Klein Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Klein Surname Meaning

Klein is the German and Dutch name for “small,” often used to designate the younger person in the family. In Germany it had come to be used by the 13th century as a family name. The Yiddish equivalent is kleyn. Germans and Jews both brought the name to America. 

Name variants have been Kline and Cline, although Cline in America will sometimes have come from the Irish Clyne.

Klein Surname Resources on The Internet

Klein, Kline and Cline Surname Ancestry

  • from Germany (West and Alsace) and from Jewish emigrants
  • to America and Canada

The Klein numbers in Germany total some 140,000 today. The name is most common in the western part of the country, as well as in Luxemburg and Alsace Lorraine.

America. Kleins immigrated to America but during the 18th century they often anglicized their name to Kline or Cline. This was the case with the Kleins from Alsace Lorraine that migrated to Pennsylvania and North Carolina and were captured in George Cline’s 2003 book The Cline Families of North Carolina.

Other early presences were:

  • Hieronymous Kline who left New York about 1710 and was among the earliest Palatinate settlers in New Jersey. Some records show that he was the great grandson of Jan Cornelisson Klyn who came over from Holland to New Amsterdam about 1625.
  • and Martinus Cline who was born in the Mohawk valley in upstate New York of German immigrant parents in 1742. Adam Kline started a knitted goods factory in this area in the 1850’s and later served as a state senator.

The 1920 census showed Klines clustered in Pennsylvania where there had been early immigration, Kleins in New York where immigration occurred later, and Clines more widely spread.

Among later Klein arrivals were:

  • Mathias Klein who came to Chicago from the Rhine Palatinate in 1855. He started Klein Tools there which still flourishes as a company under the fifth generation of Kleins.
  • and Max Klein who arrived from Bavaria in 1859, fought on the Union side in the Civil War, and ended up in Pittsburgh where he became one of its leading wholesale liquor distributors.

There was a wave of German immigration into the newly formed Republic of Texas in the 1840’s and 1850’s. Their numbers included Stephen Klein and his family who established their farm along the banks of the Santa Clara creek.

Adam Klein and his wife Frederika arrived from Stuttgart in 1854 and the township of Klein near Houston was named after them. Adam’s descendants have remained in the locality. Their history was recounted in Diana Severance’s 1999 book Deep Roots, Strong Branches.

Jewish.  Jewish Klein immigrants came mainly to New York. Notable among them were:

  • Louis and Gussie Klein who came to the Lower East Side from Hungary in the 1890’s. Their son Arthur trained as a lawyer and was elected to Congress in 1941 where he was to be a fixture for the next fifteen years.
  • Samuel Klein who arrived in New York from Russia with his parents at about the same time. He it was who started in 1906 a discount store on Union Square which proudly displayed a huge sign above it: “S. Klein on the Square.” That sign remained a city landmark until 1975.
  • Isaac Klein who came to New York from Hungary with his parents in 1921. He became an influential rabbi and halakhic authority in the city.
  • and Stephen Klein, a chocolate manufacturer in Vienna, who fled the Nazi invasion of his country in 1938 for New York. He soon started the Barton chocolate company in Brooklyn which remained with the Klein family until 1978.

Prominent second and third generation Kleins in New York have been the fashion designer Calvin Klein and the singer/songwriter Carole King (born Carol Klein).

Phil Klein, who grew up in New Jersey, was a Communist sympathizer who followed his brother Izzy and joined Disney as an animator. He got fired in 1941 for trying to organize his fellow animators and went to work at a shipyard instead.

His son Michael was a war resister at the time of the Vietnam War who departed for Canada in 1967. His grand-daughter Naomi, born there in 1970, has become a controversial social activist and writer, best known for her book No Logo.

Canada.  Andrew Klein had emigrated from Germany to Canada in 1906 and became a homesteader in Alberta. His son Philip was a one-time wrestler and a drifter who quickly separated from his wife. Their son Ralph Klein, brought up in Calgary, became its immensely popular mayor and served as Alberta’s premier from 1992 to 2006.

A.M. Klein, born in Poland in 1909, came to Montreal as an infant with his immigrant parents and grew up in the Jewish quarter there. He is widely considered the founding father of Canadian Jewish literature.

Klein Surname Miscellany

Early Kleins in Germany.  Early records of Klein as a surname were:

  • Herolt der Kleine of Wurzburg in northern Bavaria in 1185
  • Walthem der Kleine of Kassel in northern Hesse in 1209
  • and Kounrad Claineman of Upper Schwabia in Baden Wurttemberg in 1283.

Martinus Cline from the Mohawk Valley.  Rachel Devendorf made the following contribution to the History of Montgomery County which appeared in 1892.

“What tidings from the New World reached them in that far-off land, I know little and that little I remember when over fifty years ago (that would be about 1840), as we all set around the big fireplace, of a long, stormy, winter evening, someone would say, ‘Granny, tell us a story about the old country.”

“‘Dear child’, Granny would say, ‘I never lived in the old country, but I did live with my grandfather Martinus Cline.  I went there when I was about fifteen years old. They told me what they heard in that far-off land that freedom, peace and great wealth could be theirs if they could brave all dangers of that then mysterious great width of waters; and then there was something said which they could hardly believe — that much money could be gathered from many bushes, not knowing how to translate the English into German, which was that much money could be realized from bushels, not bushes.'”

Martinus Cline was the son of a well-to-do farmer in High Germany.  When quite young the father went from Germany to Holland to seek his fortune. There he married the adopted daughter of a wealthy lady.  Martinus was about ten years old when they left their home in Holland; it was thirteen months before they found a home in America, and it was nearly winter when they dug a place and covered it with boughs where they lived the first winter, and they afterwards chose that place as a burial lot.'”

The parents of Martinus Clyne were probably Johannes and Mary Christina Clyne of Mohawk on the south side of the Mohawk river. This seems to be borne out by the will of Johannes Clyne, dated 1787, in which he mentions his Maria Catherine (not Mary Christina) and sons Jacob and Martinus.

Klein, Kline, and Cline in America in 1920

Numbers (000’s) Klein Kline Cline
New York    3.2    0.8    0.3
Pennsylvania    0.8    2.8    0.4
Ohio    0.9    1.0    0.8
Illinois    1.1    0.5    0.4
Elsewhere    4.5    3.7    4.8
Total   10.5    8.8    6.7

Stephan Klein’s Request for Emigration.  Stephan Klein’s request for emigration to the Republic of Texas in 1844 ran as follows:

“The request of the carpenter and vine-dresser, Stephan Klein from Hattenheim, at the office of the Duchy at Eltville, for the release from the present trade for reasons of immigration to Texas, is granted for the asked for immigration for the petitioner and his wife and five children which shall emigrate with him and comprise his family. Request granted in Wiesbaden on the 9th of September, 1844, by the Government of the Duchy of Nassau.”

The Legend of Mathias Klein.  Mathias Klein was born in Worms in the Rhine Palatine in, Germany in 1826.  Mathias was destined to become a fine craftsman.  At the age of 22 he was given the opportunity of working with Simon Jossy, one of the most famous locksmith of his time.   Mathias studied his work and became a master locksmith three years later.

Then in 1851 the prospect of adventure and excitement pulled him away from home. Mathias boarded a ship to carry him to a new life in America. When he landed in Philadelphia, he found that the need for a skilled locksmith was not enough to earn him a living. Mathias was then offered the position of blacksmith on a whaling ship.

After a few years on the whaling circuit, Mathias was in need of something else. He had heard of the city of Chicago and it seemed like the right place to go.  It proved a correct decision.  Soon he had established his own foundry and shop there.

Chicago was booming as Mathias became successful in his business. As Chicago and America grew, so did the need for better tools. As the story goes – one day a telegraph linesman came into Mathias’s shop with a pair of broken linesman’s pliers. While the workman waited, Mathias carefully forged a replacement for the broken half of pliers. He then heat treated and riveted the old and new half together. One month later the same linesman brought the tool back, when the other half had broken. Again Mathias carefully forged the new half. This became the first pair of Klein linesman pliers, ever made.  From that day on, the Klein linesman pliers would be the standard of the industry.

There were some ups and downs as his business progressed. He lost everything in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.  But he was back in business within two weeks at the same location and contributed substantially to the rebuilding of the city.

He was still working at the company every day at the age of 91 in 1917. He died the next year, passing the business onto his son John Mathias.  The company operates today with great grandsons at the helm and great great grandsons in training.

Klein in New York.  In 1906 immigrant Samuel Klein opened a small women’s dress shop in a second floor loft on Union Square.  Within twenty years, that small store, which had begun with only 36 dresses on the racks, grew into a major shopping destination downtown.  For many years Klein’s was famously associated with Union Square and was immortalized in song.

Miss Adelaide sang in Guys and Dolls:

  • “At Wanamaker’s and Saks and Klein’s
  • A lesson I’ve been taught
  • You can’t get alterations
  • On a dress you haven’t bought.”

And Judy Holiday’s song Drop That Name in The Bells are Ringing contained the phrase: “things with great lines….like things from Klein’s.”

Samuel Klein died in 1942 and his family sold the business four years later.  The chain did continue under different owners until 1975.  Then the famous “S. Klein” sign in Union Square came down. 

King Ralph of Alberta.  The defining moment for Ralph Klein’s political style was set in the early 1980’s and began with an inebriated Mr. Klein shooting from the lip.

He had barely draped the chain of office around his neck as mayor of Calgary in 1980 when Pierre Trudeau’s Liberal government announced the National Energy Program.  The NEP effectively imposed revenue-sharing burdens on oil and gas revenues in Alberta to ameliorate the effects of higher gas prices in other parts of the country. Animosity registered deep and fast in the province, giving rise to the infamous bumper sticker: “Let the eastern bastards freeze in the dark.”

That was the atmosphere when Mr. Klein agreed to speak at an evening event in January 1982, welcoming newcomers to his city, many of them from east of the Manitoba border. Already well oiled, Mr. Klein lashed out at the “creeps” who arrived without skills or resources, bumped up Calgary’s welfare rolls, stretched unemployment lines and boosted crime rates.

“Stay away, Bums Told,” blared a headline in the Calgary Herald the next morning, inciting angry responses from coast to coast. But condemnation soon gave way to a grudging admiration for “a personable mayor who delivered the straight goods in the face of furious opposition.”

Klein Names

  • A. M. Klein was a noted 20th century Canadian poet, journalist, and short story writer. 
  • Anne Klein, born Hannah Golofski, was an American fashion designer who founded her own women’s sportswear and apparel label. 
  • Patsy Cline, the chosen name of Virginia Hensley, was an acclaimed American country singer of the early 1960’s who died at a young age in a plane crash. 
  • Lawrence Klein was an American economist awarded the Nobel Prize in 1990 for his work on econometric modelling
  • Ralph Klein, nicknamed King Ralph, was Alberta’s premier from 1992 to 2006.
  • Calvin Klein is the iconoclastic American fashion designer who has established himself as a global brand. 
  • Kevin Kline is an American actor and comedian.

Klein Numbers Today

  • 3,000 in the UK (most numerous in London)
  • 75,000 in America (most numerous in New York)
  • 13,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

Klein and Like Jewish Surnames

The Jews were banned from England in 1290 and did not return there until the 1650’s, sometimes in the form of Portuguese traders.  They were to make their mark as merchants and financers in London and many families prospered.  There was another larger Jewish influx in the late 1800’s.

In America the early settlement of Sephardic Jews was in Charleston, South Carolina.  In the 19th century Ashkenazi Jews started to arrive from Germany.  Later came a larger immigration from a wider Jewish diaspora.  Between 1880 and 1910 it is estimated that around two million Yiddish-speaking Jews, escaping discrimination and pogroms, arrived from the Russian empire and other parts of Eastern Europe.

Some Jewish surnames reflect ancient Biblical names, such as Cohen and Levy.  Some have come from early place-names where Jews resided, such as Dreyfus (from Trier), Halpern (from Heilbronn) and Shapiro (from Speyer).  Many more surnames came about when Ashkenazi Jews were compelled by Governments to adopt them in the early 1800’s.  The names chosen at that time were often ornamental ones – Bernstein or Goldberg or Rosenthal for example.  Then the name could change on arrival in America at Ellis Island.  And finally anti-Semitism perceived could cause further changes to conceal Jewishness.

Here are the stories of some of the Jewish surnames that you can check out here.



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Written by Colin Shelley

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