Shaping Modern California. The Case of the Spreckels Family
Neuere/Neueste Geschichte
Immigrant Entrepreneurship. The German-American Experience in the 19th and 20th Century


Shaping Modern California. The Case of the Spreckels Family

Referent/in: Uwe Spiekermann, Washington


Claus Spreckels (1828-1908) and his sons John D. (1853-1296), Adolph (1857-1924), Claus A. (1858-1946), and Rudolph (1872-1958) formed the most successful German-American immigrant entrepreneur family of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Among German entrepreneurs, only Krupp had a higher fortune. The career of the “money-making genius”, Claus Spreckels, consisted of building and breaking monopolies in sugar, transport, gas and electricity, real estate and newspapers, banks, and breweries in the American West. From the beginning, his sons supported their father to create his western economic empire, although, since the early 1890s, they made their own experiences and fortunes. Rudolph became a dominant figure in California’s banking and infrastructure branches; Adolph sponsored, after a successful career in business, the arts. Claus A. established his own sugar plants on the US-East coast, while John D. is well known as a dominant figure in developing southern California, first of all San Diego, for real estate business and tourism. The paper will use a biographical approach to discuss central questions of American immigrant entrepreneurship. It will discuss, first, the family and ethnic background of business: What were the reasons for migration, the social origins and particular skills? What kind of ethnic and religious identities shaped entrepreneurship? Second, the paper will analyze the business development of the Spreckels family’s widespread investments. What were the entrepreneurial sources of their success? Did ethnic networks help to succeed? What kind of business strategies were used and developed? How did they handle the geographical, political, and social peculiarities of his time? Third, the relevance of immigrant entrepreneurship will be discussed. How and to what extent did the Spreckels become American entrepreneurs? Were the ties to their old Fatherland maintained, and were they relevant for their entrepreneurial success? What were the comparative advantages of an immigrant based in two different cultures? Although unique in their success, the career of the Spreckels family is, in many respects, typical for the formation of a new class of American economic elites – and a new kind of nation, based on the skills and virtues of immigrants from all over the world.