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History often tangles us up in battles, polemics and gods. Not so the story of the Wistar family, from their colonial Philadelphia and West New Jersey businesses through the DNA passed today between lab rats. Although the family lacks its former “household name” status, the Wistars remain among the most celebrated families to have called the middle colonies and Mid-Atlantic States home. Wistar genealogy and social circles spin you through names like Franklin, Bache, Trist, and Jefferson, to name but a few. Family members built fortunes though business, rose to international prominence for medical and scientific achievements, received accolades for their philanthropy, chaired learned societies, ascended the ranks of Freemasonry and exposed social injustice, becoming particularly vocal during abolition and prison reform debates.

 

Caspar Wistar and America‘s First Profitable Glass Factory

 

glass factory

A Furnace at the Glass Factory

Caspar was the first Wistar to emigrate from Germany to America. He arrived in 1717, virtually broke, with nine pence and a rifle, and settled in the area between Berks County and Philadelphia. Caspar, always industrious, made soap, and bootstrapped and brokered real estate deals to save enough to purchase a furnace and, next, a forge in Berks County. With the forge, Caspar built a very profitable business, manufacturing high quality brass buttons, a staple of period apparel.

Wistarburgh GlassThe rising young businessman joined the Society of Friends and married wisely, wedding a wealthy Quaker, Catherine Jansen. Associating with the Society of Friends would prove opportune, especially during the middle years of operations at the Wistar Glass Works in Wistarburgh, in Salem County, New Jersey. At Wistarburgh, Caspar built the very first glass factory in America to achieve sustained profitability.

Caspar opened a retail store on Market Street in Philadelphia, quite close to the home of Ben Franklin, with whom he became good friends. Caspar died one of the leading merchants and wealthiest men in the middle colonies, thanks to the button and brass works, sagacious real estate speculation, the landmark Wistarburgh glass business, and family operated retail outlets in New Jersey and New York. Caspar’s brother, Richard Wistar, ran the New York store.

Caspar Wistar, Wistarburgh, Ben Franklin

Ben Franklin's Electrostatic Generator

Wistarburgh pane glass and bottles were common in homes and businesses throughout the middle colonies. Wistar glass also enjoys the historic and scientific honor of having been made to specification for Benjamin Franklin, who incorporated Wistar glass in a variety of devices he designed for his experiments in electricity. Franklin tested his first lightning rod at Caspar Wistar’s house.

More on the Wistarburgh Glass Works


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Accomplished as the family members have been, a discussion of the Wistars is incomplete unless one can appreciate the tangle of relationships the family has forged since coming to America.

Sarah Franklin Bache

Catherine Wistar Bache, for example, represents multiple points of social and genealogical convergence. Take a few steps back from Catherine- we start at Benjamin Franklin. Ben had a daughter, Sarah. Sarah married Richard Bache who, upon Franklin’s removal, became the nation’s second Postmaster General. Sarah Franklin and Richard Bache had a son, Dr. William Bache. He was Ben Franklin’s grandson.

Franklin’s grandson married Catherine Wistar, whose brother was Dr. Caspar Wistar, the anatomist, and whose grandfather was the Caspar Wistar who built the Wistarburgh Glass business. Put another way, Ben and Caspar “Glass” Wistar, friends and neighbors, had grandchildren who married one another.

The year after they were married, yellow fever ravaged Philadelphia. William Bache’s brother, Benjamin, died. The Baches, Wistars and Franklins were all friends with Thomas Jefferson and, at his urging, Dr. William Bache and Catherine Wistar Bache moved to Monticello, where they lived for several months, before moving into a new house in Franklin, Virginia.

Their farm did not produce well enough to support the family. They had financial difficulties. William Bache asked President Jefferson for a government appointment, which he received in 1802. He cared for sick American seamen in New Orleans. Catherine Wistar Bache and their children – among them Benjamin Franklin Bache- returned to Philadelphia. The following year, William Bache became Surveyor of the Port of Philadelphia, where the family reunited.

As Milton Rubicam observes, the “career of the Wistars and Wisters has been a continuous adventure, a story of heroic men and gracious ladies, of philanthropists and scholars, of soldiers and authors, and of men and women with strong convictions of duty to their country and their community.” We have only rolled some highlight reels here.

owen wister the virginian

Map for The Virginian, by Owen Wister

We could just as easily have looked at Owen Wister, the author of The Virginian and who, some have argued, is the father of the American Western and who, said a NY Times critic, may have written “the American novel.” Owen Wister’s mother was Sarah Kemble, the daughter of the celebrated actress Fanny Kemble. At Harvard, Owen secured an interesting class reunion by becoming friends with Theodore Roosevelt, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Henry Cabot Lodge.


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