Milwaukee History: 1930s Nudist Bridge Parties Run Afoul of the Law

Midwestern nudists are naturally driven indoors during the winter months. That didn’t stop Milwaukee cops from seeking to arrest them for indecent exposure.

Milwaukee once played host to a burgeoning nudist movement. One of the problems with being a Midwestern nudist, of course, is the long, cold winters. Milwaukee’s nudists did the reasonable thing and took the practice indoors.

Oddly enough, it was at this point that local police decided to crack down.

The first nudist camp had been established in Wisconsin in Sauk County in the spring of 1934. The camp was only used for a single summer, but the nudist movement in the Milwaukee remained strong. With the 1934-35 winter freeze ending their outdoor naturalist activities, local members of the newly-formed Wisconsin Nudists Association organized a small “housing committee” to find a apartment to act as a wintertime clubhouse.

They found one on West Wisconsin Avenue, but the furnished room was quickly abandoned by the group. It seemed that the apartment’s mohair furniture was too prickly for the group’s bare-bottomed members. A new apartment, also on Wisconsin Avenue, was secured and became the local headquarters for a group of about a dozen nudist couples.

Their gatherings were not unlike most get-togethers in the city at the time. Men and women played bunco and bridge, read, or chatted about the movement and its plans for the summer. No liquor was served at these gatherings, staying true to the nudist ideal of sobriety.

At one meeting, the Milwaukee Journal reported that a few couples in “careful posings” were photographed for a Chicago-based nudist “art” magazine. Copies of this magazine, the paper  “warned,” were available from a dirty book “speakeasy” on North Third and West Wisconsin.

While the Milwaukee police could do nothing about local couples wandering through the woods of Sauk County without a stitch of clothing, they were determined to strike at the practice within city limits – even if it happened behind closed doors.

“We’ll knock them off,” Deputy Police Inspector Joseph Drewniak told the Journal. “I don’t know under just what charge they could be prosecuted, but I think they could at least be held for indecent exposure. A man and his wife have a legal right to be unclothed in their own home if the shades are drawn and they do not offend neighbors or passersby. But gatherings of larger groups in the nude is certainly without legal sanction.”

The police, however, were not able to ascertain the location of the nudists’ clubhouse. By springtime, they had left the indoors for their secret outdoors camp and the police dropped the matter.