Symbolic Schmitt

A Visual Tribute

Schmitt (Schmidt) is a very common surname in the U.S.— often changed to Smith. It is as common as Wagner or Schneider. But its origins in Germany have defined threads of individual sources. No matter which chosen, this Schmitt story represents the German immigrant experience. Their dreams and their choices defined the communities they helped to build.

My Schmitt line is both well-documented and civically active. They were builders, and tended to move into new houses, and live in them for a long time. Overall, they were witnesses and participants in historical changes, formed by overlooked aspects of German politics. Most importantly, they give a face to experiences shared by many American ancestors, and demonstrate a seldom examined fate.

I have created a series of illustrations to express the evolution of this Schmitt branch. I have developed this theme in segments:

A Boast of Modesty” describes the inspiration behind the illustrations. History can show the extraordinary in the ordinary, and study reveals what is carried forward and what is lost. A family’s history can be displayed through the places they lived—the architecture and the circumstances surrounding. This illustration, of a modest house in Züsch Germany, expresses this interplay of influences. The Schmitt family lived in this ironworking community for 200 years.

Specific Schmitt: Surname Origin” traces the history of this Schmitt line back to Meisenheim in the late 1400s. A family of blacksmiths, the descendants branched out to nearby communities through opportunity. These three illustrations encapsulate the beginning and evolution of this quintessential Southwestern German family. Riding through the changes imposed by circumstances, they searched for improvement and committed to progressive values. Their homes, vintage today, were cutting-edge modern for their era.

Pioneer Schmitt: A Visual Biography” portrays Johann Peter Schmitt, a pioneer to Chicago. The family exemplified the tensions in Germany as they experienced tragic losses. To protect his young sons, Peter fled with his wife and younger children from Germany in 1840. Welcomed into the pioneering community just north of Chicago, they bought enough land on “the Ridge” to farm. Through three decades, the family flourished through transition from farming in Grosspoint to building greenhouses in Ridgeville to selling land in Chicago, without moving. Uncle Peter grew from rough log cabin to elegant house on the hill.

Biography in Buildings” puts the series of six biographical images together. From the 1500s to the 1800s, the history of the Schmitt family is represented by these six homes. Because most preserved landmark architecture consists of famous or wealthy structures, the everyday vintage homes can be the most endangered. And, although there are no photographs of the earlier structures now lost, there are examples in the same places from the right times that ancestors would recognize. Then, in America, the Schmitt family bought acres of wilderness that they evolved through the next hundred years. First cleared for lumber used in building, the land was farmed, sold off into lots when the farming business transformed into the building business, the property eventually became a family home that still graces the hill over the ancient ridge trail. This series displays the transition of a quintessential American experience.always inspired, Liane


The history of the Schmitt family is ubiquitous. As their “Schmitt” name is common, they also share experiences that are part of almost every American’s family tree. Schmitt descendants left oppression for the freedom of choice. The patterns of prosperity and devastation in their homeland became intolerable—especially when there was an escape. All immigrants to the United States do want the same things: opportunity, prosperity, and a better life for the next generations.

The Schmitt family is unique in how much they exemplify these qualities. As people with deep convictions, they stood up for their beliefs and helped to shape their communities. Their achievement, versus their names, can be found in the history books. Theirs is a story of building, developing industry, following opportunities, participating in change, and taking risks. They hold a mirror up to ourselves. Their story is both worth remembering and honoring.

CONTACT: Liane Sebastian