Wendelin Seng was born in 1828 or 1829, likely in Hesse (and more specifically, probably Hesse-Kassel), which later was annexed by Prussia and now is part of Germany.
In 1856, at the age of 27, Wendelin boarded the ship Weiland in Bremen, Germany, and sailed for New York. On the ship's passenger list, he reports his place of origin as "Hesse" and that his ultimate destination is Chicago. He reports his occupation as "weaver".
Here is the image of the actual passenger list:
Wendelin's name is 2nd from the bottom. I included other passengers to show a few things. 1) he shows his origin as Hessen (the German spelling), and not Prussia. 2) He appears to be traveling alone. There are no other Sengs with him and others near him do not also plan to travel from New York to Chicago. This tells me that he may have someone waiting for him in Chicago, but I did not find any evidence of this in my research.
The Weiland arrives in New York, New York on 12 May 1856. It is likely that Wendelin went through Ellis Island, but records from that time were destroyed in a fire.
Speaking of fire, it is sort of unfortunate that Wendelin migrates to Chicago. The Great Chicago Fire will also remove records of Wendelin's marriage after he arrives in Chicago. But more on that later. It is lucky that Chicago is a big city, because many records survive simply because they were exported out of the city, such as the city directories that were distributed nationwide. Also, Wendelin grows the Seng family to the degree that they become both influential and affluent within his lifetime, which means many family records and photos are available from the Chicago Historical Society as well as even by a simple Google search (which I realize is not original source material, and so I try to clarify when the information I have is secondhand).
As I mentioned, a major source of information that survives is Chicago city directories from the time. The first time I find Wendelin is in 1861, because this is the first directory in the database that I'm searching. He is occupied as a grocer, and appears to be the only Seng in town. I wonder why he was certain he was traveling to Chicago back in 1856. And why grocer, if his former occupation was a weaver? **update, 9-10-2015** The industrial revolution was putting weavers out of business. It's possible he had to leave Europe and the weaving occupation in order to find work.
One year later, 1862, it appears that Wendelin's younger brother John has joined him in Chicago.
The grocery store is now called "W. Seng & Bro". It appears they also live at the grocery store and it is located at the southwest corner of Cass and White, in Chicago. The 1863 directory shows the same thing.
One year later, the 1864 Chicago directory, things have changed a little. The "W." in the grocery store has been dropped. Now it's just "Seng & Bro". It looks like John still lives at the store at the corner of Cass and White, but Wendelin now has a separate address at 189 Cass. And what is "Seng's Block" with the address of "White, between Cass and Wolcott" referring to?
Somewhere around this time (1864-1865), I believe Wendelin married Agnes Baer. I mean, I know that he married Agnes Baer (I will show her obituary later), I'm just not sure of the date. But I'm led to believe through unsourced material, that it may have been 11 Oct 1864. It is almost a certainty that this was Wendelin's 2nd marriage, and that his first wife died. **update, 9-10-2015** His first wife may have been Christina Weidinger, and they almost certainly had a son named William Seng. William Seng is named in Agnes Baer's will as her "step-son". They also may have had a daughter Pauline Sabina Seng just a year before Christina's death, but I have no evidence proving this.
In 1865, one year after Wendelin marries Agnes Baer, we can see from the Chicago directory that things have evolved slightly again. Though there is no proof the marriage...Agnes is not listed - it looks like wives were not listed in directories at this time. The grocery store now has a street number - 234 Cass - which is also listed as the residence for both brothers again. Looks like Wendelin has moved out of 189 Cass. We also see 2 individuals by the name of John Seng. One of them is listed as a "clerk" at the grocery store and lives at 56 E. White, a different address from the other John Seng. Who is the other John?
Looking ahead to the 1900 census, I think I found a logical answer regarding the 2nd John. John and Wendelin have an older brother named Johannes. Johannes was born in 1924. I guessed that Johannes goes by "John". And in the 1900 census, the census takers recorded the year of immigration to the United States, and our Johannes John reports that he and his children arrived in 1864. Incidentally, in the 1870 census, Johannes John reports his birthplace as Hesse-Kassel.
The 1866 Chicago directory appears to be a yellow pages, of sorts. I checked the listings under "Grocers" and found there were a LOT of grocers in Chicago. But nothing for Seng.
The next directory we can refer to is from 1867.
The grocery store at 234 Cass is once again called "W. Seng & Bro". Younger brother John, the grocer, is now going by John T. Seng, to distinguish himself from older brother Johannes John. John T. still lives at the store. The older brother John has opened a furniture business with William Reichenbach. Wendelin has opened a 2nd business, where in addition to the grocery store he also deals in "drygoods" with J.C. Morper, evidently right next door to the grocery store. Family members Peter and Louisa Seng have joined the businesses. I think it's interesting that Miss Louisa is listed, but wives continue to remain unlisted.
There is no 1868 directory, but here is 1869. Johannes John's furniture store is now "John Seng & Bro", and additional family members have joined the various businesses. Also Wendelin has moved to a different residence.
Next in our timeline is the 1870 census. Here's Wendelin and Agnes and family:
He's age 40, now occupied as a furniture dealer. He reports that his real estate is valued at $20,000 and other personal estate at $15,000. This is significantly higher than any of his neighbors. His birthplace is now recorded as "Prussia". Hesse had been annexed by Prussia a few years earlier. He lives with his wife Agnes, age 25, born in Germany, 4 children, born in Illinois, and a female German servant who is age 25.
And here is the 1870 Chicago directory, showing a different home address from the one he had in 1869.
1873 directory, where it appears that Wendelin is now completely out of the grocery business and is full time in the upholstery business. W. Seng & Co. is a new business, operating out of yet another new address for Wendelin. The Great Chicago Fire was in 1871. I wonder if that is why everyone has a different address this time around.
One year later, 1874, the directory shows that W. Seng & Co has taken on a partner, William Hafner. Aaaaand, Wendelin has changed residences...again...
One year later, we have the 1875 Chicago directory, and here's a big change:
Wives continue to be unlisted. And yet, here is Agnes. Evidently she is a business owner! She has opened "A. Seng & Co" with William Hafner, an upholstery business located at 292 State. She and Wendelin still live at 373 N. Franklin (2 years in a row!), and Wendelin is no longer named as a business owner, but simply occupied as "upholsterer". Maybe he's finally brought his weaver skills out of retirement, but doesn't like being a manager.
Look how things have changed, only one year later, in the 1876 directory:
Wendelin's wife Agnes, and William Hafner, have taken on a 3rd partner and changed the name of the furniture business. The brothers John, John, and Wendelin still have their same occupations as last year but don't seem to be listed as business owners, yet again.
Not only is it interesting that Agnes is a business owner, I also note that she uses her given name "Agnes", rather than, "Mrs. W.P. Seng" which would have been the norm for that time.
The 1877 directory has no change.
In 1878, Shoen and Hafner are listed as specific officers of the slightly renamed "Mnfg. Co.". Neither Agnes nor Wendelin are listed as officers, but I don't know what that means exactly.
Here is the family in the 1880 census, 2 years later. Wendelin is 51 and reports his occupation as "manufacturer". He has 8 children, and for the first time we see Wendelin Jr. Also one servant lives with the family. In the 1880 census we don't get information on estate value, like we did in 1870.
Wendelin files for 2 patents (that I know of) in 1880: one for an "extension hinge for lounges", and one for "a folding leg for extension lounges".
The next Chicago directory is 2 years later in 1882.
W. Seng & Co has been re-established as a "chair fixtures" business, separate from Seng & Schoen Mnfg. Co.
Three years later, the 1885 Chicago directory. The 2 previous businesses are no longer listed, replaced simply by "Seng & Co", for furniture hardware, and Agnes Seng is named as the sole proprietor. Wendelin is listed as an employee of that store. Both store address and residence address have changed again.
Also in 1885 (August), Wendelin filed for a patent for a "table leaf support", and it was patented in Feb 1886. Here is a beautiful drawing of his table leaf support with his signature as the inventor.
You can read the full text of the patent by clicking here.
1887: Seng & Co is back in Wendelin's name, and they moved again. Again! I was going to look up all these addresses on Google Earth, but now I don't really feel like it. I know Wendelin and Agnes were affluent, because their home is featured in a current book titled North Shore Chicago: Houses of the Lakefront Suburbs 1890-1940. I would like to see a copy of this book, but print copies run around $75.
No changes in 1888 or 1889, and after that, the database I consulted seems to only have families with names starting with A-M.
Wendelin Seng dies on 22 July 1896, at the age of 67, and is buried in St. Boniface Cemetery in Chicago.
His son Wendelin Peter Seng continues in the family business.
Wendelin Peter Seng was born 4 Feb 1873 in Chicago. We last saw him as a little boy in the 1880 census. The 1890 census is lost, but here is the family in 1900. He is 26 and unmarried, living with widowed mother Agnes. Agnes reports that she has given birth to 8 children, 6 of whom are still living, and 5 of those are living with her. She also reports that she immigrated to the USA in 1851. There's a column for occupation, but for Agnes it is blank. Julius, the oldest son living with Agnes, "makes furniture", and though Wendelin is occupied at something, the census taker's handwriting is so atrocious I can't make it out.
2 years later, Wendelin Peter Seng marries Mary "Mae" Jane Barton. Here is his family in the 1910 census. He is 37, Mae is 29, and they have 4 children. He reports his occupation as superintendent at a furniture store. They have one live-in servant. I should mention that when census takers wrote "servant" they really meant it. That's not a term used for a renter. If the person was just a renter they wrote "boarder". Like this:
In 1917, he's listed in the Evanston phone book. Finally, wives are listed as well. His occupation is "manufacturer".
At some point around this time, Wendelin Peter Seng starts manufacturing car parts as well as furniture parts. He is a prolific inventor, following in his father's footsteps, and files for many patents.
For example, in 1912, he invents a car horn that goes in the steering wheel, meant to replace the existing bulb horns used at that time. As the (unverified) story goes, another inventor files for a patent for a steering wheel car horn around the same time. It is said that the situation was resolved amicably, with Seng conceding the patent to the other party, but winning sole manufacturing rights for the Seng Company.
In 1917, he files for a patent for something that sounds like a car brake, though I can't believe that cars didn't have brakes before then.
In 1920, he files for a patent for the car turn signal, which he calls a "telltale switch", again beautifully drawn here. The patent is finalized in 1926.
On the furniture side of the business, he patents the sofa bed, the "revolving davenport" (swivel chair), and new kind of piano bench that is suitable for use at both player pianos and standard pianos. This is in addition to several patents for devices and furniture parts as well.
In 1918, Wendelin Peter registers for the draft. And he reports that he is Vice President at the Seng Co.
On 31 May 1919, Wendelin Peter's mother Agnes passes away. Here is her obituary from the Chicago Tribune. This helps verify that her maiden name is Baer (although I admit this is still considered secondhand evidence).
**Update, 9-10-2015** We can now see some of Agnes Baer Seng's probate documents on ancestry.com. Included is her will, and the executor's bond. Her will was written in 1918. She reserves $600 for her funeral. Then she leaves $1000 to The Catholic Church Extension Society of the USA, and another $1000 to the Society of St. Vincent DePaul, of Chicago. She leaves $5000 to her "step-son" William J. Seng. If there was a stepdaughter by the name of Pauline Sabina, it seems she has not survived to 1918. Finally, Agnes lists her six surviving children, and indicates that the balance of her estate be divided among them in six equal shares. Her son Frank Joseph Seng is named as executor and trustee. I wasn't able to find a description of her property or itemization of her estate. However, Frank J. Seng is bonded for $500,000, and according to ancestry.com, the bond typically covered the value of the estate. So if my math is right, each of the six inherited $82,000, which is about $1.1 million in today's dollars.
In 1919, Wendelin Peter and his wife Mary "Mae" apply for a passport. Mae is unwell and her doctor recommends that she spend some time in Cuba. Passport applications are often pretty awesome, and this one lives up to my hopes. We get a photo, the doctor's note, and an affidavit on Seng Co. letterhead.
Poor Mae. Or, is she?
Here is the family in the 1920 census. See Edna Mary, age 14? That's Mike's grandmother. Now get this, WENDELIN PETER HAS THREE LIVE-IN SERVANTS.
THREE. Geez, each of his next door neighbors only has one. His brother Frank who lives a couple doors down only has 2. He has 3. And a ton of money. I really don't feel sorry for his wife at all even though she kinda has to keep track of 7 kids and what must be a huge house. A huge house with ZERO MORTGAGE, according to the 1920 census. 401 Lake Avenue. Let's look that up...
What luck...401 Lake Avenue was just sold in Aug 2014, so recent photos and records are available on real estate websites. The house was built in 1912, so that means Wendelin Peter was likely the first owner. The ballroom was added in 1917.
|401 Lake Ave in 2014|
|401 Lake Ave ballroom in 2014|
|401 Lake Ave in 2014|
Ten years later, in the 1930 census. They are still at 401 Lake Ave, and they still employ 3 servants (even though those kids are pretty grown up now).
But look, there are 3 new kids labeled "adopted", Two teen girls and a baby girl. And all 3 girls parents origins are listed as "unknown" and then that is sort of scratched out and replaced with "U.S." This tells me that the girls are probably not their nieces or cousins.
The $75,000 figure next to Wendelin's name refers to the value of his home. Even for what is likely a wealthy neighborhood, that's still a much higher number than any of his neighbors on this census page.
1940...another 10 years later...All but the youngest son Gerald have moved out. Wendelin is now 67 and his wife Mary "Mae" is 59. Adopted baby Marilyn is now 11, and hmmm, there is another "daughter" behind her, age 9, named Gwendolin. Adopted as well? I wonder where these girls came from. They have eliminated one servant and so now only have 2, and in 1940 they are listed as "maids". Wendelin reports that he is an executive at a hardware manufacturing company.
Wendelin Peter Seng died in October 1940, and is buried at All Saints Cemetery in Des Plaines, Illinois.
His obituary ran in the Chicago Daily Tribune.
More generations of Sengs continued to operate the Seng Co, where the primary focus (according to news articles I found in the Chicago Tribune archives) was on manufacturing parts for the sofa bed.