February 1, 2016

Before the Sarah Wistar Quilt: Researching Her Ancestors

One of the unique features of the Sarah Wistar Quilt at the International Quilt Study Center & Museum is a block displaying an annotated, pen-drawn family tree.

Portion of the Sarah Wistar Quilt showing her family tree between two eight-pointed
stars.  International Quilt Study Center & Museum, Lincoln, Nebraska, 2005.059.0001.
Photograph courtesy of the International Quilt Study Center & Museum.
 
Detail of the Sarah Wistar Quilt showing the pen-drawn, annotated family tree block.
Photograph courtesy of the International Quilt Study Center & Museum.



The large circle on the trunk of the tree contains the names of Caspar Wistar, the progenitor of this line of the Wistar family, and his wife, Catherine Jansen (Johnson) Wistar.  Sarah Wistar, recipient of the Sarah Wistar Quilt, was the daughter of Richard Wistar, Caspar's grandson and Richard's wife Sarah Morris Wistar.

Caspar immigrated to Philadelphia in September, 1717 from a small farming community called Hilsbach in Baden, Germany.  His father made his living as a forester and huntsman to the Elector Palatine and, by tradition, had the authority to pass his position on to his oldest son.  Caspar, however, had greater plans for himself and embarked for the New World at age twenty-one hoping to establish himself there as a man of wealth and distinction.  Just how he was going to do this, with only nine pence in his pocket upon arrival and lacking knowledge of the English language, remained to be seen.

Caspar went to work on the docks of Philadelphia hauling ashes to earn a little money.  Somehow, he encountered someone who taught him how to make brass buttons and he developed a successful button business catering primarily to the working classes of Philadelphia.  His buttons, a necessary and highly sought after eighteenth century product, gained renown for their durability and the quality of their workmanship.  When sold outside of Philadelphia, Caspar's buttons were referred to as "Philadelphia buttons."

Within four years after arrival, the success of Caspar's button business enabled him to purchase a house and a lot on Market Street in Philadelphia and, by 1724, he was engaged in a secondary career buying and selling real estate to German immigrants.  He was also ready to start a family of his own.  In 1725, he joined the Religious Society of Friends, not only to marry Catherine Jansen, a member of a prominent Germantown Quaker family, but also to become closely associated with the Philadelphia community of wealthy Quaker merchants.  He and Catherine were married at the Abington Monthly Meeting house in 1726.  Over the years, they had seven children, six of whom lived to adulthood.

Early print of the Abington Meeting House.
 
After his marriage, Caspar continued to expand his entrepreneurial activities by importing goods from Germany for sale in Philadelphia and, in 1739, establishing a glass manufacturing business in partnership with four glass blowers who had emigrated from Germany.  They called their enterprise the United Glass Company.  There had been other attempts to establish domestic glass making in the Colonies, but these failed for various reasons, not the least of which were the pre-Revolutionary trade restrictions imposed by the British government to prevent competition with goods manufactured in Britain.   
 
Caspar located the glassworks on a 2,000 acre parcel of land he purchased in 1738 along Alloways Creek near Salem, New Jersey.  Before long, a small town named Wistarburg grew up around the glassworks and the glass manufactured there became know as Wistarburg glass.
 
Road sign placed where the Wistarburg factory once stood.  Source of
image: Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic; author Nancy Chambers.
 
The manufactory produced mainly window glass and bottles, for which there was high demand.  Ensa Kummer (see sources) reports that the glassworks produced 15,000 bottles a year.  Needless to say, Wistarburg bottles are highly collectible antiques - many were produced but many were also broken and those that have survived fully intact are greatly sought after.
 
Examples of Wistarburg glass bottles displayed at the site of the old Wistarburg glassworks.
Source of image:  "The United Glass Company located at Wistarburgh," Part 1 by Stephen Atkinson
published on the Internet by Ferdinand Meyer V, President , Federation of Historical Bottle
Collectors and Peachridge Glass,
 
Caspar Wistar passed away in 1752 and the glass business and its sixty employees were taken over by his son Richard.  It continued operations in the early years of the Revolution but seems to have been shut down for a time in 1776 or 1777.  In 1780, Richard put the manufacturing complex up for sale and the Wheaton Arts Center article cited below provides this sales description of the property and glassworks.
 
"The GLASS MANUFACTORY in Salem county, West Jersey, is for sale, with 1500 Acres of Land adjoining.  It contains two Furnaces, with all the necessary Ovens for cooling the Glass, drying Wood, &c.  Contiguous to the Manufactory are two flatting Ovens in separate Houses, a Store-house, Pot-house, a House fitted with tables for the cutting of Glass, a stamping Mill, a rolling Mill for the preparing of Clay for making of Pots, and at a suitable distance are ten Dwelling houses for the Workmen; as likewise a large Mansion-house containing six Rooms on a Floor, with Bakehouse and Washhouse.  Also a convenient Store-house.[...] There are about 250 acres of cleared Land within fence, 100 whereof is mowable meadow, which produces hay and pasturage sufficient for a large stock of cattle and horses employed by the Manufactory.  There is Stabling sufficient for 60 head of cattle, with a large Barn, Granary, and Waggon-house.  The unimproved Land is well wooded, and 200 Acres more of meadow may be made.  The situation and conveniency for procuring materials, is equal if not superior to any place in Jersey."
 
Richard died in 1781, before the property sold, and it then passed to his widow and children The manufactory had, by then, begun to produce glass once more but all production ceased in 1782.
 
Caspar Wistar, the German forester's son who hoped for a better life in the New World died at age fifty-six a wealthy and prominent merchant of Philadelphia.  His button manufacturing business was still thriving at the time of his death, as was the United Glass Company he founded with four fellow-German immigrants.  He owned several farms and large parcels of land in three counties of Pennsylvania and had assets totaling 60,000 pounds, close to three times the amount held by most of Philadelphia's wealthy merchant class.  Further, Caspar took his membership in the Religious Society of Friends seriously, producing a line of Quaker descendants who contributed much to the city of Philadelphia and the history of the Religious Society of Friends.  Sarah Wistar, as a member of the Female Society of Philadelphia for the Relief and Employment of the Poor, was just one of these descendants.
 
The Sarah Wistar Quilt.  International Quilt Study Center & Museum, Lincoln, Nebraska. 
Photograph by Lynda Salter Chenoweth.
 
Sources:
 
Anonymous. Wistar Family" A Genealogy of the Descendants of Caspar Wistar, Emigrant in 1717.  Compiled by Richard Wistar Davids, Philadelphia, 1896.
 
Author not cited.  "The Wistars and Their Glass 1739-1777."  Wheaton Arts and Cultural Center, 1989. 
 
Kummer, Ensa  "Caspar Wistar (1696-1752". At Immigrant Entrepreneurship, February 16, 2011. 
 
Palmer, Arlene.  "Glass Production in Eighteenth Century America: The Wistarburgh Enterprise."  In Winterthur Portfolio, Vol. 11 (1976), pp. 75-101.
 
(c) Lynda Salter Chenoweth and Mary Holton Robare, 2016.
 

 
 
 
 


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