Marks Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Marks Surname Meaning

From the Mark of the Gospels and the Roman Marcus came the English Marks and the German Marx surnames. Marx is also a Jewish name. It was possibly an acronym of the first two letters of the Hebrew masiach plus the Hebrew rendering of the Latin rex.  Marx often became Marks in England and America.

Marks Surname Resources on The Internet

Marks and Marx Surname Ancestry

  • from Western England, SW Germany, and from Jewish emigrants
  • to America, South Africa and Australia

Marx number some 35-40,000 in Germany today. The name is mainly to be found along the Rhine in Saarland and the Rheinland Palatinate and also in Alsace. Lord Hans Marx was a legendary figure from Eckwersheim in Alsace in the 15th century. There was once a wider Jewish Marx diaspora extending into the former Russian Empire. But this has largely disappeared.

Karl Marx, the author of the Communist Manifesto and Das Capital, was born in 1818 in Trier on the lower Rhine. The family, originally Mordechai, had been rabbis in Trier since the early 1700’s. But his father, at a time of anti-semiticism, abandoned the Jewish faith and adopted the Marx name. Karl Marx, when rendered stateless, would spend the latter part of his life writing out of the British Museum in London.

The forebears of the Marx brothers in America have been traced back to the early 1800’s and the town of Hochfelden in the Bas-Rhin area of Alsace.

England. Marks figured at an early date as a surname in the west country, primarily in Devon and Somerset.

West Country.  In Devon, one Marks line in Devon began in 1560 with the birth of Harry Marks in Totnes. Richard Marks meanwhile was recorded as marrying Agnes Lang in Barnstaple in 1540.

These Marks were later to be found in Crediton and South Tawton before moving to Launceston in Cornwall. Four Hannibal Marks featured during their stay in Cornwall, the last named departing for New Zealand in 1845 and serving as harbormaster at Tauranga until his death by drowning in 1879.

In Somerset, the Old English word maerc, meaning “mark” or “border,” gave rise to a place-name Mark and may have given rise to the Marke and Marks surname there as well. The surname surfaced in the parish registers of West Buckland in the 1600’s and later was to be found at Odcombe and South Petherton.

London and Elsewhere.  Larger Marks numbers have been in London, probably as the result of Jewish immigration.

The Bevis Marks synagogue in London, opened in 1701, is the oldest surviving synagogue in England. But Bevis Marks comes from an earlier place-name and is not Jewish in origin.

A Marks family were members of the Great Synagogue at Dukes Place in the early 1700’s. The names recorded at that time were Zachariah, David, Solomon and Alexander Marks. It is thought that Mordecai Marks, who later emigrated to America, also came from this family.

Woolf Marks was a Jewish merchant in London in the early 1800’s. His son David was a rabbi and a leader of Reform Judaism in Victorian times. His grandsons Harry and Claud both distinguished themselves – the former as a newspaper editor and publisher and the latter as a soldier with the British army during the Boer War.

Lyon Marks, born in London in 1786, was also a Jewish merchant of the early 1800’s. His son Morris emigrated to South Australia in 1846. Another Jewish Marks family had settled first in Portsmouth and later in Exeter from whence Joseph Marks departed for Melbourne, Australia in 1853.

Michael Marks had arrived in England from Belorussia in the Russian Empire in 1882. He moved to Leeds where he started trading out of market stalls. In 1894 he started the retail company of Marks and Spencer. This was taken over and expanded by his son Simon after Michael’s death in 1907. Simon it was who introduced the St. Michael brand in the store in honor of his father.

America.  Peter Marks, thought to have come from Suffolk and said to have married Lady Betty Hastings, emigrated to Virginia sometime in the 1730’s. Three of their sons married into notable families:

  • John married the widow of Colonel William Lewis, the mother of Meriwether Lewis of Lewis and Clark fame.
  • Hastings married Ann Cary Jefferson, the sister of President Jefferson.
  • and James married Elizabeth Harvie, “one of nine brothers and sisters whose aggregate weight was 2,700 pounds.”

Hastings died in 1811 in Virginia and his widow moved to Monticello. John and James migrated to Georgia in the 1780’s. Their lines were covered in Pettigrew and Brightwell’s 1981 book The Marks-Barnett Families and Their Kin.

The Rev. John Marks was a Baptist minister who was born in Montgomery county, Pennsylvania in 1716.
In the 1750’s he moved to Loudoun county, Virginia to establish Baptist churches there. Three of his sons fought in the Revolutionary War and were granted lands in Kentucky.

German. German and Jewish numbers have been much larger than the English numbers among the Marks and Marx entrants into America.

The Marx name first appeared, generally as Marks, among German arrivals into Pennsylvania in the 18th century. Included in that number was Nicholas Marks who married Eva Schneider in the early 1700’s. Their descendants migrated westward to Ohio and Michigan.

. Mordecai Marks was a Jewish immigrant from London to Stamford, Connecticut in 1729. At that time he changed his faith to Christian and married.

The Marks name cropped up in the Jewish community in Philadelphia before and after the Revolutionary War. Levy Marks was recorded as a tailor there in 1760. Michael Marks, a merchant and saddler, arrived there from London in the 1780’s. Humphrey and Frances Marks, also from London, made their home in Charleston, South Carolina on arrival in 1783.

Marxes began arriving in America around the time of the Civil War. Aaron Marx, who enlisted as a soldier, and his wife Sarah settled in Baltimore where Aaron was shown first as a peddler and then as a cigar-maker.

Leopold Marks, fleeing conscription in Germany, arrived penniless in New York in 1868. He managed to make a little money to work his way southward to the Mississippi Delta where he prospered as a general store-keeper and merchant. The county seat of Marks in Quitman county was named after him.

New York was the hub for many of the subsequent Marx immigrants:

  • Sam Marx – known was Frenchy because he came from Alsace – who was a dance teacher in New York when he married Minnie Schoenberg in 1884. Their sons were the famous Marx brothers who burst into vaudeville in 1905 and had a long stage and screen career.
  • Jacob Marx who arrived from Austria in the 1890’s and started a small wooden toy business in Brooklyn. His son Louis Marx expanded the business greatly with his brother David and was by the 1950’s described as the owner of the largest toy business in the world.
  • a Marx family who came in 1895 and started up a butcher’s shop in Brooklyn. They moved to New Jersey in the early 1900’s and, as Marx Foods, have been distributing fine meats over five generations to restaurants across the United States.
  • and another Sam Marx, born in 1902 and the son of a tailor in New York, who made his mark as a screenwriter and producer at MGM Studios in Hollywood.

South Africa. Sammy Marks, born in Lithuania, came out to the Cape colony in 1859 and at first made his living peddling jewelry. He later moved to Pretoria where he was one of the early entrepreneurs at the time of the diamond boom. He prospered.

In 1886 he built for himself and his family a grand 40 room Victorian mansion. It soon became well-known to celebrities and dignitaries visiting South Africa. This house, at Zwartkoppies to the east of Pretoria, has been preserved as a museum.

Australia.  There were Marks and Marx arrivals during the 19th century, from England, Ireland and Germany. The most notable of these were Jewish arrivals from England, including:

  • Joseph and Julia Marks and their large family from Exeter who came on the Cotfield to South Australia in 1853, moving to Victoria three years later. Their descendants became the leading wholesale jewelers in the Melbourne area in the 1920’s.
  • and John Marks, a jeweler from London, who arrived in Sydney via New Zealand in 1880. His son Percy established his renowned jewelry shop on Market Street in Sydney in 1900. He made his name in promoting the opal gem. His business has continued through three generations of Marks.

Another Percy Marks in Sydney, born there in 1867, acted from 1912 as the unofficial historian of Australian Jewry. His brother Ernest was a prominent sportsman who was later the touring manager for the Australian teams at the Olympic Games of 1908, 1912 and 1932.

Marks and Marx Surname Miscellany

Lord Hans Marx from Eckwersheim.  Lord Hans Marx came from Eckwersheim near Strasbourg in Alsace.  He lived at Castle Bilstein and fought in the Burgundian Wars against Charles the Bold at the Battle of Nancy in 1477.  Legend has it that Anton Wilsperg, the bailiff of Saverne, later caught him by surprise as he was having a bath and cut off both of his hands.  Hans Marx subsequently died of his wounds.

The Vatican published a document in 1956 which set out a Marx lineage from this Hans Marx to Adolph Marx from Cologne who became the first Catholic bishop at Brownsville in Texas in 1965.

The Death by Drowning of Captain Hannibal Marks.  The Evening Star of Tauranga, New Zealand reported the following in its August 18th, 1879 edition:

“The township was excited on Saturday last by an accident which resulted in the drowning of Captain Marks, for some years Harbormaster of this port, and his son Hannibal Marks.

Captain Marks, with his sons, Hannibal and Pack Marks, and Mr. Vercoe were out on the pilot boat in the harbor while a race was in progress. While rounding the fairway buoy their boat, struck by one of the competing boats and then hit by a sudden squall, capsized and sank.  Mr. Warbrick rendered prompt assistance and picked up Mr. Pack Marks and Mr. Vercoe who was restored with difficulty to consciousness.  Captain Marks was dead when rescued.”

Captain Hannibal Marks was buried with his son Hannibal, who died at the same time, at Mission Point, Tauranga. His tombstone is at the Tauranga historical village.

The Beginnings of Marks and Spencer.  In 1884 Michael Marks, a recent Jewish Russian immigrant, made the decision to rent an area at the new covered market in Leeds which traded six days of the week.  Famously, one of his stalls sold goods that cost only one penny. Next to the stall was a poster with the words “Don’t Ask the Price, It’s a Penny.” Over the next few years, Marks expanded his business and opened similar stalls in covered market halls all over Yorkshire and Lancashire.

Ten years later Marks decided that if he was to expand the business further he would need an investing partner. He initially approached his partner Isaac Dewhirst, who decided against the offer, but suggested that his cashier Thomas Spencer might be interested.  Spencer decided that the 300 pounds required for a half-share in the business would be a good investment.

The running of the business was split between Spencer, who managed the office and warehouse, and Marks, who continued to run the market stalls.  Together, Marks and Spencer were able to open stores in the next ten years in Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool, Middlesborough, Sheffield, Bristol, Hull, Sunderland and Cardiff.

Marx and Marks Arrivals in America.  The following arrivals numbers are based on ship passenger information.

Marx Marks Total
Germany    480    403    883
England    465    465
Ireland    116    116
Elsewhere     44     37     81
Total    524   1,021   1,545

Today Marks outnumbers Marx by more than three to one in America.

Leopold Marks – from Germany to the Mississippi Delta.  Leopold Marks was just seventeen in 1868 when he fled his home at Labau in West Prussia to escape conscription into the Prussian army.  He landed in New York with just eighteen cents in his pocket.  He worked long enough to be able to furnish a pack with jewellery which he peddled across country until he reached the Mississippi Delta.

There he bought a small trading boat to ply the Coldwater river. Realizing the business opportunities he opened a small merchant store.  This soon grew into a tremendous business, being the principal store in the Delta east of Clarksdale.

In time he was elected as a state legislator for Tunica county. In 1877 he introduced the bill to create the new county of Quitman.  Its county seat, Marks, was subsequently named after him.

Louis Marx & Co.  Louis Marx has a history nearly as colorful as his toys.  Described by many as an experienced businessman with the mind of child, his ability to see into the minds of children around the world guided his toy creations and advertising efforts.

Louis Marx founded his toy company in New York in 1919.

In those early days Louis Marx met up with the future US President Dwight D. Eisenhower.  As the story goes, Mr. Eisenhower visited Mr. Marx’s little shop one day with two broken toy trains.  Mr. Marx first referred them to a shop of his friend Bernard Gimbel. However, Mr. Gimbel did not have the parts and sent the man back to Mr. Marx who made the repairs and accepted his invitation to West Point football games.  They met again there and became friends.

During the height of the Great Depression in the 1930’s, when most people saw only financial despair, Marx saw opportunity.  Marx opened factories in Erie and Girard, Pennsylvania, along with his largest facility in Glen Dale, West Virginia.

In the 1950’s, Louis Marx & Co. became the “largest toy manufacturer in the world,” with over one-third of all toys in the U.S. being Marx toys.  Described as “The Toy King,” Marx appeared on the cover of the 1955 Time Magazine.  In 1972, at the age of 76, he sold his toy company.  Despite best efforts, no one had the gifted touch of Louis Marx and the company suffered a decline until the end.

While Louis Marx and his company are now a part of history, his toys and the joy they bring children, young and old, live on. In 2015 the Marx Toy Museum opened at Moundsville, just a mile away from the old Glen Dale toy plant.

Marks and Marx Names

  • Karl Marx, author of the Communist Manifesto and Das Capital, was born in Germany but became stateless and spent much of his later life in London. 
  • Sammy Marks was a Jewish entrepreneur in South Africa who grew rich during the diamond boom times of the 1880’s. 
  • Michael Marks, born into a Belarussian family, was the founder of the British department store Marks & Spencer in 1894.
  • The Marx Brothers – Groucho, Chico, Harpo, Gummo and Zeppo – were comedy stars in vaudeville, Broadway, and film from 1905 to the 1940’s.

Marks and Marx Numbers Today

  • 14,000 in the UK (most numerous in London)
  • 25,000 in America (most numerous in California)
  • 11,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)

Marks 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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