The Milwaukee Address Tiles’ Origin Story

You’ve seen the lettering everywhere. Here’s where it came from.

Photo by Fred Gillich/Too Much Metal.

Prior to 1930, Milwaukee’s street addressing system was a wide-open mess. House numbers had no relation to cross streets. Several streets had multiple buildings with the same address. The Milwaukee Common Council sought to standardize the 160,000-strong address system as early as 1913, but the idea didn’t gain traction until 1929, when the city adopted a plan to define addresses as north or south depending on their position relative to the Menomonee Valley, and east/west based on the Milwaukee River.

As part of the drive for uniformity, the city allocated $35,000 (over $500,000 today) for the purchase of more than a half-million address digit tiles, small pieces of ceramic that are still attached to thousands of city homes. After reviewing several models for visibility and subjecting the tiles to a battery of tests – boiling the tiles for five hours, freezing them to 100 degrees below zero, and pelting them with steel balls – the council settled on a letters and tile made by the Cambridge Tile Company of Covington, Ky.

The resulting numerals, which hit Milwaukee in July 1930, were handed out house-to-house by public employees, and the numbers quickly became an iconic part of the city’s landscape.

Photo by Fred Gillich/Too Much Metal.

Decades later, Milwaukee designer Fred Gillich, founder of the clothing company Too Much Metal For One Hand, was shoveling snow outside his Washington Heights home when his eyes happened across his house number and its two middle digits, 41. “Two-thirds of the way to 414,” he thought. The combination of the city’s area code and distinctive address font inspired Gillich to create a 414 design using the font, which first appeared on his company’s T-shirts and now graces caps, patches and flags. Gillich searched for the letter face in font books but couldn’t find it, leaving him to conclude it was created especially for the city by the tile manufacturer. “Sometimes when something is around this long, it becomes art,” he says. “If you’re a real Milwaukeean, you know.”  ◆

‘A Font for Us’ appears in the January 2017 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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