The year was 1947. America was a couple years removed from the conclusion of World War II, and the city of Milwaukee had just celebrated its 100th birthday a few months prior. That year, a book entitled Our Fair City was released. Our Fair City was an anthology of civic essays about 17 American metropolises that included honest and, at times, even critical essays penned by authors who resided in and who had a deep familiarity with their assigned locale.
Joining post-war powerhouses like New York, Boston, Detroit, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia, as well as perplexing markets like Birmingham, Alabama and Butte, Montana in the text was “Old Lady Thrift” herself. That nickname was the unflattering personification that veteran The Evening Wisconsin writer-turned-The Milwaukee Journal reporter Richard S. Davis bestowed upon the city of Milwaukee in the book. Before Gallery Bookstore closed last summer, we found this 70-year-old piece of literature and we gladly paid a few bucks to have access to this firsthand glimpse into our city’s past.
“Consider Dear Old Lady Thrift,” Davis starts. “That is, the plump and smiling city of Milwaukee, which sits in complacent shabbiness on the west shore of Lake Michigan like a wealthy old lady in black alpaca taking her ease on the beach. All he slips are showing, but she doesn’t mind a bit.”
Over the course of 20-plus pages of his essay, Davis strives to succinctly sum up Milwaukee’s past, its political landscape, its points of pride and its various perceived shortcomings, what differentiates its from every other American city, and where he feels things may be headed in the coming years. Though we recognize that it’s tough to adequately do so with fewer than 21 pages at one’s disposal, Our Fair City‘s chapter about Milwaukee does a fine job of illustrating life in Milwaukee in the 1940s, and it manages to be funny and draw some interesting parallels with issues and mentalities we still face today in the process. Here are some of our favorite excerpts:
“Milwaukee, of course, is a major American city; in fact, one of the country’s most important industrial centers. When times are bleak nationally, Milwaukee retains astounding health and vigor. In integrity the town is all but absolute. “
“In comparison with the numerous cities that wear out their fingers constantly scraping the bottom of the barrel, solvent and flush Milwaukee should thus be the happiest of towns. However, underneath, it has fretted over this disturbing thought: Has the city been penny wise and pound foolish? Along with this doubt, also, is the cynical and altogether indefensible theory that without extravagance and debt—and graft—there can be no progress in building a great city.
“Further, at the moment, Milwaukee is not engaged in building a great city. Here and there are signs of a quiet ferment working. But the town is amazingly resistant to change.”
On City Hall:
“The City Hall is a careless reproduction of something fancy on a before-World-War-I post card from Germany.
On suburban flight impacting city revenue:
“This is because the city is all but hemmed by its suburbs, which evince no desire to be absorbed. The result is that alarm is rising in City Hall. If the rapidly growing suburbs could be annexed, all might be well. But they are stubborn.”
On public schooling:
“In Milwaukee high schools it has become the established practice that all and sundry above the moron level be permitted to ‘pass.’ It is claimed this system is general throughout the country. In any event, Milwaukee’s public schools, with the marked exception of the outstanding vocational and adult-training programs, are slowly going down hill.”
“Milwaukee was well established as devoted to the cup long before the first German put his foot on the rail in the village and politely murmured, ‘Gesundheit!’ The city has always been famed for a prodigious thirst.
“Ability to drink has always been one of Milwaukee’s distinctive talents. The experiment saluted so recklessly as ‘noble’ by Herbert Hoover gave Milwaukeeans pause but failed to stop them. It was with twinges of severe pain that they paid seventy-five cents each for doses of liquid dynamite. But nobody was going to tell men of their kidney that they couldn’t buy a drink.”
On regional slang:
“Native Milwaukeeans, even after being exposed to the cultural refinements of eastern schools, often cling to phrases and inflections that give them away on the instant. It may be nothing short of a calamity at Vassar or Princeton, but it is still amusing at home. The German ‘ja‘ for ‘yes’ is a habit quickly and all but incurably acquired. ‘Ach!‘ makes an exclamation far more serviceable than ‘Oh!’ ‘Aina?’ is deemed less clumsy than ‘Isn’t it so?’
“‘By Vliet Street where the car bends,’ means, ‘on Vliet Street where the streetcar turns.’ ‘Do you want some butter bread?’—otherwise, bread and butter. ‘Button up your neck,’ sage advice in a Milwaukee winter, counsels keeping the collar buttoned and the neck warm. ‘Did you see all the bargains ever?’ ‘I first got up at eight this morning already.’ ‘I had to laugh from her.’ ‘I got a invite to the wedding.’ ‘It makes me no difference.’ ‘Make my apron shut, which means to tie it.’ ‘Come once, just look at this once.'”
On sheep’s head and “skat”:
“In the North and West Side taverns and in recreation buildings of the county parks, round-bellied old men spend long hours of leisure skinning their knuckles as they thump the tables in skat. The lion house of the zoo boasts a group of oldsters who never miss a full day in the summertime at their favorite recreation.”
On law and murder:
“It is true that the character of Milwaukee’s people has had a great deal to do with the city’s notable willingness to obey the law. It is the German nature to submit to the voice of authority, and that influence has been strong. Illustrative is the typical behavior of a slayer in Milwaukee. Having committed the crime with neatness and vigor, the killer customarily mounts his bicycle and pedals rapidly, not to the open road but to the nearest police station, where he puts it all down in writing and signs his name in a firm hand. The great majority of murder mysteries, in consequence, last only until the criminals can place their names on the dotted line, usually a matter of an hour or two.”
On the city’s relationship with Chicago:
“Unquestionably, Milwaukee has suffered in a cultural way from its proximity to Chicago. Only ninety miles separate the two cities, and Chicago has rather successfully advanced the idea that Milwaukee is merely a remote suburb. The result has been an unmistakable inferiority complex, particularly evidenced along cultural lines.”
On local music:
“It is reasonable to believe that Milwaukee has produced as many good musicians as any comparable American city, but at the moment of this writing nearly all of them are gone. They are playing in symphony orchestras East, West, and South, and the music made by the old home town languishes pathetically.”
On local art:
“As for art, the situation is only slightly less deplorable. The Milwaukee Art Institute and the Layton Art Gallery do what they can to look adequate. But neither is in the least impressive when judged by the standards of even the lesser American cities. The Layton Gallery, incidentally, is one of the city’s few monuments to philanthropy. Neither the building or its art collection is adequate for a city of Milwaukee’s size. The Art Institute is likewise wistful and forlorn.”
“Gone from the city, also, is the famous Martini’s—the coffee, cooky, and conversation place that Edna Ferber loved to write about. Gone, too, is the great Schlitz Palm Garden. And the Gargoyle, Otto Hermann’s and Henry Wehr’s. Karl Ratzsch, John Ernst, Joe Deutsch, and the Mader boys alone remain to demonstrate in a pretentious way the delights of German cooking. However, despite all the vanished past, Wiener Schnitzel still has meaning in Milwaukee.”
On the County Park system:
“If there is one asset recognized by all residents in the city as a blessing beyond price, it is the truly magnificent park system. It is the city that should receive credit credit for the system now become so large as to include fifty-eight parks. This is perhaps a meaningless figure unless it is understood that each is extensive, each beautifully landscaped, and each in constant use when the weather behaves. Park picnics in Milwaukee are almost as great a joy to watch as to share, and in this pleasant custom the city again reflects the origin of so many of its people.”
On the recent phenomenon of “Gertie” and her ducklings:
“On the night that Gertie’s first duckling plopped off the piling into the Milwaukee River, women keeping vigil on the bridge wept and became hysterical. And when Gertie and her five vigorous offspring were finally taken to the lagoon in Juneau Park, where other wild ducks congregate, an imposing parade was organized as escort. Where else could this have happened? The answer is nowhere, except Milwaukee.”