Origin of the surname MEISSNER

The German surname Mei▀ner is usually traced to the town Meissen or Mei▀en (near Dresden) where porcelain was first produced in Europe (around 1700). According Hans Bahlow, a famous German onomastician, the name of the town originates from the Slavic word 'Misna' = 'Sumpfort' (English: place of swamp, marshland). The porcelain factory in Meissen is on the bank of the Misna river.

There are a few other places in Germany with the same name. Mei▀en is the name of a principality; and there is a mountain named Mei▀en in northern Hesse, and a nearby community 37290 Mei▀en.

MEISSNER or MEINER is the most frequent spelling in Germany, with more than 12,000 entries (combined) in the German phone book. Other common spellings are MEIXNER (about 2,000 entries) and MEICHSNER (some 700 entries). The latter two are especially common in the border region near Bohemia (now Czech Republic).

In Germany the name is almost never spelled with a single S, as MEISNER, but this spelling is quite common in America.

[The foregoing is a composite from postings by Iwos <iwos@mninter.net>; Michael Glueckert <W.M.Glueckert@t-online.de>; Johannes Sempert <onomastician@iname.com>; and Eberhard <etz_bln@hotmail.com>]


The question, "What was my great-grandfather's middle name?" is not as simple as you might think.
The first problem is that your great grandfather might not have known how to read and write. A recent book, quoting studies of wills made in the USA before about 1800, states that about 80 percent were signed with an X. Of course, there were many who knew how to write but were too sick to sign their wills; but on the other hand, a lot of illiterate people did not make any will at all.

Literacy statistics are not the point. What is hard for us modern folks to understand is that "in those days" (say, before 1800) oral communication was dominant over written communication. Words, including people's names, were intended mainly to be spoken, not written. The essence of a word was its sound; the written symbol was only useful for remembering the sound. Chances are, your great-grandfather would consider "How do you spell your name?" to be a meaningless question: "I never spell it myself, I just write an X. You can spell it any way you want; just call me by my name, Hezekiah."

We have heard that at Ellis Island immigrants were asked their names and the immigration official wrote down something that approximated what he heard. This may have been true for some illiterate immigrants, but it now seems that most commonly an immigrant family entered the United States under the same name they used in Europe, and changed it soon after settling in an American community.

The second problem is that your grandfather may have been born on the American frontier.

Educated immigrants, as well as many of the descendants of aristocratic families, were already keeping careful records several hundred years ago. But on the frontier, facilities for registering births, deaths, and marriages were extremely rudimentary. There were no county court houses; the only church was a circuit rider under a grove of trees; and grave markers were insubstantial pine boards.

One fairly reliable data source from this era was the family Bible. Births, deaths, and marriages were recorded as they occurred, with reasonable accuracy.

 US census records are very useful, but they are well known for their inaccuracies. Listed ages and their implied dates of birth can vary widely from one decennial census to the next.

We should not be surprised to find that some ancestors didn't even spell their own name the same way throughout their life. A lot of my uncles, aunts, and grandparents changed the spellings of their names and added middle names or initials. It was easy to do and nobody cared, until much later when they went in the army or registered for Social Security or otherwise got involved with some part of the government bureaucracy that wanted to be able to identify them uniquely by their name (and other data such as date and place of birth, or names of parents).

Noah Webster's dictionary (1806) reflected the "new" idea that a word should always be spelled the same way. Social Security (1935) and registration requirements during World War II helped spread the idea that everyone should have a fixed NAME, they should always use the same name, and they should spell it the same way every time. To move into the culture of the 20th century, everybody had to get an automobile driving license, then a checking account, and then a credit card, all with the same fixed name. Our children take all of this for granted: they can't even enroll in kindergarten without a Social Security number.

The situation has improved tremendously in recent years, but the debate over the US Census for 2000 reminds us that there are still pockets where problems exist. (Soundex phonetic searching to the rescue! - back to oral communication.)


From some of the postings and personal email messages that I have read, it seems that [subscribers to Meissner-L Rootsweb Mailing List] may be about equally divided so far between MEISSNER and MEISNER. The "names" books say that MEISSNER means "from Meissen." This town, the site of the Meissen Porcelain Factory founded just after 1700, is a few miles from Dresden on the Elbe River.
I have always believed that MEISNER is really just a variant spelling. Telephone books in Germany intermix MEISSNER spelled with two "S" symbols along with MEI▀NER where the ▀ here represents German "ess-tset" - just another way of writing a double S. The single S is hardly ever seen in Germany. Many surnames have changed over the years, especially at the point of immigration to America, and I have supposed that this is what happened to the double S. Does anybody have any different information?
Frank Teller in Johanngeorgenstadt (the town in the mountains of Saxony that was founded by Meissners and Loebels about 1650) has compiled a list of mining claims from the time records were first kept, around 1600. His list includes a lot of different spellings, including Meichsner and (less common) Meich▀ner (with "ess-tset").

Based on their pronunciation, either of these latter two could have come over into English as "Meixner". Some of my ancestors probably used either of these spellings at one time or another. These mining records go back to a time before the Porcelain factory was founded, and I believe it is possible that the Meissners/Meichsners of Johanngeorgenstadt had NOT originally come from Meissen. It is possible that the original name was closer to Meichsner, and became "corrupted" to Meissner after Meissen became famous in the 18th century.

It must be recognized that "fixed spelling" of names is a rather recent concept, except perhaps among the aristocracy. I have heard that as recently as 1800, only 10 percent or less of wills were actually signed (the other 90% with X) - most ordinary people were illiterate. A name was defined by how it was pronounced, not by how it was spelled.

We should all remember not to get too excited about spelling: Until about 200 years ago most people could not write their own name. Except for aristocrats and clerks, a name was thought of as being spoken, not written. A person spelled his/her own name differently at different times, or spoke it orally to different clerks who wrote it differently each time. I once read in Ripley's "Believe it or not" that Shakespeare spelled his own name about 400 different ways.

This was especially true of illiterate or semi-literate immigrants to the US, at the point of immigration. As I have heard it, the immigration agent asked people for their names, and wrote down whatever the agent thought he heard. Apparently most people knew how their name should be spelled and made sure the agent got it right, but some did not. Maybe some of the Mei▀ners who used the special German "ess-tset" character were not able to explain it to the agent, so it got changed to a single S.

Later, people in the US often changed the spelling of their names. In my wife's family line, the earliest spelling we can find is Prichard. Then at some point most (but not all) of them changed to Pritchard, and later a few of them changed back. On my father's mother's side there is a similar mixture of Andrews/Andrus and of Bray/Brey. People could change their names quite easily until such institutions as Social Security and government registration of driver's licenses came into being.

So you can't rule out a potential ancestor just because his name was Meissner instead of Meisner or vice versa. Other spellings are Misner and Meixner. In the mining records of Johanngeorgenstadt around 1650 the most common spelling was Meichsner or Meich▀ner.

When I was growing up in California in the 1930s and 1940s, I got very tired of having to spell my name all the time, and hearing it mispronounced. (The double S seems to make people want to say Mess-ner or Miss-ner.) If I had lived 100 years ago, I would have been sorely tempted to change it to something like Misner. But after I found out a lot more about my ancestors, and about Meissen (Mei▀en) where the world's finest porcelain is made, I came to be very proud of the name. I teach my Meissner grandchildren to spell their name: M E I "Double-S" N E R. This is the way I heard my grandfather say it. And I explain about the German "ess-tset" character, which makes it kinda special.

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