Altman Surname, Meaning, History & Origin

Altman Surname Meaning

Altman, formerly Altmann, is a German and Jewish surname.  The name has derived from the German word alt meaning “old.”  A better term is probably “elder,” either being a differentiation from the “younger” or a mark of respect for an elder member of the community.

Altman Surname Resources on The Internet

Altman Surname Ancestry

  • from Southern Germany and from Jewish emigrants
  • to America and Canada

The Altmann numbers in Germany today are around 22,000, spread around the country.  The larger numbers now and in the past have been in the south, in the Rhine-Palatine and Bavaria.  The Altmann name also extended into Austria and Switzerland. 

Johann Georg Altmann, for instance, was a notable Swiss Protestant theologian of the early 1700’s; and Anton Altmann from Vienna a 19th century landscape painter. 

Jewish Altmanns, now sharply curtailed, were prevalent in Germany and Poland; as well as in enclaves such as Galicia (now part of Ukraine) and Liberec (now part of the Czech Republic).

America.  A number of Altmans seeking religious freedom had left their homes in Germany in the mid-1700’s for Pennsylvania.  In the 1840 census there were 27 Altman families in Pennsylvania, the highest state number for Altmans in America at that time.

Pennsylvania.  Several Altmans sailed on the Phoenix which arrived in Philadelphia in 1749. William and his wife Barbara first settled in Virginia and then in 1767 moved to Hempfield township in Westmoreland county, Pennsylvania.  Later Altmans migrated to Ohio and Illinois.  Some Ohio lines became Aultman.

Many of these Altmans were covered in Joseph Kellogg’s 1943 book The Altman Family; while James Sherlock’s 1996 book The Pioneering Altmans described their life on the frontier in Pennsylvania and Ohio.

Elsewhere.  Thomas Altman’s parents or origins are unknown.  He was born around 1738 in Johnston county, North Carolina and lived there most of his life. His descendants remained in Johnston county including his son Nathan, an executor of his will in 1795.

Meanwhile John Altman sometimes Aultman was born in South Carolina, possibly Orangeburg, around 1740.  His son David moved to Georgia in the 1820’s.  Other Altmans were to be found in Marion and Williamsburg counties – starting with John Calvin Altman who was born in Marion around 1790. He and his wife Martha raised fifteen children.  One of their sons Lorenzo became a clergyman.

A later arrival was Clement Altmann from Schleswig-Holstein.  He came to America in 1852 with two brothers who were both stricken with cholera on the voyage across and died at sea.  Clement settled in Quincy, Illinois.  He and his wife Wilhelmina raised nine children, the most prominent of them being the fourth-born Frank.

Fully Americanized, Frank started a jewelry store in Kansas City, Missouri, invested in real estate, and dropped the second “n” from his name.  His grandson is the film director Robert Altman.

Jewish.  Two Jewish Altmans from Germany made it to New York prior to the American Civil War.

Philip and Cecelia Altman, Bavarian Jews from Nuremberg, came around 1835 and started a small dry goods store in Manhattan.  Their son Benjamin, born in 1840, later started his own store. Over the years the store grew in prosperity and expanded to several locations, including Fifth Avenue in 1906.  B. Altman and Company became one of the premier department stores of Manhattan. Benjamin died in 1913 a rich man and a benefactor to his city.

Abraham Altman from Wurttemberg was less fortunate.  He started up a clothing firm in Buffalo in 1857 and the Civil War made him rich.  He built himself a lavish mansion and aspired to the highest rank of Buffalo society.  But after his son died in a riding accident in 1879 he fell into a depression and died in 1888 a broken man.

Two much more recent Jewish Altmans – who in both cases have made it big in California – are:

  • Sam Altman from St. Louis as a tech entrepreneur in Silicon Valley.  He is the young CEO of OpenAI who startled the world with the release of ChatGPT to the public in November 2022.
  • and Josh and Matt Altman from Massachusetts who carved out a niche in the Los Angeles high-end property market.  As the Altman Brothers, they are among the top producing real estate agents in the country.

Canada.  Victor and Ray Altman were Jewish immigrants to Canada, each coming from Eastern Europe as young adults in the 1920’s.  Victor, born in Ukraine, had been a worker on a collective farm in the Soviet Union. He supported his family in Canada by running a small grocery store in Montreal.  Their son Sidney was able to attend college and in time earned recognition as a molecular biologist.  He shared the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1989.

Jack and Helena Altman were Holocaust survivors in Europe who eventually made it to Canada.  Jack had initially failed the physical but succeeded on the second attempt.  They settled in the Toronto area where their son Morris became a dentist.

Sam Altman’s Family Ancestry

Sam Altman hecame the face of AI (artificial intelligence) when his ChatGPT platform was launched in November 2022.  He himself was born into a Jewish family in St. Louis which traces back to Jewish immigrants into Georgia in the early 1900’s.  Just click below if you want to read more about this history:

Altman Surname Miscellany

Altman as a Jewish Name.  The name Altman is a common Jewish name that has been used for centuries throughout Europe and the Middle East. Its origins can be traced back to the Jewish communities of Germany and Poland.

The name itself is derived from the Hebrew word altman, meaning “old man” or “elder.” It is an apt name as it has been used to represent the leadership and wisdom of the elder members of the Jewish community. In modern times, Altman is still a popular name among Jewish families and is often used to honor ancestors and the rich history of the Jewish people.

The Altmanns and the Nazis.  The progenitor of this Jewish Altmann family was Michael Altmann.  He was born in 1777 near Pilsen in what was then Bohemia and is today the Czech Republic.  In the early 1800’s he had moved to Mosbach, a small town in Baden-Wurttemberg, where he was amongst other things a cattle dealer.

His son Joseph trained as a rabbi and made his home in Karlsruhe which at that time had a very active Jewish community.  Joseph’s sons all prospered in their various businesses – as merchants, bankers, and in the wine trade.

By the 1930’s, however, the Nazis were in power and they were becoming more and more oppressive towards the Jews.  The Altmanns found their livelihoods threatened and then their very safety.  After the events of November 1938, Josef and Jenny Altmann decided that they must emigrate.  But they were not successful.

In October 1940 they were rounded up with other Jews and sent to a camp in southern France near Perpignan.  Two years later, with Vichy France cooperating, the Nazis took them again and this time sent them to Auschwitz.

Their daughter Margot luckily was not with them at this time.  With the help of a French children’s charity Margot had managed to escape to Switzerland.  There she survived the war and in 1949 emigrated to Israel.

Aultmans in Holmes County, Ohio.  One branch of the Altman family that came to Philadelphia on the Phoenix in 1749 descended from Hans Joseph and Anna Maria Altman who were married in Germany in 1724.  Their family route took them from Westmoreland county, Pennsylvania to Tuscarawas and then Holmes county, Ohio.

For some unknown reason Isaac Altman in Holmes county changed the spelling of his last name from Altman to Aultman.  His grandson wrote about him as follows:

“The factory building, the dam, saw mill, his home and other buildings were all built by my grandfather in the 1830’s.  In 1841 spinning and weaving were added.  Then in a few years the entire business – saw mill, grist mill, store, blacksmith shop and woolen mill – was run by my grandfather, his four sons and two sons-in-law.  The place was known as Aultman’s Hollow and at that time was known as the best water power and largest business place in the county.”

The Aultman mill, subsequently known as the Beck mill, was eventually torn down in 1915.

Altman the Saltman in Dublin.  There came to Dublin in the mid-19th century a Hungarian Jewish family named Altman. Despite some early business dealings in hat manufacture and coal, the family became famous as importers of salt, leading to their inevitable nickname of “Altman the Saltman.”

The best-known “Altman the Saltman” was Albert, the son of the founder.  By the late 1800’s he had a thriving business on Dublin’s Bridgefoot Street, around the corner from his home on Usher’s Island.

Albert had a colorful private life. He was expelled from his local synagogue for exogamy after he had married a Catholic girl from Cork, Susan O’Reilly.  When she died he married a Protestant from Belfast, Victoria Corbett.  He was forty-four then and she was only seventeen.

Albert died in Dublin, aged fifty-five, in November 1903.  That was seven months before the famous Bloomsday of June 18, 1904 in James Joyce’s novel Ulysses.  Nevertheless Albert is thought to have been Joyce’s model for Leopold Bloom, the main protagonist of that novel.

Abraham Altman in Buffalo: His Rise and Fall.  Abraham Altman, a German Jewish immigrant from Wurttemberg, founded a clothing firm in Buffalo with his brother around the year 1857.  He made his fortune during the Civil War.  In 1865 he was one of the organizers of the Third National Bank and was its president for over a decade. He also had numerous real estate investments in Buffalo.

And so he built a mansion at the corner of Delaware and Summer Street in 1869 in the latest style. It was estimated that the cost for the mansion and its L-shaped carriage barn was $100,000 (around $2 million in today’s dollars).

He had a socially ambitious wife Clara, a daughter Cornelia, and a son David. All seemed perfect.  Buffalo’s first “rosebud party,” a formal debut, was held in the mansion for Cornelia who was described as “a Spanish type beauty with a creamy complexion, large lustrous eyes…and dark wavy hair.”

However, in 1979 18-year-old David was thrown from his horse during a polo match in Delaware Park and died. His father seemed to lose interest in everything. In 1881 he resigned from his office at the Third National Bank. By the time he died at his mansion in 1888 at age 66, Altman had no fortune left. His wife, who converted from Judaism to Episcopalian later in life, died in 1897. Daughter Cornelia refused all offers of marriage and died in a sanatorium in 1904.

Robert Altman: The Oral Biography.  Robert Altman – visionary director, hard-partying hedonist, eccentric family man and Hollywood legend – was brought to life in a rollicking oral biography by Michael Zuckoff in 2010.

After an  all-American boyhood in Kansas City, a stint flying bombers in World War II, and jobs ranging from dog tattoo entrepreneur to television director, Robert Altman burst onto the scene in 1970 with M*A*S*H. He reinvented American filmmaking and went on to produce such masterpieces as McCabe & Mrs. Miller, NashvilleThe Player, Short Cuts, and Gosford Park. 

In Robert Altman, Mitchell Zuckoff wove together Altman’s final interviews (he died in 2006) – which included an incredible cast of voices such as Meryl Streep, Warren Beatty, Paul Newman and a score of others.  In addition there were contemporary reviews and news accounts and all of this amounted to a riveting tale of an extraordinary life.


Altman Names

  • Benjamin Altman founded B. Altman and Co, in New York in 1865.  His store later became one of the premier department stores of Manhattan. 
  • Robert Altman was probably the most creative American film director of the 1970’s, producing such works as M*A*S*H, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and Nashville
  • Sam Altman is a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, being the CEO of OpenAI which introduced ChatGPT to the world in November 2022.

Altman Numbers Today

  • 11,000 in America (most numerous in Florida)
  • 1,500 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

Altman and Like Surnames 

The first wave of German immigration into America came in the early 1700’s from the Rhine Palatine and Switzerland.  They were fleeing religious persecution at home.  Most ended up in Pennsylvania, bringing their Mennonite church with them.  Some went to the Mohawk Valley in upstate New York.  Their Germanic names often changed under English rule to English-style names.  Thus Fischer became Fisher, Schneider Snyder, Hubner Hoover and so forth.

The reasons for immigration were different in the 19th century – in search of a better life, sometimes to avoid the draft.  They came from all German states and went not just to Pennsylvania but all over as the middle and west of the country was opening up.  And they brought German skills with them, notably beer-making.

Here are some of the notable German surnames in America that you can check out.


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Written by Colin Shelley

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