Meyer Guggenheim

2011-12-20 11:04:47

Identification: Swiss-born American industrialist

Born: February 1, 1828; Lengnau, Switzerland

Died: March 15, 1905; Palm Beach, Florida

Significance: Originally an impoverished Jewish peddler from Switzerland, Guggenheim built a worldwide mining conglomerate after immigrating to the United States.

Born during the early nineteenth century in a Jewish ghetto in the Aargau canton of Switzerland, Meyer Guggenheim worked as a traveling peddler in Switzerland and Germany. In 1848, Guggenheim immigrated to the United States at the age of twenty and settled in Philadelphia. In 1854, he married Barbara Meyers, whom he had met on the Atlantic voyage; they would have ten children.

Guggenheim’s remarkable rise in the world of industry bore several marks of his immigrant background. His success as a peddler of stove polish and instant coffee to Pennsylvania Dutch miners and farmers was helped by his native command of German. After acquiring capital through his grocery store, lye factory, and railroad speculation, Guggenheim relied on Swiss relatives to supply imported laces and embroideries at great profit. Free from the restrictions he faced as a Jew in Europe, Guggenheim tenaciously built an American business dynasty. He groomed his seven sons to advance his enterprises, sending them to schools in Zurich and Paris. Upon their return, he formed M. Guggenheim’s Sons in 1877, giving each son an equal share in the partnership.

Meyer Guggenheim Meyer Guggenheim. (The Granger Collection, NewYork)

Guggenheim acquired silver mines and smelting operations in Colorado, expanding into Monterrey, Mexico, in 1890. By the turn of the century, M. Guggenheim’s Sons dominated the American Smelting and Refining Trust and mining interests worldwide. Soon the Guggenheims relocated to mansions in New York City. Meyer Guggenheim died in 1905. The philanthropy that his descendants pursued during the twentieth century reflected Guggenheim’s cosmopolitan perspective and determination to make a permanent legacy in his adopted country.

Howard Bromberg

Further Reading

  • Davis, John H. The Guggenheims (1848-1988): An American Epic. New York: Shapolsky, 1988. 
  • Unger, Irwin, and Debi Unger. The Guggenheims: A Family History. New York: HarperCollins, 2005. 

See also: Anti-Semitism; Family businesses; Jewish immigrants; Marriage; New York City; Pennsylvania; Philadelphia; Swiss immigrants.