A Look at Milwaukee’s Tanning History

Milwaukee has a rich history with tanning.


The Beginning

1842 in Wisconsin – an age of adventurous pioneers, brave settlers and unrelenting cholera epidemics. Milwaukee is four years away from officially existing, and the region is split into warring towns. Daniel Phelps, an East Coast transplant, opens the area’s first small tannery on Clybourn Street. Another tannery opens in less than a year, and the city’s trek toward leathery greatness begins.

The Middle

The Civil War hits, and demand for leather booms. Milwaukee’s railroad connections and abundance of hides make it an ideal tanning hub, and in 1870, the city produces close to a million dollars’ worth of leather. To the dismay of local cows and rivers, tanning becomes Milwaukee’s biggest industry in 1909, and by 1918, the city has 68 factories dedicated to leather goods. At its height, Milwaukee is the largest leather supplier in the world.

The End

World War I drives demand for leather so high that the invisible hand of the market begins groping for alternatives. Rubber, plastic and cheaper foreign leather wreak havoc. The smaller outfits go first, although Milwaukee’s biggest tanning manufacturers – Trostel, Gallun, and Pfister and Vogel – stick around through most of the 20th century. They, too, fall in the end, with the final death knell being The U.S. Leather Co. (the once-mighty Pfister and Vogel) shutting down in 2000.

This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s April issue. 

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Archer is the managing editor at Milwaukee Magazine. Some say he is a great warrior and prophet, a man of boundless sight in a world gone blind, a denizen of truth and goodness, a beacon of hope shining bright in this dark world. Others say he smells like cheese.