Dreiser was born in Terre Haute, Indiana to John Paul Dreiser and Sarah Maria (née Schanab). John Dreiser was a German immigrant from Mayen in the Eifel region, and Sarah was from the Mennonite farming community near Dayton, Ohio. Her family disowned her for converting to Roman Catholicism in order to marry John Dreiser. Theodore was the twelfth of thirteen children (the ninth of the ten surviving). Paul Dresser (1857–1906) was one of his older brothers; Paul changed the spelling of his name as he became a popular songwriter. They were raised as Catholics.
According to Daniels, Dreiser's childhood was characterized by severe poverty, and his father could be harsh. His later fiction reflects these experiences.
After graduating from high school in Warsaw, Indiana, Dreiser attended Indiana University in 1889–1890 without taking a degree.
203 South 12th Street, Terre Haute, IN 47807