Schiff Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Schiff Surname Meaning

Schiff is a Jewish surname.  Indeed the name dates back to 1370 in Frankfurt in Germany, the earliest date to which any contemporary Jewish family can definitely be traced.  In old German the word schiff meant a vial and schiff may have been used as a sign for an apothecary or a physician.

Later, Schiff could have cropped up as an ornamental name for the wider Jewish diaspora that extended into the Russian empire.  Here Schiff might have derived from schiff meaning “ship” in German.

Schiff Surname Resources on The Internet

Schiff Surname Ancestry

  • from Germany (Frankfurt) and from Jewish emigrants
  • to America and England

The earliest known Schiff, Jacob Kohen edeSchiff, was mentioned on the tombstone of his son Uri Phoebus as having discharged the function of dayyan in Frankfurt.  Uri Phoebus Schiff himself attained a great age, dying in 1481.

The Schiff name was later prominent in the Judengasse community of Frankfurt in the 17th century, as were other Jewish names such as Rothschild, Stern and Strauss.  It was said that these Schiffs were a branch of an older Cahn family which had settled on the Schiff and had adopted the Schiff name.  Meir Kohen Zedek Schiff who died in 1626 was referred to as parnas of the community.

During the next century Schiffs were said to have shared a home with the Rothschilds in the Judengasse.  And Tebele Schiff took up the position of chief rabbi of the Great Synagogue in London in 1765.

The Schiff name spread to Hamburg, Mannheim and Vienna in the 19th century. Schiff emigrants to America were mainly from Germany.  But 30% of them came from the old Russian empire.

America.  Moses Schiff had been a broker for the Rothschilds in Frankfurt.  His son Jacob Schiff departed for New York in 1865, the year the Civil War ended.   He joined the banking firm of Kuhn Loeb nine years later and headed up the firm in 1885.

From his base on Wall Street he became a leader of American Jewry until his death in 1920.  He focused primarily on the plight of Russian Jewish immigrants.  He made a famous loan to Japan in 1905 to support their war effort against Russia.

His son Mortimer Schiff also worked for Kuhn Loeb and was a notable early backer of the Boys Scouts of America:

  • Mortimer’s son John was the third of the family to play a leading role with Kuhn Loeb.  After its merger with Lehmann Brothers in 1977 he was named the honorary chairman of the merged company,  He was an avid horseman and breeder of thoroughbreds in Kentucky.
  • while his daughter Dorothy was the owner and publisher of the New York Post from 1939 to 1976.

David Schiff of the next generation also worked for Kuhn Loeb.  His son Andrew married Karenna Gore in 1997 but they later divorced.  Andrew Schiff afterwards complained that it was difficult to live in New York on $350,000 per year.

Jacob Schiff from Poland came to New York in the early 1900’s.  He was a cabinet maker who subsequently made his home in New Haven.  His son Irwin was a prominent figure in the US tax protester movement.  Irwin died in federal prison in 2015 while serving a 13 year sentence for tax evasion. However, his son Peter became a successful financial investor and writer. 

Another Jacob Schiff, this time from Lithuania, came to Boston in 1906 where he worked in the butcher’s trade.  His grandson Edward migrated to California in 1970 and his son Adam Schiff, ten at the time, was later a US Congressman who became prominent in 2019 in the Trump impeachment proceedings.

There were also some non-Jewish Schiffs who came to America.  Louis Schiff from Baden in Germany, for instance, arrived in America in 1854 and eventually settled in Clayton county, Iowa.

England.  Charles Schiff, descended from a Schiff family in Mannheim, was a banker who first made his appearance in London in 1865.  He was active in American railroad investment.  During World War One German names became unpopular and the Schiff family adopted the Burch name, that of Charles’s wife.

Schiff Names

  • Tebele Schiff was chief rabbi of the Great Synagogue in London from 1765 to 1791.
  • Jacob Schiff was the foremost Jewish leader in America from 1885 until his death in 1920.  He headed up the New York banking firm of Kuhn Loeb and was active in his support for Russian Jewish immigration into America.
  • Dorothy Schiff was owner and publisher of the New York Post from 1939 to 1976.
  • Sir Andras Schiff is a Hungarian-born classical pianist and conductor who came to Britain in the 1970’s.
  • Adam Schiff is a prominent US Congressman from California.

Schiff Numbers Today

  • 2,500 in America (most numerous in New York)
  • 500 elsewhere (most numerous in UK)

Schiff 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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