Beer trays were a common promotional item for decades and are highly collectable today.

The Story Behind This Gettelman Brewery Beer Tray

The Gettelman Brewery is Milwaukee’s forgotten giant of beer-making, but its innovations forever changed the way beer was shipped and marketed.

Beer trays were a common promotional item for decades and are highly collectable today.
photo by Tyler Yomantas

The smallest of Milwaukee’s “Big Five” breweries (Miller, Pabst, Schlitz, and Blatz being the others), the A. Gettelman Brewing Company got its start in the Menomonee Valley in 1856 as George Schweickhart’s Menomonee Brewery. After a decade and a half of operation, Schweickhart partnered with his son-in-law Adam Gettelman, who later renamed the operation.

Gettelman introduced its most prolific label, Milwaukee’s Best, in 1895. In the 1890s, the company also offered the “$1,000 Beer,” which came with a standing offer of $1,000 to anyone who could prove the beer was not made with pure barley and hops. Chemists across the nation tried to claim the prize, but no one was ever able to disprove Gettelman’s claim. The brewer also briefly offered a “$1,000 Hospital Tonic” that was said to be ideal for nursing mothers. The same cash offer was made for anyone who could find impure ingredients in the tonic, but – just as with the beer – no one was ever able to disprove Gettelman’s claims.

Gettelman Brewing managed to survive Prohibition, but Adam Gettelman did not, passing away in 1925. In 1933, the company resumed beer production, now helmed by Adam’s son, Frederick. “Fritz,” as Frederick was best known, made beer history in 1933 when he designed the very first steel beer keg (previously, beer had been shipped in wooden barrels). Gettelman would later introduce an innovative eight-ounce bottle (dubbed the “Fritzie”) and was among the first beer makers to sponsor televised sports, including the 1947 World Series.

The Gettelman family retained ownership of the brewery until 1961, when they sold their holdings to Miller Brewing. In May 2017, permanent landmark status was granted to two former Gettelman Brewery buildings that currently sit on the Miller Brewing campus on West State Street. Miller had planned to demolish the structures, but Milwaukee’s Historic Preservation Committee found that the buildings – with their connections to one of the city’s most innovative brewers – had enough historical significance to grant the designation.

Beer trays were a common promotional item given to bars and taverns by breweries between the 1880s and the 1920s. Prohibition and material shortages during World War II mostly stopped tray production, but the novelty item saw a revival in the post-war era. This tray dates to the early 1950s.

Antique Milwaukee is a new Milwaukee Magazine web series that takes a closer look at objects and curiosities from around town that have a story to tell. We’ll reveal a piece of Milwaukee’s history through a new artifact in each installment.