the colony of New Jersey, he entered a contract with four German glassmakers, and in 1739 established the United Glass Company in Salem County, NJ. Despite protectionist attempts by the British Parliament to prohibit manufacturing in the colonies, his company became the first successful glass manufactory in British North America, and a village named “Wistarburg” (sometimes spelled “Wistarburgh”) soon grew up around the glassworks. The nature of his agreement with the glassmakers was such that Wistar paid for their journey to America, provided housing for them, and made available the capital needed to establish the glassworks. The glassmakers agreed to teach Wistar and his son Richard their craft in exchange for one-third of the company’s profits. Based on eighteenth-century European models, this kind of business structure and organization was a novelty in the economic landscape of colonial America. The workforce was largely made up of German-speaking immigrants, including skilled laborers, journeymen, apprentices, and a considerable number of indentured servants. There are no records of slaves being used at the glassworks, just as there is no evidence that Wistar had any slaves during his lifetime.

The United Glass Company mainly produced window glass and bottles, the latter being in such high demand that more than 15,000 were produced per year. The bottles were made using a so-called “Waldglas” formula, which produced a greenish impure glass. The process had been used for glassmaking in northern Europe since the Middle Ages. Unregulated access to resources such as timber and sand, as well as low taxes in New Jersey, contributed greatly to the success of Wistar’s new enterprise. Wistar’s firm provides an example of how an eighteenth-century European business model was adapted successfully to the favorable business conditions of the British American colonies. The United Glass Company’s profitability also highlights the growing diversity of the colonial American economy. Wistar understood that demand existed in colonial America for the same consumer goods sold in Europe, and he became one of the first immigrant entrepreneurs to profit from it. Rather than import glass products from Europe, though, he set out to manufacture them in America. After Wistar’s death in 1752, his son Richard took over his share of the partnership until his own death in 1781, which left Wistar’s widow and his grandchildren in charge of the business. Profits declined during the Revolutionary War, however, and the glassworks eventually stopped production in 1782.

When Caspar Wistar died at the age of fifty-six on March 21, 1752, his brass button manufacturing business located on High Street in Philadelphia was valued at 676 Pennsylvania pounds and employed four apprentices[2]. He owned a shop in the city that sold hardware, dry goods, and glass, and a country store in Wistarburg[3]. The United Glass Company had grown into an enterprise that employed sixty people. In addition, he owned several farms, as well as numerous tracts of land in Philadelphia, Bucks, and Lancaster counties.[4] His assets were valued at 60,000 pounds at a time when Philadelphia’s elite held property that averaged 24,000 pounds, gaining him a reputation as one of the wealthiest men in the colony of Pennsylvania.[5] An immigrant who had uprooted himself from his family and homeland, he had managed to build a legacy of economic and social stability in North America.


As an immigrant entrepreneur who transferred old world knowledge and business structures to the American colonies and engaged in transatlantic trade, Caspar Wistar’s biography unites some fundamental aspects of German-American immigration history with American economic history. Upon realizing the factors that impeded his economic success at home, he took the risk of immigrating to a British colony he knew relatively little about and where he had no connections. His rise from penniless immigrant and wage laborer without any knowledge of the English language to artisan, land speculator, merchant, and respected member of Philadelphia society is an example of successful transplantation and adaptation. While he may have arrived in Pennsylvania with no money, his resources lay in the “capital” his European background and experience provided. The successful application of these resources was facilitated by the nature of pre-revolutionary American society, which may have resembled the society of his homeland in that it, too, was held together by the ligaments of patronage and kinship, yet its far greater openness allowed for a social and economic mobility that would have been impossible in the Palatinate. By the same token, the American colonies provided much more favorable conditions to start a business: less bureaucracy, easy access to resources, freedom of trade, and low taxes.

Despite his relatively low level of education, Wistar quickly managed to adapt to the conditions of his new surroundings by learning not only the language, but also the regulations concerning naturalization, land purchases, and trade—and occasionally circumventing them. He possessed an understanding of colonial land policy that enabled him to take advantage of the colony’s uncertain property situation in the 1720s. Timing and circumstance partly explain why all of the businesses he started succeeded, but his ambition, knowledge, and willingness to take risks proved to be just as important for his success. Unfortunately, his short memoir does not provide any clues as to how he interpreted his own accomplishments since it ends with the year 1719. In contrast to many of his wealthy Anglo-American contemporaries, he never disengaged from his various enterprises to pursue the “genteel” lifestyle, nor did he seek political office. Regardless of his enormous wealth, he seems to have identified himself as an artisan and merchant throughout his life.

As an early immigrant who did not have any network to rely on, Wistar clearly recognized the business opportunity of providing services to new German settlers in Pennsylvania. Thus his ethnic identity proved to be useful and ultimately conducive to his success. While his artisan businesses catered to a general colonial clientele, his trade in European goods, and particularly his land speculation, depended on continuous demand from the German immigrant community. He greatly benefitted from the network of that community, though he did not restrict himself to it, but instead actively sought entry into Anglo-American society. In joining the Quakers, he employed an old world strategy in order to access a new world society. The success of this strategy is evidenced among other things by the fact that all but one of his six surviving children married into prominent Anglo-American families with broad kinship networks.

A pioneer among German immigrants, Wistar carved out a position for himself as the link between two worlds. Being both a respected member of Philadelphia society, and a patron of the German immigrant community, he was ideally suited for the role of mediator between the colonial government and the immigrants. Moreover, as a patron and transatlantic merchant he built a web of dependencies which extended from British North America to the southwestern German territories. Unlike many of his fellow immigrants, he did not sever ties with Europe, but instead fully realized the connectedness of the Atlantic World. In this regard, Wistar’s biography, which was shaped by the challenges of immigration and entrepreneurship, is instructive for the writing of eighteenth-century Atlantic history.



[1] Marianne S. Wokeck, Trade in Strangers: The Beginning of Mass Migration to North America (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999), p. 45.

[2] “Inventory of the Goods and Chattels of Caspar Wistar, Apr. 4, 1752,” Wistar Family Papers, HSP; Philadelphia County Deeds, G-4, 361-65, microfilm copy, HSP.

[3] Receipt Book of Caspar Wistar, 1747-84, Am. 941, HSP; Caspar Wistar, Account Book G, 1743-69, Wistar Family Papers, HSP.

[4] Philadelphia County Wills, bk. I, 493, microfilm copy, HSP.

[5] Thomas Doerflinger, A Vigorous Spirit of Enterprise: Merchants and Economic Development in Revolutionary Philadelphia (New York: W.W. Norton, 1987), pp. 126-34.


Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Caspar Wistar
  • Coverage 1696-1752
  • Author
  • Website Name Immigrant Entrepreneurship
  • URL
  • Access Date May 23, 2024
  • Publisher German Historical Institute
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update August 22, 2018