Joseph Seligmanwas born in Baiersdorf, Germany, in 1819. At the age of eighteen Seligman emigrated to the United States.
After settling in New York City Seligman was originally a peddler and with his brothers founded a clothing firm. Later he established the banking house, J. & W. Seligman. As well as New York, Seligman had branches in San Francisco, New Orleans, London, Paris and Frankfurt. During the Civil War Seligman helped Abraham Lincoln by marketing bonds in Europe.