The Years We Became Milwaukee

What it was like in Milwaukee between 1860 and 1910.


As railroads opened wide western access to the markets of the east, a Milwaukee industrial boom echoed all across the young nation. Tanneries, steel mills, granaries, stockyards and breweries soon dotted the city’s waterways and a wealth of natural goods flowed through its port. This growth was made possible by a huge wave of immigration into the city, most notably from Germany. By 1870, a third of Milwaukee residents were German-born, and others streamed into the city from Poland, Ireland, Italy, Mexico and elsewhere. By 1880, a massive industrial workforce made Milwaukee the “Machine Shop of the World,” with industrial jobs occupying nearly 45% of the city’s workforce – among the highest concentration of such jobs in a nation awash with industry. As the most essential cog in the city’s economic engine, working men and women exercised considerable political power. Milwaukeeans Victor Berger and Frederic Heath joined Eugene V. Debs to co-found the Socialist Party of America in 1901, and by 1910, a five-decade Socialist era in Milwaukee had begun. Defined less by ideology than populast pragmatism, Milwaukee’s socialists focused on sewers, schools, parks and public transport.

Cream City: Milwaukee’s largest producer of its signature bricks was a factory built by brothers George and Jonathan Burnham at the south edge of the Menomonee Valley whose kilns kicked out 15 million bricks annually by 1880. Their signature color comes courtesy of the high levels of lime and magnesium in the city’s riverbank clay.

Making Milwaukee Famous: Many factors conspired to make Milwaukee Brew City, but artificial refrigeration and its creation of a national market for a perishable product was a critical one. Industrialization winnowed the dozens of Milwaukee breweries in the 1860s to just nine by 1885.

Lakeside Picnic: The city created Lake Park when it took over and expanded a de facto public picnic area and beer garden on Gustav Lueddemann’s property near North Point in the 1890s. The park’s Native burial mound, believed to be at least 2,000 years old, is the only remaining mound of an estimated 200 once in the city limits.

First Draft: In 1862, Wisconsin was required to enlist 11,804 Union soldiers. With few volunteers, Gov. Edward Salomon called for a military draft of able-bodied men aged 18-45. Angry mobs, whose numbers included Germans who fled compulsory military service in their homeland, sprang up around the state in protest. Salomon sent armed soldiers to Milwaukee, arresting more than 80 protesters who were court-martialed, and the draft proceeded without interruption.

Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee County Historical Society

Wienerschnitzel, Anyone? Known as The Comfort when it was opened in 1902 by Charles Mader on what is now Plankinton Avenue, the restaurant relocated to Third Street in 1913. Prohibition threatened the thriving beer hall, but wife Celia’s traditional German cooking kept the business afloat by serving diners eager for a taste of home. Still family-owned, Mader’s is Milwaukee’s longest-running restaurant and on the short list for those looking to experience the city’s German heritage.

Big Splash: Once, Milwaukee had a love affair with the natatorium. Milwaukee’s first public swimming pool, the Prairie Street Natatorium, opened in 1889, and by 1917, the city had seven pools where residents could swim and bathe. As in-home plumbing became more commonplace, the focus of the centers moved from hygiene to recreation, and in time they became obsolete.

Home Row: “QWERTY” didn’t mean anything in 1870, when the term first appeared in C. Latham Sholes’ Milwaukee workshop. Trying to design a functional “type writer,” Sholes had the brilliant stroke to place many of the commonly used keys far apart to keep them from jamming when struck in quick succession. His layout is still used today.

Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee County Historical Society

Notable name: Lizzie Black Kander publishes The Settlement Cook Book, a homemaking guide that more than 1.5 million copies over 43 editions, 1901.  

Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee County Historical Society

Born in Milwaukee: Suffragist Meta Berger, 1873  |  Sherburn M. Becker, city’s first Milwaukee-born mayor, 1876  |  Motorcycle designer William Harley, 1880  Actor and stage director Alfred Lunt, 1892  |  Housing financier Ardie Clark Halyard, 1896  |  Publisher Walter Annenberg, 1908

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

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