Sassoon Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Sassoon Surname Meaning

Sasson and Sassoon are Sephardic Jewish surnames.  Sasson may originate from a Hebrew name meaning happiness. 

However, the Sassoon family of merchants that came from Iraq probably had different name origins.  One theory is that they had come from the mountainous region of Sason west of Lake Van in Turkey.  Another is that they can trace their ancestry back to Spain and to the well-known Ibn Shoshan family that lived in Toledo.  

The Sasson and Sassoon names are to be found in infrequent numbers in Britain, America, and Argentina.

Sassoon Surname Resources on The Internet

Sassoon Surname Ancestry

  • from Sephardic Jewish emigrants
  • to India, China, England and America

Sassoon ben Salih and his family, Iraqi Jews, were the chief treasurers to the pashas of Baghdad in the early 1800’s.

Their son David Sassoon fled from a new and unfriendly vali and came to Bombay in India in 1832 with his family.  In Mumbai he built up a large international business concern, with various branches established in India, Burma, Malaya and east Asia.   His wealth and munificence were proverbial and his business extended to China, where Sassoon House on the Bund in Shanghai became a noted landmark, and then to England.

The Sassoon interests in China devolved to Victor Sassoon who had come to Shanghai in 1923 after having been made lame in a plane accident during World War One. Yet he was a formidable businessman and soon became known as the king of real estate in Shanghai.  

“Victor lived in a half-timbered hunting lodge and an apartment with a 360 degree view atop Sassoon House on the Bund.  Noel Coward wrote Private Lives in forty eight hours while laid up with influenza for a weekend in Sassoon’s Cathay Hotel.”   

Victor Sassoon remained in China (Sassoon Road in Hong Kong was named after him) until he sold out his interests in Shanghai in 1948 and moved to the Bahamas.  His British interests revolved around his horseracing stables near Newmarket.

England.  David’s son Albert carried on his father’s work in Bombay.  It was mainly through his contributions that a colossal statue of Edward, then Prince of Wales, was erected there.  In 1872 he was knighted and in the following year the corporation of London conferred upon him the freedom of the city, he being the first Anglo-Indian to receive it.  Albert’s son Edward became a British MP in 1899. The seat was then inherited by his son Philip from 1912 until his death in 1939.

Another son Sassoon David Sassoon had moved to London in 1858 and soon occupied a prominent position among the principal merchants of that city:

  • his line led to Alfred Sassoon, who was however disinherited for marrying outside of his faith, and to Siegfried Sassoon, the poet of the First World War.
  • and to his daughter Rachel who was also disowned for marrying outside her faith.  Her husband was Frederick Beer, the wealthy financier.  In her will she left a generous legacy to her nephew Siegfried, enabling him to purchase his home at Haytesbury House in Wiltshire.

Then there was the line from David Sassoon, a Jewish manuscript collector, whose son Solomon and grandsons Isaac and David were noted rabbis.

Outside of this Sassoon family, there were a few other Sasson and Sassoon families living in England.  Nathan Sassoon, of Greek Jewish origin, deserted a family that included Vidal Sassoon who was to become the famous hairdresser of the 1960’s.

America.  Brooklyn has been a home for Syrian/Iraqi Jews and that is where many Sassons are to be found. The best-known is Steve Sasson who, while working for Eastman Kodak, invented the digital camera.  Sadly, Kodak management turned down his plans and other companies benefited.

Sassoon Surname Miscellany

David Sassoon and the Opium Trade.  David Sassoon was 40 years old when he came to Bombay in 1832.  Initially he operated as a middleman for the British East India Company, using his contacts in the Middle East.  In 1842 the British signed the Treaty of Nanking with the Chinese Emperor, opening up the Chinese market for trade in opium.  David Sassoon sent his sons to open offices in Canton, Shanghai and Hong Kong to profit from the trade.

A sort of three-way flow emerged.  The Sassoons would export Indian yarn and opium to China; then from China, they would export tea and silk to Britain; and from Britain they exported textile goods into India.  The opium was grown in the Malwa region.  The Sassoons acted as bankers to finance the Malwa opium crop, making advances to an already established group of dealers in Malwa opium.  In effect, they purchased the crop before it was even planted.

The chief cause of David Sassoon’s success was probably the use he made of his sons. Although David spoke no English, his sons learnt the language and adopted Western modes of clothing as well. David Sassoon died in Bombay in 1864.  Six of his eight sons eventually left the city and there were soon few Sassoons remaining in Bombay. 

David Sassoon, Manuscript Collector.  Albert Sassoon was surprised one day when his 34 year old single half-brother Solomon Sassoon, expressed his interest in marrying Albert’s granddaughter, Pircha (Flora) Gabbai.  Albert loved the idea. The shidduch was arranged and the couple had three children, their middle child, a son David being born to them in 1880.

Young David astonished his parents one day when at eight years old he traded his toy kite with a young boy for a rare printed book containing an Arabic translation of the Book of Ruth that was written for Baghdadi Jews who lived in India. That trade was to be the first item in his life-long pursuit of collecting Jewish books and manuscripts.  His interest in collecting Seforim may have helped soften the pain of losing his father at the tender age of fourteen.

Instead of being educated at Eton like his Sassoon cousins, David was sent to a yeshiva in North London. Although he had learned to use a rifle as a cadet, his poor health saved him from ever going to battle. Instead the British Navy hired him to translate Hebrew and Arabic documents and decode messages intercepted in the Middle East.

David developed into quite a Talmid Chochom and decided to devote his life to collecting Seforim.  He explained in his Ohel David, a two volume catalogue of his Seforim that he printed in 1931, that he assembled a huge library because he wanted to observe the Mitzvah of writing or acquiring a Sefer Torah by extending the mitzvah to include all religious literature.  He would travel extensively to Yemen, Germany, Italy, Syria, China and the Himalayas seeking manuscripts and old Seforim.

By the time David Sassoon passed away in 1942 he had amassed about 1,300 items in his library. Sadly the collection was dispersed, sold at a number of Sotheby auctions beginning with one in Zurich in 1975.

Rachel and Alfred Sassoon.  Rachel and Alfred were the children of Sassoon David Sassoon and both married outside of their faith.

Rachel Sassoon became Rachel Beer.  She was the editor and proprietor of The Observer and in 1893 bought The Sunday Times.   Sadly, when her husband Frederick Beer died in 1903, she suffered a nervous breakdown and was committed to an asylum.  Her newspapers were sold by her trustees a year later.

Her brother Alfred was ostracized for marrying “out” to Theresa Thorneycroft.  Their son was the war poet Siegfried Sassoon.  He was a great favorite of his aunt Rachel and she left him £30,000 in her will when she died in 1927.

Siegfried Sassoon.  The old Sephardic surname Sassoon was shared by two Englishmen who had little in common other than their good looks, their military valor, their love of sport, their glory in separate spheres, and their longevity.

The elder Sassoon, Siegfried, was one of the leading poets and most searing critics of the First World War, in which he served as an officer, lost a brother (at Gallipoli) and a friend of the heart (Wilfred Owen), and won a Military Cross.

He was born in 1886 into a dynasty of immensely rich merchant bankers, originally Iraqi Jews. But his father, Alfred, was disinherited for marrying an Anglo-Catholic—Theresa Thornycroft, a scion of prominent sculptors and herself an artist of note.

Siegfried, named after Wagner’s hero, was educated at Cambridge; served as the literary editor of a socialist newspaper where he employed E.M. Forster among other luminaries; and published several acclaimed works of autobiographical fiction in addition to the satiric poetry that he felt was misunderstood.

After a paternal aunt, Rachel Beer, the editor of the Sunday Times, left him a fortune he lived the life of a British gentleman on his estate in Wiltshire—foxhunting, golfing, and playing cricket into his seventies.

Siegfried had many affairs with men and a late marriage that produced his only son. He converted to Catholicism shortly before his death, just shy of eighty-one, in 1967.  His name is inscribed on a tablet in the Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey.

Vidal Sassoon.  The younger Sassoon, Vidal, who revolutionized the art of haircutting and died of leukemia at eighty-four, was the son of Jewish immigrants—a Greek father, Nathan, and a Ukrainian mother, Betty.

He grew up in London tenements and spent part of his scrappy childhood in a Jewish orphanage. After Nathan Sassoon abandoned his family, Betty was too poor to raise her sons.  By the time she remarried and was able to make them a home, Vidal was eleven.

As a schoolboy during the Second World War, Vidal was evacuated to the Wiltshire countryside not far from Siegfried’s estate. It is tempting to imagine them crossing paths there, though it is doubtful that they ever did.

Vidal’s formal education ended at fourteen in 1942 when he apprenticed himself to a ladies’ hairdresser in a working-class neighborhood, though in his spare time he studied elocution to erase his Cockney accent. Hairdressing was his mother’s idea; she had somehow intuited his talent for it. At seventeen, he joined a militant Jewish underground group that broke up rallies staged by the thuggish followers of Oswald Mosley, the British fascist, earning an epithet from the Telegraph: “the anti-fascist warrior-hairdresser.”

He married four times and had four children. He opened his first London salon in 1954 and by the 1960’s was a pop-culture celebrity who literally defined fashion’s cutting edge.  His radical approach to styling hair made the cotton candy beehives of the early 1960’s seem as quaint as the coiffures of Marie Antoinette.

Vidal Sassoon’s technique was influenced, he said, by Bauhaus architecture, but also, more obviously, by the practical allure of new “wash and wear” clothing and the lean geometry of the era’s couture.  Obituaries hailed him as a “feminist,” and in a sense, he was one. He liberated women from a certain form of degradation: their time-consuming primping with rollers and teasing, and their generic, yearbook-photo cuteness.

His signature hairstyle, The Five-Point Cut, was a silken helmet “sculpted” or “carved” to the contours of each client’s cranium, and based on a close study of her bone structure. Mary Quant, the famous fashion icon of the 1960’s, had her hair cut by Vidal Sassoon.  In 1968 Roman Polanski hired Sassoon—for the outrageous sum of five thousand dollars—to give Mia Farrow her famous pixie cut for Rosemary’s Baby. The pixie cut that launched a million copies, however, was Jean Seberg’s, in Godard’s Breathless, from 1960.

Both Sassoons stayed fit into old age. Vidal also turned to autobiography and earned a fortune (greater, probably, than Siegfried’s) marketing his hair-care products. He made a dashing appearance in television commercials for them, delivering a catchy slogan: “If you don’t look good, we don’t look good.”  It wasn’t poetry, but, as his fellow idealist and survivor wrote, “Soldiers are dreamers.” It was a fitting epithet for them both.

Steve Sasson and the Digital Camera.  Born in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn, Steve Sasson grew up with a keen interest in electronics. As a child he designed and built radio receivers, stereo amplifiers and transmitters in his basement with salvaged electronic components from discarded televisions and radios.

He joined Eastman Kodak Co. in 1973 as an electrical engineer working in an applied research laboratory in the Apparatus Division. Sasson was given a broad assignment to build a camera using solid-state imagers, a new type of electronic sensor known as a charge coupled device which could capture optical information.

Sasson went about constructing the digital circuitry from scratch, using oscilloscope measurements as a guide.  For the rest of the camera, he made use of what was available to him at the time: an analog-to-digital converter from Motorola, a movie-camera photographic lens made by Kodak, and tiny CCD chips introduced in 1973 by Fairchild Semiconductor.

The original prototype weighed eight pounds and about the size of a toaster.  With a resolution of 0.01 megapixel, it recorded black and white digital images to a magnetic cassette tape.  With this prototype model, Sasson took the first image in December of 1975 taking 23 seconds to capture it and forever changing the way the world takes photos.

In 1989 Sasson showed Kodak’s management a version of the digital camera that he and other Kodak researchers had spent fifteen years developing.  Management turned him down flat.  “That was when I got frustrated,” he later said.  “If we could do it, other people could do it too.”  And they did.

Sassoon Names

  • David Sassoon was the founder in Bombay in the 1830’s of the Sassoon business empire in Asia.   
  • Siegfried Sassoon was one of the leading poets of the First World War.   
  • Vidal Sassoon was the famous hairdresser of the 1960’s. 
  • Steve Sasson pioneered the digital camera in 1975.

Sassoon Numbers Today

  • 300 in the UK (most numerous in London)
  • 400 in America (most numerous in New York)

Sassoon 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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