The contributions and achievements of German-Americans have through the centuries had a deep and lasting effect on how the United States has become the country that it is today. German immigrants, known for their hard work, thrift, practical skills, interest in the arts, crafts, and enjoyment of the good life, have definitely left their mark on American life and culture. Here we will highlight a few of the many German-Americans that played a prominent role in creating the United States as we know it today.
Many German immigrants contributed to transmitting and winning the freedoms that Americans are enjoying today. In 1735, the first key victory to gain freedom of the American press happened when John Peter Zenger, a journalist and printer with German-American roots, was granted the right by a jury to criticize the colonial government, and a Philadelphia-based German newspaper published the American Declaration of Independence first.
Prussian general Friedrich W. von Steuben trained Washington’s civilian soldiers in such a way that they became a disciplined force that could defeat the British troops. Some of the most notable Americans from German descent that shaped the U.S. military in a way that they could deal with later challenges are John Pershing (ancestral family name: Pfoerschin), and Dwight ‘Ike’ Eisenhower (grandson of Hans Nikolas Eisenhauer). Eisenhower is one of two U.S. Presidents that were of German descent (the other being Herbert Hoover).
Conestoga wagons were built in Pennsylvania by Germans to carry the American pioneers westward. Some wagons carried ‘Kentucky rifles’ that were also produced by Germans in Pennsylvania. Another leading American wagon builder of German descent, Clement Studebaker, in later years was producing the popular American car that was bearing his name.
Brooklyn Bridge, the famous century-old landmark, was built by John Roebling, a famed German engineer who had emigrated to the U.S. The bridge connected Brooklyn Manhattan, an island bought from the Indians by Peter Minuit, a German-born immigrant.
There are also numerous famous German-American leaders in the world of finance and business. Just look at the list with names like Boeing, Firestone, Astor, Chrysler, Fleischman, Heinz, Guggenheim, Hershey, Rockefeller, Kaiser, Steinway, Strauss (of Levi-Strauss), Singer (first: Reisinger), Wanamaker, Sulzberger, or Weyerhaeuser.
And in the world of science and technology, just take a look at the names of some more famous individuals like Bausch, Einstein, Lomb, Westinghouse, Mergenthaler, or Steinmetz, and also Wernher von Braun, who did a great job in helping the Americans gain a leading role in technology. Read also this post about the first German settlers in America.
When we look at the world of sports, we can find legendary baseball players with German roots such as Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Casey Stengel, or Lou Gehrig, and in swimming, we can see champions such as Johnny Weissmuller and Gertrude Ederle.
In literature, we can find celebrities like the inimitable Theodor Seuss Geisel (‘Dr. Seuss’), the author of more than forty children’s books, John Steinbeck, Theodore Dreiser, Thomas Mann, and Kurt Vonnegut. When it comes to noteworthy journalists, we come across named such as Walter Lippmann, H. L. Mencken, Adolph Ochs, Charles Schulz (famed for ‘Peanuts’), Rudolf Dirks (the creator of ‘Katzenjammer Kids’), and Thomas Nast, the cartoonist who was born in Germany and got to world fame for creating the popular images of Santa Claus and Uncle Sam, and who also created the elephant and the donkey, the characteristic symbols for the two major political parties.
Famous are also the piano and organ builders Steinway, Knabe, and Wurlitzer, but the world of music has given us also Leopold & Walter Damrosch, John Philip Sousa, Bruno Walter, Oscar Hammerstein, Arnold Schoenberg, Kurt Weill, and Paul Hindemith. The field of theater has produced a long list of famous German-American directors, performers, and playwrights, for example, Bertolt Brecht, Fritz Lang, Ernst Lubitsch, Otto Preminger, Billy Wilder, Eric von Stroheim, and the unforgettable Marlene Dietrich.
Also, the visual arts have some German geniuses. Famous German-born or German-descent painters Emanuel Leutz (known for ‘Washington Crossing the Delaware’), Albert Bierstadt (who painted the beauty of America’s West), and more present-day celebrities like Max Beckmann, George Grosz, Hans Hofmann, Roy Lichtenstein, Lyonel Feininger, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, and Erwin Panofsky, the famed art critic.
Let’s also not forget to mention a few giants of photography: Alfred Eisenstaedt and Alfred Stieglitz were of German descent, and the architecture in America was strongly influenced by the German immigrants Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius. Pretty important names also include Schaefer Schlitz, Stroh, Miller, Budweiser, Coors, and Anheuser-Busch as they are all synonyms for beer-brewing families in the traditional German way.
Here are ten German you (maybe) didn’t know about:
- The Light Bulb – Heinrich Göbel actually invented the incandescent light bulb more than 25 years before Thomas Edison. But Göbel forgot to get a patent for his invention. Though Göbel was born and raised in Germany, he actually developed his great idea in the U.S.
- Disney Activities – Disney is full of German-based things, from Cinderella, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Rapunzel, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty to constructing a replica of the Bavarian Neuschwanstein Castle, all Disney theme parks and movies are relying heavily on German heritage and culture.
- Easter Egg Hunting – The tradition of hiding and hunting Easter eggs comes from Southern Germany. Though it’s true that the Easter bunny eggs legend had been around in other parts of Europe for some time, in Germany they stepped the tradition up a notch or two’.
- The Easter Bunny – The Easter Bunny as we know it these days first showed up in 16th-century German books. During the 1700s, Dutch settlers in Pennsylvania brought the Easter Bunny tradition with them to America. The immigrants’ children believed the Easter Bunny would lay treats and eggs if they behaved well.
- The Christmas Tree – Decorating the Tannenbaum (another German word) goes back all the way to 16th-century Germany and the Germans started the tradition of decorating the trees. Eventually, the idea spread all through the Christian world.
- The Ring Binder – The ring binder that we all use so extensively was invented in Germany. It was Friedrich Soennecken from Bonn that came up with this great invention that he patented in 1886. The great innovative idea of adding a hole to the binder’s cover was also a German invention by Louis Leitz.
- Chicken Fried Steak – The origin of this plate swamping, delicious, treat is not so clear’but it is generally believed that it was brought to America by Austrian and German immigrants who initially introduced us to the Wiener Schnitzel recipe. Later, the Americans smothered it in heavy gravy. It is said that it was first named Chicken Fried Steak (as opposed to Wiener Schnitzel) when the U.S. got involved in the war with Germany.
- The Advent Calendar – German Lutherans introduced this Christmas tradition in the early 19th century. The idea of the calendar was actually pretty simple: a way to count days until it was Christmas. In the early 20th century, Gerhard Lang actually printed the Advent Calendar for the first time.
- The Gingerbread House – Gingerbread houses were first seen in Grimm’s Hansel and Gretel Fairy Tale. Later, they also appeared in a German opera with the same title. In German Opera Houses, it then became a Christmas holiday tradition to come up with miniature gingerbread house replicas, a tradition that spread eventually, into German homes.
- The Prefab House – Prefabricated houses were invented in Germany as well. Warner Sell, a Berlin resident, invented the trailer home when, after WWII, the U.S. forces that occupied Germany needed a place to live. His company sold more than 5000 of these prefab houses for the American soldiers.