William Rittenhouse Homestead, n.d.

William Rittenhouse Homestead, n.d.

William Rittenhouse


William Rittenhouse became the first paper maker in British North America when he established the Rittenhouse paper mill outside of Germantown, PA, in 1690. He also created a paper-making dynasty that held a virtual monopoly on papermaking in the British colonies for almost forty years and produced paper for 150 years.


William Rittenhouse (born 1644 in Broich, Duchy of Berg; died February 18, 1708 in Germantown, PA) became the first paper maker in British North America when he established the Rittenhouse paper mill outside of Germantown, Pennsylvania, in 1690. He also created a paper-making dynasty that held a virtual monopoly on papermaking in the British colonies for almost forty years and produced paper for 150 years. He may thus be credited with transferring this important technology from Germany and Holland to America and building the foundation for the blossoming of a domestic, independent print culture in the colonies in the eighteenth century. His success can largely be attributed to his early migration to Holland and business experience among Dutch papermakers and subsequently his effective negotiation of the diverse transnational environment of early colonial Pennsylvania. Rittenhouse was a transnational and translingual personality who crossed borders and negotiated socially and ethnically diverse communities. Though his wealth at the time of his death is difficult to measure exactly, he left his son Claus Rittenhouse (already responsible for day-to-day operations at the time) a fully established paper mill with customers in various colonies, twenty acres of land well-suited for the operation of water-powered paper mills, and a widely recognized and respected company name.

Family and Ethnic Background

William Rittenhouse (originally Wilhelm Rittenhausen), the son of Claus Rittinghausen and Maria Hagerhoff, was born in Broich, a small village outside of Mühlheim on the Ruhr River (today a district in the city of Mühleim an der Ruhr in the German federal state of North Rhine-Westphalia) during the year 1644. Most of what is known about the Rittinghausen family comes from their connection to the Vorsters, a family of papermakers. Adolf Vorster had leased a paper mill in Broich until 1675, and his brother Mathias, who married Claus Rittinghausen’s sister Ermgard, moved to Holland in the early 1660s to work in the Dutch papermaking industry.[1] The young Wilhelm probably learned the trade in Adolf Vorster’s mill in Broich. Though only a young man in the early 1660s, Wilhelm was clearly skilled enough to move to Eerbeck in the province of Gelderland, Netherlands, in order to assist his aunt and uncle in running a local paper mill.[2]

After growing up in a German-speaking household, Wilhelm lived in the Netherlands over twenty years (from the early 1660s until his departure for Pennsylvania in 1688). He married a Dutch woman, Geertruid Pieters of Eerbeck, in 1665 and, thus, likely became bilingual and thoroughly acculturated. Growing up in the lower Rhine region and Dutch-German borderlands, Rittenhouse probably had already been familiar with the “low Dutch” and “High German” languages (as they were usually known in the seventeenth century). Political and linguistic borders in this region during his era were far less sharply defined than they became after the rise of nationalism in the nineteenth century. His three children — Nicholas [often referred to as Klaus or Claus], Gerrit, and Elisabeth — were all born in the Netherlands and thus most likely grew up speaking both German and Dutch, if not predominantly the latter. By 1672, Mathias Vorster and Wilhelm Rittenhouse had moved to Rozendaal, near Arnheim, to work in the mills of Adriaan Hendriksz de Ridder, a paper merchant from Delft.[3] With the paper-making business of the Vorster and Rittenhouse family expanding, Wilhelm eventually moved to Amsterdam as their paper merchant, thus learning both the production and marketing sides of the paper industry. On June 23, 1679, Rittenhouse took the citizen’s oath in Amsterdam, signing his name as “Willem Riddinghuÿsen.” He had both legally and linguistically assumed a Dutch identity.[4]

The reasons for the Rittenhouse family’s migration to Pennsylvania (via New York as port of entry) are unclear, but several prominent causes may have contributed to the decision. Most importantly, the Vorster-Rittenhouse family’s previous mobility in pursuit of business opportunities makes it likely that Rittenhouse continued to search for ways to improve the status of himself and his family by seeking out new ventures. Rittenhouse may have known that in the British colonies of North America no paper was being produced and that he would enjoy a virtual monopoly (rivaled only by paper imported from Europe).[5] Rittenhouse’s decision to immigrate also coincided with a wider technology transfer in the production of fine paper from the Netherlands to England, which had neglected its paper production in the seventeenth century. According to James Green, “[t]he art of making white printing paper was reintroduced into England at about the same time Rittenhouse emigrated to America.”[6] During his residence in Amsterdam, Rittenhouse had also become familiar with and eventually converted to the Mennonite faith. Although Dutch Mennonites (belonging to the larger Anabaptist movement) were no longer persecuted during the 1680s, many families joined other Mennonites from the Palatinate and northern German states (especially Hamburg), as well as Anabaptists from Switzerland, in their migration to Pennsylvania.[7]

Throughout the 1680s, moreover, William Penn and his agents on the Continent (such as Benjamin Furly in Rotterdam) issued a host of promotional tracts to attract German and Dutch immigrants — especially Protestant dissenters — to the new province. Penn not only sought to entice persecuted groups to immigrate to the Pennsylvania colony, designed as a “holy experiment,” but generally welcomed any radical religious seekers like the Quakers, Mennonites, and Pietists trying to build godly and virtuous communities free from the vanities of Europe on American soil. The promotion of Pennsylvania resonated particularly among the radical Protestant communities whom Penn and other Quaker missionaries had visited during a journey in 1676-1677. Members of the networks they established disseminated promotional readings and other reports from the new province, connected investors to Penn’s land agents, and supported immigrants in the various stages of their journey.[8] As a paper merchant in Amsterdam, Rittenhouse may have personally known the prominent Amsterdam printer and Quaker Jacob Claus, who published several Dutch-language accounts of Pennsylvania, such as a translation of Penn’s 1683 A letter from William Penn proprietary and governour in Pennsylvania in America: to the committee of the Free Society of Traders of that Province.[9] In reading the account, Rittenhouse would have particularly appreciated the image of transnational and interdenominational unity Penn projected onto the new settlement (“here are some of several Nations, as well as divers Judgments”), as well as Penn’s effort to promote the flax growing and linen weaving industry.[10] After all, the early-modern paper industry relied exclusively on linen rags as its raw material. Although Rittenhouse probably had no particularly compelling reason to leave Amsterdam in the late 1680s, Pennsylvania may have presented an intriguing business opportunity within a setting tinged by social and religious idealism.

Historians generally assume that the Rittenhouse family first shipped to New York, based on the work of a nineteenth-century antiquarian who claimed to have seen a family bible that noted the family’s arrival in New York on November 2, 1687, as well as the fact that Claus Rittenhouse married a Dutch woman, Wilhelmina de Wees, in the city on May 29, 1689. [11] However, by April 4, 1689, William and Claus Rittenhouse had already been awarded several town lots on the main street in the newly formed settlement of Germantown, six miles outside of Philadelphia.[12] Rittenhouse and his family may have lived in Germantown proper for only a short time, because a year later, on September 29, 1690, he leased a twenty acre lot on a tributary of the Wissahickon Creek and formed a company with several prominent Philadelphia residents to erect a paper mill.[13] On that day, William Rittenhouse and his son Claus began their careers as paper makers and business owners in America.

Business Development

William Rittenhouse’s decision to build a paper mill on a site outside of Philadelphia was carefully calculated. In Philadelphia, Rittenhouse not only found a tolerant environment conducive to the settlement of dissenters like Mennonites, but also the established printing business of William Bradford, which generated a steady demand for paper. Bradford had set up his press in Philadelphia in 1685 at the invitation of the Quaker government. Although his business lagged initially, the Pennsylvania Quakers offered him a yearly salary of £40 (approximately £4,700 or $7,300 in 2011) and “agreed to buy 200 copies of every book Bradford printed at their suggestion.”[14] The topography around Germantown, moreover, included fast flowing water suitable for mill construction, and the newly arrived settlers in the area — Quakers and Mennonites from the lower Rhine area of Krefeld — had already established a burgeoning linen manufacturing and weaving economy that perfectly complemented paper production and printing. In fact, several early writers and promoters of Pennsylvania commented on the integration of these three manufacturing branches and their usefulness for the inchoate province. Fittingly printed on Rittenhouse paper, Richard Frame’s 1692 poem A Short Description of Pennsilvania, Or, A Relation What things are known, enjoyed, and like to be discovered in the said Province (the first poem published in Pennsylvania), described an interdependent relationship between flax production, linen weaving, and paper production, in which different ethnicities played key roles in the economy.

The German-Town, of which I spoke before,
Which is, at least, in length one Mile and More,
Where lives High-German People, and Low-Dutch,
Whose Trade in weaving Linnin Cloth is much,
There grows the Flax, as also you may know,
That from the same they do divide the Tow;
Their Trade fits well within this Habitation,
We find Convenience for their Occupation
One Trade brings in imployment for another,
So that we may suppose each Trade a Brother;
From Linnin Rags good Paper doth derive,
The first Trade keeps the second Trade alive:
Without the first the second cannot be,
Therefore since these two can so well agree,
Convenience doth approve to place them nigh,
One in the German-Town, ‘tother hard by.
A Paper Mill neare German-Town doth stand,
So that the Flax, which first springs from the Land,
First Flax, then Yarn, and then they must begin,
To weave the same, which they took pains to spin.
Also, when on our backs it is well worn,
Some of the same remains Ragged and Torn;
Then of those Rags our Paper it is made,
Which in process of time doth wate and fade:
So what comes from the Earth, appeareth plain,
The same in Time returns to Earth again.[15]

Very clearly, Rittenhouse had established a paper mill in a location that provided both raw materials and a market for his product. How, though, had the newly arrived German immigrant with a Dutch citizenship from Amsterdam managed to raise the significant capital needed to build a mill and operate it? Though Rittenhouse had learned the ins and outs of the paper making and paper selling business from Adolf and Mathias Vorster, he had never created an entire business from the bottom up.

Upon his arrival in Pennsylvania in 1689, Rittenhouse apparently lost no time in seeking out investors who could profit from such an enterprise. Thus, he entered a partnership with three prominent English citizens of early Pennsylvania, notably the printer William Bradford (who had the greatest interest in a steady supply of paper), the ironmonger Thomas Tresse, and the land investor Robert Turner, who together leased a tract of land on Monoshone Creek (later known as Paper Mill Run) from the wealthy Quaker merchant Samuel Carpenter.[16] The original lease was apparently conveyed orally in 1690, for the only surviving document capturing the terms of the agreement was written in 1706. Accordingly, Turner, Bradford, Tresse, and Rittenhouse agreed with Carpenter to pay for the “Land whereon the said Paper-Mill was to be Erected Containing Twenty acres… for the Term of Nine hundred and Ninety Years Paying… the rent of five Shillings Sterling.”[17] Although no other documents exist specifying the exact relationship between the business partners, the 1690 agreement was already a major accomplishment for Rittenhouse.

Very little is known about the construction of the mill. In a 1690 letter to London Quakers, Bradford mentioned that “Samuel Carpenter and I are Building a Paper-Mill about a Mile from thy Mills at Skulkill, and hope we shall have Paper within less than four months.”[18] Bradford perhaps mentioned only himself and Carpenter because they were best known to the London Quakers or because they contributed the most capital, but certainly not because they were physically or personally building the mill. Rittenhouse was the one who contributed all expertise in building and operating a paper mill. Frame’s poem, printed on paper with a Rittenhouse watermark, is the earliest evidence of the mill’s operation by 1692. No description of the first paper mill exists, but circumstantial evidence allows the assumption that it was an undershot mill, with the wheel suspended above the water of the creek and driven by the flow of water.[19] This construction was relatively inefficient, because it did not make use of gravity — as did an overshot wheel which was powered by water falling onto the blades of the wheel from above — and was exposed to natural fluctuations in the water level.[20] Also, the building was apparently constructed relatively quickly and cheaply from logs, as timber was still abundant in the wooded areas around Germantown.[21] Although the direct source of key paper-making technology and hardware for the first mill is unknown, it is safe to assume that Rittenhouse received most of it from the German states and the Netherlands. For example, a receipt dated 1698 from the paper makers Johannes and Adolf Vorster in Rozendaal shows that Rittenhouse received paper molds from them.

In 1692, the demand for paper in Pennsylvania increased — oddly enough — due to a religious and civic controversy among Pennsylvania Quakers — known as the Keithian schism — in which William Bradford played a major role, ultimately resulting in his removal to New York. George Keith, one of the leading Quakers, began accusing Pennsylvania members of the Society of Friends of un-Christian principles, an over-emphasis on the “Inner Light” as sufficient for salvation, and a denial of the historical Jesus. When leading Quaker ministers tried to suppress what they perceived as Keith’s ranting, Keith and his followers published various pamphlets in defiance of the ecclesiastic and political establishment. His printer was William Bradford, Rittenhouse’s business partner. Although Bradford’s publications did not necessarily express his own opinions, but rather the opinions of the Keithians, Pennsylvania magistrates on August 24, 1692, had the county sheriff arrest Bradford for “Publishing, Uttering, and Spreading a Malicious and Seditious Paper” that “tend[ed] to the Disturbance of the Peace, and Subversion of the present Government” and confiscate his printing press.[22] During the trial in December 1692, Bradford was acquitted by the jury and his printing press returned. Although Rittenhouse was Bradford’s business partner and supplier of the paper that Keith’s Serious Appeal and other supposedly seditious pamphlets were printed on, the Mennonite Rittenhouse generally stayed clear of any political involvement and was never implicated in the controversy.

Nevertheless, the schism could have proved disastrous for Rittenhouse’s business. Disappointed by the curtailment of free speech in Pennsylvania and lured by an offer from the New York legislature to print the laws of the province, Bradford moved to New York in 1693. Yet, the Rittenhouse mill was still the only domestic paper supplier in the British colonies, and thus Bradford was eager to maintain a tight business relationship with Rittenhouse. On September 24, 1697, Bradford and Rittenhouse entered an agreement, which granted Rittenhouse Bradford’s share in the mill in exchange for a right of refusal for paper produced there. In the lease, Bradford signed over to Rittenhouse “his one fourth part of ye sd Paper-Mill and Land with all ye appurtenances thereunto belonging for and during the full Term of Ten years… with all ye profits arising thereupon.” As payment, Claus and William Rittenhouse agreed to “deliver to sd. William Bradford… ye full quantity of Seven Ream of blue paper, yearly” and let Bradford “have ye refusal of all ye printing paper that they make and he shall take ye same at Ten shillings pr. Ream, As also ye sd. Bradford shall have ye refusal of five Ream of writing paper and Thirty Ream of brown paper yearly… ye writing paper to be at 20s and ye brown paper at 6 s. pr. Ream.”[23] Rittenhouse’s rent for Bradford’s share, in other words, was £6.2 (approximately £700 or $1,100 in 2011) in paper.[24] At the time, Rittenhouse profited from tying himself closely to Bradford, who was not only the sole printer in New York but also continued to receive business from Philadelphia, which now lacked a printing press entirely. Ironically, Quaker publications from this period, such as German Quaker Francis Daniel Pastorius’s A New Primmer or Methodical Directions To attain the True Spelling, Reading & Writing of ENGLISH (1698), continued to be printed by William Bradford in New York.

A major calamity for the Rittenhouse business — a flashflood around 1700 that destroyed the entire mill building — eventually allowed the Rittenhouses to secure independence from Bradford and to build a more effective paper-making operation. According to William Barton, the biographer of David Rittenhouse, William Rittenhouse’s great-grandson and a well-known scientist, a memorandum written by William Penn (in Barton’s possession but apparently lost), stated that the Rittenhouses had “sustained a very great loss by a violent and sudden flood, which carried away the said mill with a considerable quantity of paper, materials and tools, with other things therein, whereby they were reduced to great distress; and, therefore, recommending to such persons as should be disposed to lend them aid, to give the sufferers ‘relief and encouragement, in their needful and commendable employment,’ as they were ‘desirous to set up the paper-mill again.’” Barton further alleges that Penn’s “certificate” called William Rittenhouse an “old man” and described him as “decrepid.”[25] Even though William Rittenhouse and William Penn were born the same year, the paper maker may have appeared far older and more worn out than the Pennsylvania Colony’s founder due to the strenuous nature of his work. In any case, Penn clearly deemed Rittenhouse’s business a great asset to the colony and, while on his second visit to Pennsylvania, took an active interest in raising support for the reconstruction of the mill.

William and Claus’s attempts to gain assistance from the partners — Bradford, Tresse, and Turner — to rebuild the mill eventually resulted in all shares of the company going to the Rittenhouses. Robert Turner had died in 1700, but his executor, Francis Rawle, assigned Turner’s share to the Rittenhouses without compensation — probably due to the fact that the recently destroyed mill was more of a liability than an asset.[26] According to a letter Claus Rittenhouse wrote to Bradford on July 12, 1703, Tresse gave the Rittenhouses his share in the business in exchange for his portion of the value of materials saved from the destroyed mill.[27] Claus proposed to buy out Bradford’s share under the same conditions, including the remaining payment for leasing Bradford’s share following the 1697 lease. It is clear from the letter that Bradford had not given any assistance for the reconstruction of the mill but demanded (in a proposal to Samuel Carpenter) the continuation of his sole claim on the Rittenhouses’ paper. In his letter, Claus Rittenhouse politely but firmly declined:

And as for furnishing you with paper from time to time, as wee reckon ourselves obliged for yr. kindnesses, so wee intend to serve yr. occasions to our ability, but considering this Country may want paper and severall here have been so kind as to assist us in ye Rebuilding the paper mill, wee dare not engage ourselves by any Contract or bond to any particulars, least it may not be in our power to comply without disappointing or disobliging the rest of our ffriends; Soo yt wee desire you only to depend upon us for serving you with paper the best we can….[28]

The Rittenhouses’ response to Bradford’s exclusive claim not only reminded him that he had not helped them rebuild but also makes it clear that they now had other customers and obligations in the local community.[29]

Whereas their long-time business partner Bradford did not provide any aid for reconstruction, other citizens in the community did. Bonds of indebtedness preserved in the personal papers of Mrs. Robert Price Jr., a Rittenhouse descendant, show that several individuals in Philadelphia loaned the Rittenhouses money between 1702 and 1703 — most likely to finance reconstruction of their business.[30] The new mill must have been operational before 1703, as Bradford had already asked the Rittenhouses for delivery of paper in June of that year.[31]

Eventually, William Bradford agreed to selling his share of the company to William Rittenhouse, resulting in the agreement between Samuel Carpenter and Rittenhouse signed February 9, 1706, granting the papermaker “All that Paper-Mill Scituate in the said County of Philadelphia and all that Tract of Land wherein the same Stands….”[32] After more than fifteen years, Rittenhouse was sole proprietor of his business and was free to sell paper to any customer, including his former partner William Bradford. In spite of the disagreements with Bradford after the demise of the first mill, William and Claus continued to do much of their business with the New York printer. After 1713, Bradford’s son Andrew set up a printing business in Philadelphia and thus created even more demand for Rittenhouse paper.

Probably due to declining health, shortly after February 1706 William “leased” three of his four shares to his son Claus for the nominal rent of “one peppercorn yearly.”[33] He died from an unknown cause on February 18, 1708.[34] He left no will and all four shares of the mill went to his son Claus, who became the sole owner. Historian George Allen in particular underscored Claus’s key role in running the business even before his father’s death: “While it has been the custom to call William Rittenhouse the first manufacturer of paper in this country, this is unquestionably a partial injustice to his son, Nicholas. For it is a question, how much the elder Rittenhouse could have done without the aid of his eldest son, who seems to have been an excellent carpenter, as well as papermaker.”[35] If William’s reputation has overshadowed his son’s, we must probably fault the historiographic obsession with firsts or founding fathers. There is no evidence that the elder Rittenhouse attempted to diminish his son’s significance or business involvement. If anything, William Rittenhouse did everything in his power to leave a successful and well-established business to his son, situating him for a period of notable business expansion following his death. Claus, himself a first-generation immigrant, continued his father’s practice of rearing up family members in the craft of papermaking. In addition to his son, William (1691-1744), who inherited the mill in 1734, Claus also taught the trade to his brother-in-law William De Wees (brother of Claus’s wife Wilhelmina) and assisted him in setting up a second paper mill in the Chestnut Hill district nearby in 1710. Until Thomas Wilcox built a paper mill in Chester County, southwest of Philadelphia, in 1729, all paper production in Pennsylvania and the British colonies at large was in the hands of the extended Rittenhouse family.[36] The Rittenhouse family thus initiated the primacy of Pennsylvania, especially the Philadelphia area, as a colonial center of the paper-making industry. Historian John Bidwell further explains factors for the Rittenhouse mill’s success in this location: “Paper mills naturally clustered where the printing trade was strongest, in the Philadelphia area, where papermakers could count on a promising market, a rapidly developing transportation network, excellent commercial facilities, and optimum manufacturing conditions at mill sites in the surrounding countryside.” As a result — none the least due to Rittenhouse’s pioneering work — “Pennsylvania mills greatly outnumbered those of the other colonies until the 1770s and… even then, the paper trade was still growing faster in Pennsylvania than in any other American colony.”[37]

Unfortunately, very little information about the mills built by William and Claus Rittenhouse exists, and none of the mill buildings has survived. The only remaining structures dating back to William Rittenhouse’s life are the Rittenhouse homestead built in 1707 and a smaller building (presumed to have been built as a residence) built in 1690. The homestead includes a metal plate reading “W C R 1707,” for William and Claus Rittenhouse, 1707. A 1764 survey made by Christian Lehman shows two paper mills, an upper and a lower mill. It is unclear which of the two mills was the one reconstructed after the flood that destroyed the original 1690s mill.[38] Either way, the mill built by William and Claus Rittenhouse to replace the original one was serviced by a mill race, which is seen in the survey. Mill races were man-made runs that diverted water from the natural stream to the mill wheel, which helped provide a steady water supply and allowed water to fall onto the overshot wheel and thus operate the mill more efficiently.[39] Burgeoning business necessitated the construction of a second mill (the third Rittenhouse mill building counting the original 1690 mill), which was built some time after Claus’s death in 1734 but before Lehman’s survey in 1764.[40]

A paper-making studio in Historic RittenhouseTown today provides a glimpse of the hard and lengthy process of making paper in the era of William Rittenhouse, though no documentary evidence of the operation of the Rittenhouse mills exists. From what we know of similar mills of the same period, the process of making paper began with the preparation of the raw material, the pulp made from water and shredded linen rags. A large stamping machine — a large cylinder studded with blocks — was turned by the water-powered mill wheel and pounded the linen until the fabric was dissolved into individual fibers. A vatman then dipped paper molds into large vats filled with the resulting pulp. Using a skilled yet backbreaking and repetitive motion, the vatman covered the wire screen in the molds more or less evenly with pulp (or “stuff”) and finally flicked off any superfluous “stuff.” Next, the so-called coucher had to turn over the molds and release the wet sheets on felt, cover them with more felt, and produce a pile of 144 sheets called a “post.” Once the sheets were sturdy enough to be removed, they would be hung on lines to be dried, subsequently pressed to make them smooth and even, dipped in a solution that prevented ink from seeping into the fibers, and then dried again.[41]

The mill produced several kinds and qualities of paper, including writing, printing, brown, and blue paper, as well as pasteboard.[42] The quality of the paper largely depended on the quality of the linen used to make the pulp. Watermarks were produced by working a certain wire pattern into the molds; Rittenhouse watermarks produced in the early years of the business variably include the initials WR (for William Rittenhouse), NR, or KR (for Nicholas or Klaus Rittenhouse). Some of them used the clover symbol, which Francis Daniel Pastorius inserted into his design for the seal of Germantown.[43] As a lasting testimony to Rittenhouse’s contribution to print culture and the larger social and cultural development of early America, some of the most important original documents of the British colonies bear the Rittenhouse watermark.

Social Status and Personality

A portrait of William Rittenhouse’s personality and social status can be drawn only by inferring from the outline of his life and accomplishments as well as his deep Mennonite faith. No direct descriptions of his character exist. We do not know whether Rittenhouse was a good husband and father in the modern sense, but he certainly provided well for his family by running a successful business, training his sons in his trade, and setting them, as well as extended family, up in his business operations, thus ensuring their future self-sufficiency.

Rittenhouse spent very nearly his entire life learning and practicing the papermaking trade, which was physically a very taxing occupation. His mobility in moving first to the Netherlands and then to Pennsylvania demonstrates that he was willing to take risks — both as an individual and as an entrepreneur. In Pennsylvania, his business acumen, craftsmanship, and products clearly earned the respect of his customers. The good reputation of his paper mill and its products reached Europe and crossed the Atlantic, again through promotional accounts written about the province. In his account of Pennsylvania, Gabriel Thomas, for example, stated that “[a]ll sorts of very good Paper are made in the German-Town.”[44] Bradford was continually eager to receive more Rittenhouse paper. On September 11, 1709, for example, he wrote to Claus Rittenhouse: “I have rec’d 16 Ream of printing paper from you; and a Letter at the same time. Since that I have rec’d Ten Ream more…. If you have more of the same sort of paper, pray let me have it…. I shall want some more of the large writing paper, pray let know how much you can make, I shall want six or seven Ream. If you want fine Rags, let me know it & I will send some by Land; for I must have 6 or 7 Ream of such paper as you made before me. Pray let me hear from you by the next Post.”[45] Certainly, the Rittenhouses profited from their monopoly on paper production in the colonies and the unreliability of shipments from Europe. Yet Bradford’s words betray his anxiety to receive more of the same quality of paper that the Rittenhouse mill produced.

Yet hard work and entrepreneurial success did not carry the same meaning for William Rittenhouse as they carry for us today. His worldly accomplishments likely mattered little to the devout Mennonite minister, who shunned any public office and until right before his death demurred attempts by Germantown and even Hamburg Mennonites to make him the first bishop or “elder” of their faith in the New World. Though not raised as a Mennonite, Rittenhouse spent many years in Amsterdam, one of the centers of Anabaptist religion in seventeenth-century Europe. Although the exact circumstances of his conversion are unknown, it is reasonable to imagine that a man so intimately connected to books and print culture would have admired one of the most monumental books published in seventeenth-century Europe (and the largest book ever printed in colonial America): Thieleman J. van Braght’s Martyrs’ Mirror, a collection of martyr stories from Christ to the last Anabaptist executions in his own century, printed in Amsterdam in 1685.[46] Van Braght’s collection was richly illustrated with Jan Luyken’s copper-plate prints, which contributed additional pathos to the story of the so-called “blood witnesses” who died as victims of religious intolerance and in defense of their fundamental principles — pacifism, rejection of loyalty oaths, adult baptism, the community of believers, a separation from the world, and hard work as a sign of acceptance of the yoke to be carried by anyone following Christ.[47] The “Fac et Spera” (“Arbeite und Hoffe” / “Work and Hope”) emblem on the title page of the Martyrs’ Mirror encapsulated the meaning of hard work for the Mennonites and other Anabaptists: an obedient acceptance of suffering as the result of mankind’s fall and human sinfulness, paired with a hope for salvation. One can easily transfer the image of the humble and hard-working “Anabaptist Adam” (as the man in the emblem came to be known) onto the Mennonite printer William Rittenhouse — continually building and rebuilding his business as an expression of faith and acceptance. Unlike New England Puritans and other Calvinists, however, Mennonites like Rittenhouse did not interpret work and worldly success as a sign or result of election. For Anabaptists, the rewards of salvation would be reaped in the afterlife. Thus, William Rittenhouse would not have considered himself a self-made man but rather a fallible being serving God to the best of his abilities.

Even though Rittenhouse had no theological training, his public stature, along with his ability to speak both German and Dutch, apparently qualified him to take on the role of minister in the inchoate Mennonite community in Pennsylvania. The first Mennonites, along with German and Dutch Quakers, had arrived in 1683 and were among the first settlers of Germantown. In the following two decades, Mennonites arrived from various geographic areas, including the Netherlands, the lower Rhine around Krefeld, the northern German states (especially Hamburg), and the Palatinate. Although the Germantown Mennonites started meeting in the house of Jacob van Bebber as early as 1690, it took until 1698 for Rittenhouse and another craftsman, the silversmith Jan deNys (or, Hans Neus), to be chosen as minister and deacon of the community.[48] Since Rittenhouse was not an ordained bishop, however, no one in the new Mennonite community was authorized to perform baptisms and communions. In 1702, the Germantown community wrote to their prominent brethren in Hamburg-Altona, requesting they send an ordained bishop. The Altona ministers, however, replied that the trip to America was too long and arduous, and the Germantown Mennonites should proceed — after due prayer — by ordaining a bishop from among their midst. Rittenhouse, unconvinced of the legitimacy of this commission, wrote to Altona again in 1706 and received the same answer. According to a later account by his assistant minister Jacob Gottschalk, Rittenhouse eventually resolved to fulfill the office of bishop but died before he could perform a communion or baptism.[49] Most historians agree that, without actually having performed either of the ordinances, Rittenhouse in effect did not become a Mennonite bishop.[50] Nevertheless, Rittenhouse had shepherded the community through its first several decades and most likely organized, shortly before his death, the construction of the Germantown Mennonite meetinghouse in 1708. The log structure was replaced in 1770 with the stone building that stands today.[51] A memorial monument in front of the meeting house honors Rittenhouse’s role in the settlement of Germantown and the development of the Mennonite community.

Immigrant Entrepreneurship

Scholarship on the formation of immigrant identity — including the development of German-American identity — usually distinguishes between the opposite poles of integration and ethnicization, with the former denoting Americanization and thus the assimilation of the immigrant into the mainstream culture, and the latter referring to the formation of a uniquely ethnic culture with characteristics distinguishable both from the homeland and the larger American society. Intriguingly, neither of these theories applies neatly to William Rittenhouse and the development of his business. Thus, understanding his success in a very inchoate American community rather contributes to a fundamentally different approach to the concept of immigrant identity in colonial America.

On the one hand, Rittenhouse did not come to America as part of a large, ethnically unified group of immigrants. Unlike the waves of German (“Palatine”) immigrants arriving in Philadelphia and other ports in the mid-eighteenth century and thus incurring the ire of Benjamin Franklin and other leaders fearful of non-English immigration, Rittenhouse and his fellow Mennonites and German or Dutch Quakers neither followed a well-established migration trajectory, nor could they have considered themselves as pioneers of one of the largest migration movements of the early-modern period. Thus, they did not yet come in sufficient numbers to establish a sense of separate ethnic immigrant identity. At the same time, Pennsylvania was a fledgling community in a great state of ethnic, political, religious, and social flux. In short, to speak of an “American” identity that immigrants could aspire to in a process of “Americanization” would be a gross anachronism for the province where Rittenhouse lived and worked between 1689 and 1708. Rather, Rittenhouse himself and his business emerged from a context of religious and social upheaval in seventeenth-century Europe, and he belonged to a large group of individuals seeking economic opportunity and religious freedom in a political age beset by tensions between the old order of the Holy Roman Empire and the new order of rising absolutist states and their overseas colonies. Rittenhouse and others developed flexible identities and skill sets — exemplified by his changing name, multiple languages, and a craft honed in Germany, the Netherlands, and America — that granted them success in the confusing landscape of the early-modern Atlantic world. In a New World settlement such as Pennsylvania, immigrants like Rittenhouse were not so much transformed by forces like “Americanization” or “ethnicization,” but they rather formed communities with traits resembling themselves and their transnational and translingual experiences.


William Rittenhouse succeeded in early Pennsylvania because he did not tie his services to, or choose his business partners from, a particular group, ethnicity, or religion, but rather sold a product and a reputation for quality across linguistic, ethnic, and religious divisions. Though a devout Mennonite, Rittenhouse became a respected community leader, who, through his trade, helped create networks across the British colonies. With his own transatlantic and translingual experiences, therefore, Rittenhouse placed a pluralistic stamp on a rising community whose features and qualities had yet to be fixed. On May 7, 1691, Rittenhouse was one of 60 leading citizens of Germantown to be naturalized as subjects of William III and Mary II of England. Yet even the text of the naturalization made it clear that this act turned the inhabitants not so much into Englishmen but Pennsylvanians. It was “William Penn, Proprietary of the Province of Pensilvania” who granted their new status “By the King & Queen’s authority,” making them “free men of the said province.”[52] Intriguingly, this “naturalization” granted Rittenhouse and the other “forreiners” citizenship of a community or province whose identity they had helped shape. Rittenhouse in particular participated in developing the society in which he was now a “freeman” by contributing literally and metaphorically the blank pages on which the identity of Pennsylvania and early America could be written, contested, and agreed upon. If, as historians like Jürgen Habermas (for Europe) and Mark Warner (for America) have argued, the development of print culture was indeed instrumental in the emergence of a public sphere in Western societies, then William Rittenhouse’s paper mill — the first in British North America — provided the material on which such a social and cultural revolution could unfold.[53]


[1] James N. Green, The Rittenhouse Mill and the Beginnings of Papermaking in America (Philadelphia: The Library Company, 1990), 3; Henk Voorn, “William Rittenhouse in Holland,” IPH-Yearbook 4 (1983/84): 314-23, here 316.

[2] Green, Rittenhouse Mill, 3; Voorn, “Rittenhouse in Holland,” 316.

[3] Voorn, “Rittenhouse in Holland,” 317.

[4] Ibid., 318.

[5] Thomas R. Brendle and Milton Rubincam, William Rittenhouse and Moses Dissinger: Two Eminent Pennsylvania Germans (Scottdale, Penn.: Herald Press, 1959), 27.

[6] Green, Rittenhouse Mill, 5.

[7] For a useful survey of varying motives for emigration among European Mennonites, see Richard K. MacMaster, Land, Piety, Peoplehood: The Establishment of Mennonite Communities in America, 1683-1790 (Scottdale, Penn.: Herald Press, 1985), 50-78.

[8] Rosalind J. Beiler, “Bridging the Gap: Cultural Mediators and the Structure of Transatlantic Communication,” in Atlantic Communications: The Media in American and German History from the Seventeenth to the Twentieth Century, eds. Norbert Finzsch and Ursula Lehmkuhl (Oxford: Berg Publishers, 2004), 45-64; Beiler, “Distributing Aid to Believers in Need: The Religious Foundations of Transatlantic Migration,” Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies 64 (1997): 73-87.

[9] William Penn, [Jacob Claus, translator?], Missive von William Penn, egenaar en gouverneur von Pennsylvania, in America: Geschreven aan de commissarissen van de Vrye societeyt der handelaars…(Amsterdam: J. Claus, 1684). For other documents of Pennsylvania’s founding and specifically Penn’s work in promoting the province in Germany and the Netherlands, see William Penn,The Papers of William Penn, eds. Richard S. Dunn and Mary Maples Dunn (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982).

[10] A letter from William Penn proprietary and governour of Pennsylvania in America: to the committe of the Free Society of Traders of that Province, residing in London… To which is added, an account of the city of Philadelphia ([London]: Andrew Sowle, 1683), 1, 9.

[11] William McCulloch, “Additions to Thomas’s History of Printing,” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 31 (1921): 89-247. For an assessment of McCulloch’s work in collecting the oral history of surviving members of the Rittenhouse family in the 1810s, see J. M. Duffin, “‘The First Successful Attempt to Rescue From Oblivion’ the History of the Rittenhouse Family and Their Paper Mills,” RittenhouseTown: A Journal of History 1.1 (2000): 20-41. Collections of the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society I, Marriages: Dutch Church, New York, 1639-1801 (1890), 67.

[12] “Explanation of the Original Location and General Plan or Draught of the Lands and Lots of Germantown,” compiled 1746, copied 1824, recopied ca. 1875, Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

[13] “Rittenhouse Paper Mill Lease, 1706,” “Rittenhouse Family Papers,” Library Company of Philadelphia.

[14] Green, Rittenhouse Mill, 8. Also see Alexander J. Wall, Jr., “William Bradford, Colonial Printer: A Tercentenary Review,” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 73.2 (1963), 361-384. All currency conversions in the article are based on the Retail Price Index, which offers a conservative estimate of currency inflation using the relative value of goods and services available to consumers at given time periods. Lawrence H. Officer and Samuel H. Williamson, “Six Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a U.K. Dollar Amount, 1270 to present,” MeasuringWorth, March 2011 (accessed 26 June 2012).

[15] Richard Frame, A Short Description of Pennsilvania (1692, reprinted Philadelphia: Oakwood Press, 1867).

[16] Horatio Gates Jones, “Historical Sketch of the Rittenhouse Papermill: The First Erected in America, A. D. 1690,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 20.3 (1896): 315-333, here 321.

[17] “Rittenhouse Paper Mill Lease, 1706.” “Rittenhouse Family Papers.” Library Company of Philadelphia.

[18] Qtd. in Green, Rittenhouse Mill, 9.

[19] George Allen, “Rittenhouse Paper Mill and Its Founder.” Mennonite Quarterly Review 16 (1942): 108-28, here 117.

[20] Green, Rittenhouse Mill, 23.

[21] Allen, “Rittenhouse Paper Mill,” 117.

[22] Qtd. in John Smolenski, Friends and Strangers: The Making of a Creole Culture in Colonial Pennsylvania (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010), 162. For a broader account of the Keithian schism and Bradford’s role in it, see Smolenski, Friends and Strangers, 149-177.

[23] The text of the original lease, now lost, is quoted in Jones, “Historical Sketch,” 323-324.

[24] Green, Rittenhouse Mill, 11; Lawrence H. Officer and Samuel H. Williamson, “Six Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a U.K. Dollar Amount, 1270 to present,” MeasuringWorth, March 2011 (accessed 26 June 2012).

[25] William Barton, Memoirs of the Life of David Rittenhouse (Philadelphia: Edward Parker, 1813), 83-84.

[26] Green, Rittenhouse Mill, 13.

[27] The letter is cited in Jones, but unfortunately appears to be lost. See Jones, “Historical Sketch,” 327-328. Jones mistakenly dates the letter July 12, 1708, by which time William Rittenhouse had already passed away. Claus Rittenhouse’s letter clearly responds to an extant letter by Bradford, written June 13th 1703. See Green, Rittenhouse Mill, 12.

[28] Qtd. in Jones, “Historical Sketch,” 327-328.

[29] Qtd. in Jones, “Historical Sketch,” 328. Appended to Claus’s letter to Bradford was a meticulous account of the materials saved from the destroyed mill and their respective value. By far the most valuable single item salvaged was the paper press, valued at £5.00, as well as 252 lbs. of iron worth £6.60.

[30] Green, Rittenhouse Mill, 13.

[31] William Bradford, “[F]friend Wm. Rittenhouse, New York June 13th. 1703,” Price Collection, Mrs. Robert R. Price, Jr. Centreville, Maryland; qtd. in Green, Rittenhouse Mill, 12.

[32] “Rittenhouse Paper Mill Lease, 1706,” Rittenhouse Family Papers, Library Company of Philadelphia.

[33] Green, Rittenhouse Mill, 13.

[34] J. C. Wenger, “Rittenhouse, William (1644-1708),” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1959. (accessed June 8, 2011).

[35] Allen, “Rittenhouse Paper Mill,” 125-126.

[36] Green, Rittenhouse Mill, 21-22; Allen, “Rittenhouse Paper Mill,” 126.

[37] John Bidwell, “Printers’ Supplies and Capitalization,” in The Colonial Book in the Atlantic World, vol. I, A History of the Book in America, eds. Hugh Amory and David D. Hall (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 163-183, here 176.

[38] Christian Lehman survey, 1764 (confirmed 1772), Lehman Papers, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

[39] Green, Rittenhouse Mill, 23.

[40]Historic RittenhouseTown: A National Historic Landmark,” Friends of Historic RittenhouseTown (accessed June 20, 2011). The remaining buildings are today maintained by the Friends of Historic RittenhouseTown, Inc.; though missing a mill building, the site preserves several structures built by the Rittenhouse family in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as well as remnants of the textile milling operations and worker settlement known as RittenhouseTown in the nineteenth century.

[41] Brendle and Rubincam, William Rittenhouse, 42-43; Green, “Rittenhouse Paper Mill,” 14-17.

[42] Allen, “Rittenhouse Paper Mill,” 119.

[43] Ibid., 119-122; Green, Rittenhouse Mill, 17-19.

[44] Gabriel Thomas, An Historical and Geographical Account of the Province and Country of Pensilvania; and of West-New-Jersey in America…. (London: A. Baldwin, 1698), 42.

[45] Qtd. in Green, Rittenhouse Mill, 20.

[46] Thieleman J. van Braght, Het Bloedig Tooneel, of Martelaers Spiegel der Doops-Gesinde of Weereloose Christenen… (Amsterdam: J. vander Deyster, H. vanden Berg, Jan Blom, S. Swart, S. Wybrands, and A. Ossaan, 1685).

[47] Julia Kasdorf, “‘Work and Hope’: Tradition and Translation of an Anabaptist Adam,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 69 (1995): 178-204.

[48] John L. Ruth, “A Christian Settlement ‘in Antiquam Silvam’: The Emigration from Krefeld to Pennsylvania in 1683 and the Mennonite Community of Germantown,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 57 (1983): 307-31, here 320, 322.

[49] H. S. Bender, “… A Reply to Dr. Kephart.” Mennonite Quarterly Review 18 (1944): 55-58; Bender, “Was William Rittenhouse the First Mennonite Bishop in America?” Mennonite Quarterly Review 18 (1944): 42-47; Bender, “William Rittenhouse, 1644-1708: First Mennonite Minister in America,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 8 (1934): 58-61; Calvin I. Kephart, “William Rittenhouse, First Mennonite Bishop in America,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 18 (1944): 49-55.

[50] Ruth, “Christian Settlement,” 322-323, 325; Wenger, “Rittenhouse, William.”

[51] MacMaster, Land, Piety, Peoplehood, 47.

[52] Qtd. in J. M. Duffin, ed., Acta Germanopolis: Records of the Corporation of Germantown, Pennsylvania, 1691-1707 (Philadelphia: Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania, 2008), 483-484.

[53] Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, trans. Thomas Burger (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press,

1989.); Michael Warner, The Letters of the Republic: Publication and the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-Century America (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1990).

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title William Rittenhouse
  • Coverage 1644-1708
  • Author
  • Website Name Immigrant Entrepreneurship
  • URL
  • Access Date May 20, 2024
  • Publisher German Historical Institute
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update August 22, 2018