Abstract: Keuffel & Esser: German-American Entrepreneurship and Opportunity in Wartime

Christina A. Ziegler-McPherson


Keuffel & Esser Company (K&E) was founded by German immigrants Wilhelm J. D. Keuffel and Hermann Esser and manufactured high-quality surveying, drafting, and calculating tools for architects, engineers, surveyors, and building contractors in Hoboken, New Jersey, between 1875 and 1967. By the start of World War I in 1914, both Keuffel and Esser had died, leaving ownership and management of the business to their American-born sons and naturalized sons-in-law. K&E began making optical equipment for the U.S. Navy, using glass imported from Germany, in the early 1910s, but began experimenting with its own manufacture of optical glass at the urging of the National Bureau of Standards. When the United States entered the war in April 1917, Hoboken was made the main port of embarkation for the American Expeditionary Force, and many German-owned businesses were either seized or shut down by the U.S. government. This paper argues that the American citizenship of K&E's owners protected the firm from confiscation, and helped K&E win valuable contracts from the Navy to make optical glass for telescopes, periscopes, and other sighting and targeting tools. Although K&E employed many German craftspeople, the location of its factory away from the militarized waterfront meant that it did not have to purge German employees.