Click the image to learn more. A group of men work to lay streetcar tracks along N. 8th Street in 1919.

A “workforce,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, encompasses the “People engaged in or available for work, either in a country or region or in a particular company or industry; workers or employees collectively.”[1] For the purposes of this article, therefore, we consider the kinds of work people in the Milwaukee area have done for the past two hundred or more years, how that work has changed, and how the workforce grew from the city’s founding to the current day. It is a story of dramatic growth and recurrent economic transformations, as the city transformed from its origins as a minor colonial fur trading post, to its mid-nineteenth century heyday as a trading center for the expanding Wisconsin hinterland, to a heavy manufacturing center, and more recently to a postindustrial metropolitan area with a diversified industrial and service economy.

In each period, the foundations of a new economy were planted on top of the old, sometimes obliterating the earlier activities, sometimes adding and supplementing the old, and thus requiring the people of the city and region to adjust, down through the generations, to a dynamic, and sometimes chaotic work environment.

The Trading Economy

From the second half of the eighteenth century to the first decades of the nineteenth century, the area that became Milwaukee served as a small trading post for the indigenous Indians and French, British, and American fur traders. The few hundred people coming to trade each year were seasonal residents. Indians brought their goods, pelts from the hunt and maple sugar tapped from the forests, to trade with the Europeans. These “voyageurs” came from trading centers further east, and brought products from as far away as Europe, including weapons and metal goods, cloth, beads, and liquor.

Up to the 1820s and 1830s, Milwaukee and its surrounds were Native territory but increasingly under military pressure from the US army pushing Indians westward to facilitate the expansion of the American agricultural economy. In the early 1830s, the Indian tribes conceded defeat and ceded lands that would later become Milwaukee to the United States. Speculators and settlers were attracted to the areas as the Milwaukee River offered the possibility for mills and the adjacent lands could serve as farming plots. These Yankee-Yorkers, as migrants from the East were called, set up farms in the area, they cut down trees and sold the wood as raw material to ship-, wagon-, and house-builders and for firewood. In the mid-1830s, after Nelson and Thomas Olin found clay near Lake Michigan, their kilns produced cream colored bricks. In this very early period in the region’s expansion, farmers still outnumbered all other kinds of workers. But the business of city-building had begun. The construction materials industry grew in Milwaukee almost organically as settlers arrived in the region and needed finished wood items and bricks. Settlers built a sawmill on the Milwaukee River as early as 1833 or 1834. By 1848, eleven out of the twenty-five buildings along the Milwaukee River that depended on waterpower were either mills or turned lumber into doors and blinds. The processed lumber and bricks provided the newly arriving settlers with needed building materials.[2]

The Milwaukee River made it possible for early settlers to build a dam and various mills. The underground springs benefited farmers who grew wheat, rye, corn, and oats. Farmers used the Milwaukee River to transport their crops to the mills. Once the products were packaged, they were sent along the waterways to various locations across Wisconsin. With dreams of connecting the Milwaukee River to the Rock River in Fort Atkinson, which would then link up with the Illinois River and eventually the Mississippi River, Byron Kilbourn put forth a plan for a Milwaukee and Rock River Canal. Construction of the canal began in 1839, but nothing ever came of it, except for a dam near North Avenue. This dam, as it turned out, served as a source of hydraulic power for Milwaukee’s growing industry.[3] However, when Milwaukee officially became a city in 1846, the inadequacies of the Milwaukee River had already become apparent. Throughout the 1830s and 1840s, complaints arose over the lack of an inner harbor. Traders had to pay for small harbor boats to bring their goods to the developed areas, so Byron Kilbourn and others appealed to the federal government for funding. When this money did not come through, Milwaukee, in 1854, built piers in excess of one thousand feet long so that deep-water vessels could get their goods into the city. As a result, greater numbers of hotels and warehouses sprang up nearby.[4]

Into the 1850s and 1860s, the majority of Milwaukee’s workers took part in some aspect of trade. During the 1830s and 1840s, Milwaukee’s imports still greatly exceeded its exports. For instance, in 1846 it exported 157 tons of goods, far less than the 8,886 tons imported the next year. Nonetheless, Milwaukee served as an outpost for lead mined in Illinois and southwestern Wisconsin and wheat grown in outlying areas in Wisconsin. Mills along the Milwaukee River produced hundreds of barrels of flour daily for export. As Milwaukee connected to Prairie du Chien and La Crosse via newly constructed railroads, the total tonnage of exports leaving the port increased five-fold from 1862 to 1863, to over 140,000 tons. By 1862 Milwaukee exported more wheat than Chicago. As a result, someone like Daniel Newhall could have twenty sailing vessels that allowed him to ship 15,000 bushels of wheat per day to Buffalo. Manufacturing industry still served the local markets.[5]

Eventually, with soil in the region no longer capable of sustaining a robust wheat crop, more and more of the grain being harvested came from the areas north and west of Milwaukee. Local farmers turned to dairy farming, and Minneapolis and St. Paul took an expanding percentage of the wheat trade away from Milwaukee. At the same time, Milwaukee’s growing population and an increased demand for manufactured goods encouraged the growth of industry in the city. As the number of cattle and hogs raised in Wisconsin grew past 150,000 in the 1850s, meatpacking and tanning also increased. Due to the successful efforts of John Plankinton and Michael Cudahy, Milwaukee could make the claim of being the fourth largest packing city in the country by 1871. By the following year, Milwaukee also had the largest tanning industry. In 1847, Guido Pfister opened his Buffalo Leather Company, which sold the leather that came out of Fred Vogel’s tannery. The tannery industry in Milwaukee, by 1870, grew to include thirty tanneries that produced $2,500,000 in product. Though more well-known for their role in another growing industry—beer brewingGermans ran ten of the thirteen tanneries that existed in 1860. These industries, though different from the earlier agricultural work, still depended on the land. The breweries used ice from the local rivers and Lake Michigan for its beer, and the meatpackers depended on the same ice to keep their businesses going the entire year.[6]

Manufacturing Takes the Lead

Spurred by the Civil War, Milwaukee’s manufacturing industry grew in the 1860s, particularly the iron industry. Encouraged by the Chamber of Commerce and investors, by 1872 the manufacturing sector employed nearly one-third to one-half of all workers in Milwaukee. Whereas manufacturing output totaled just under $19 million in 1869, a flourishing manufacturing sector led that number to rise to just over $208 million in 1909. During the same period, trade and commerce slowed. Many of the industries that called Milwaukee home did so due to certain conditions unique to the city. The iron and steel industry was led by the Milwaukee Iron Company, which opened its doors in 1868 in Bay View. It depended on the cheap iron ore that arrived from Lake Superior and Iron Ridge via Lake Michigan. Likewise, the growth in Milwaukee’s industry, which required machines, engines, and pumps, led to a proliferation of foundries and machine shops within the city limits. E. P. Allis ran an iron works factory that built the pipes for Milwaukee’s new water system and then built sawmill equipment and millstones for Wisconsin lumber companies.[7]

Industry also grew as a result of Milwaukee’s location at the terminal point for several railway lines and, of course, as home to a Great Lakes port. Beginning in the late 1860s, and continuing throughout the rest of the century, business and industry leaders encouraged the construction of canals in the Menomonee Valley, which offered manufacturers six miles of docks and railroad access. Locating industry in this area limited urban sprawl and encouraged settlement of workers in the nearby neighborhoods.[8]

By the late nineteenth century, Chicago had become the preeminent city in the western Great Lakes, and Milwaukee assumed the position of a second tier commercial center. Manufacturing assumed the dominant place in the city’s economy, and remained so into the mid-twentieth century, providing work for forty percent of the metro area’s workforce in the first half of the twentieth century. As late as 1980, over forty percent of the male workforce living in the city, over 65,000 men, worked in manufacturing.[9]

In the early twentieth century, Milwaukee’s factories modernized their facilities by bringing in new machinery. Tanneries in the Milwaukee area, for example, adopted new tanning techniques that made use of new machinery that improved the product and decreased the cost. The tanneries introduced this new technology over a long period of time and later than tanneries in other cities. Since many workers remained at the tanneries after receiving training on the machines, job losses remained relatively low, as compared to tanneries in other cities that adopted the machinery. As modernization continued throughout the twentieth century, huge industrial complexes employing thousands of workers dotted the Milwaukee landscape. In the 1920s and 1930s, Allis-Chalmers, which had specialized in heavy equipment for the electrical and mining industries, diversified its product line and introduced farm tractors. Producing tractors allowed for a less skilled workforce of semi-skilled workers and mass production techniques. The company’s workforce exploded to ten thousand people in West Allis.[10]

The expanding availability of semi-skilled and unskilled jobs in Milwaukee attracted European immigrants during the period of open foreign immigration prior to 1924, as well as rural domestic migrants moving to the city. When the European labor source was cut off by war and restrictive immigration laws, African Americans and migrants from the Americas filled their place. During World War I and the 1920s, African Americans in Milwaukee found jobs in industry, rather than serving as domestic laborers and providing other personal services, as they had done previously. By the early 1930s, more than three out of four black men in Milwaukee worked in skilled, semiskilled, or unskilled trades, primarily in the meat-packing, tannery, iron and steel, and construction industries.[11]

Even though Milwaukee’s iron and metal industries brought in greater profits for the city’s manufacturers, beer became a symbol of Milwaukee. Beer was a consumer item and heavily promoted as a distinctly Milwaukee good. Yet, by the 1930s, the beer industry was highly mechanized, which meant that it employed far fewer Milwaukee workers than other industries, such as Allis-Chalmers and the International Harvester Plant. In fact, Milwaukee County had more workers, as compared to the United States as a whole, in fields related to machinery, iron and steel, food stuffs, and leather. World War II led to even larger numbers of jobs in industries that produced these heavy, durable goods. In comparison, Milwaukee had fewer industries related to consumer goods.[12]

Decentralization and Deindustrialization

The decentralization of industry away from Milwaukee began slowly in the 1960s and accelerated sharply in the 1980s. Up through the 1920s the majority of workers used public transportation, such as streetcars, or walked to work. By mid-century, cars supplemented and replaced these other methods of transportation, leading to a shift in industrial location. Up to the 1920s, the majority of industry remained near Milwaukee’s river corridors. It expanded later to the northwest side of the city and to industrial suburbs like Cudahy, South Milwaukee, West Milwaukee, and West Allis in Milwaukee County. New housing also expanded outward, while older center city neighborhoods became home to the incoming African-American and minority populations.[13]

Decentralization turned into deindustrialization in the 1980s. After employing more than 15,000 workers in the late 1950s, for example, Allis-Chalmers declared bankruptcy in 1987. By the end of the twentieth century, the site of its massive factory in West Allis became home to a K-Mart and several other stores and restaurants. A similar fate befell other industries in Milwaukee. A former Caterpillar factory on Holt Avenue became a Pick ’n Save grocery store, while the Blatz brewery changed into apartments. 50,000 manufacturing jobs left Milwaukee between 1979 and 1983. Between 1979 and 1989, the Milwaukee metropolitan area lost 19 percent of its industrial employment. This decline was three times higher than occurred nationally. During the same period, the metropolitan area’s service sector workforce grew by 27 percent. The number of jobs in machinery fell just over 29 percent, or 18,612 jobs. Metropolitan Milwaukee’s electrical equipment industry experienced the next largest decline in jobs, with over 11,000 fewer jobs available by the end of the decade.[14]

Employment as a whole during the 1980s, moreover, moved outside of the city of Milwaukee. Whereas Milwaukee employed 53 percent of all workers in the metropolitan area in 1979, it could account for only 47.3 percent in 1989. By 1990 only 24.1 percent of Milwaukee’s workforce worked in manufacturing, compared to 56.9 percent in 1951. Deindustrialization especially affected the African-American workforce, of which 49.7 percent of males held jobs in manufacturing, as many industrial jobs moved out of Milwaukee. One industry, commercial printing, however, experienced a growth of almost 4,000 jobs. Most of these jobs were a result of the expansion of Quad/Graphics, which did not have plants in the city of Milwaukee. Whereas Quad/Graphics’ growth took place in the suburbs, medical equipment manufacturers also experienced growth in the city of Milwaukee in the 1980s, but in much smaller numbers. The number of firms employing one to nineteen workers grew from 1979 until 1989, but those factories with 250 or more workers declined greatly. The metropolitan area had eighty-eight employers with five hundred or more workers in 1979, but only fifty-seven by 1989. The city of Milwaukee added fewer service sector jobs than the national average. The suburbs in metropolitan Milwaukee, on the other hand, grew faster than nationally.[15]

Of course, manufacturing did not disappear completely in Milwaukee. But it no longer played the role of an easy avenue for good employment, as it had since the late nineteenth century. Despite the decline in the share of the workforce in manufacturing, 24.1 percent of the area workforce is still employed in manufacturing, and per capita, Milwaukee ranked third in the nation in regards to share of its workforce in industry. Yet, these jobs often paid less, ultimately failing to match inflation. As companies like Allen-Bradley outsourced many of their jobs, the remaining machinery required far fewer workers, due largely to automation.

A heterogeneous “service sector” captures the largest share of the workforce in the twenty-first century. Thirty to fifty percent of the workforce is categorized as working in finance, insurance, real estate, health care, education, public administration, and other professional services.[16] The jobs range from lucrative professional and management positions, to precarious jobs in retail, fast food, telemarketing, and casual labor. Large local employers of the twenty-first century in the area are more likely to be banks and insurance companies, health care organizations, and educational institutions than manufacturing companies. Once again, there is major churn in the skills demanded in the Milwaukee workforce.[17]

Footnotes [+]

  1. ^ Workforce, Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd edition (2014), last accessed April 1, 2019.
  2. ^ Bayrd Still, Milwaukee: The History of a City (Madison, WI: The State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1948), 3-5, 8; John Gurda, The Making of Milwaukee (Milwaukee: Milwaukee County Historical Society, 1999), 41-42; Margaret Walsh, The Manufacturing Frontier: Pioneer Industry in Antebellum Wisconsin, 1830-1860 (Madison, WI: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1972), 182-184.
  3. ^ “Milwaukee River System History,” University of Wisconsin-Extension website,, accessed on January 5, 2015, available, last accessed April 1, 2019; John Gurda, Cream City Chronicles: Stories of Milwaukee’s Past (Madison WI: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2007), 111-112.
  4. ^ Still, Milwaukee, 44-47.
  5. ^ Still, Milwaukee, 61-64, 180-183.
  6. ^ Gurda, The Making of Milwaukee, 112-116, 118-123; Still 186-188.
  7. ^ Still, Milwaukee, 191-194, 321-322, 335, 337-338, 342-343.
  8. ^ Gurda, The Making of Milwaukee, 126-128.
  9. ^ Tabulations from IPUMS-USA, University of Minnesota,
  10. ^ Elizabeth A. Jozwiak, “Milwaukee Tannery Workers and the Strikes of 1892 and 1903,” (Master’s thesis, University of Wisconsin, 1989), 5-7; Stephen Meyer, “Technology and the Workplace: Skilled and Production Workers at Allis-Chalmers, 1900-1941,” Technology and Culture 29 (October 1988): 853.
  11. ^ Joe William Trotter, Jr., Black Milwaukee: The Making of an Industrial Proletariat, 1915-45, 2nd ed. (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2007), 40, 46-47.
  12. ^ Gurda, Cream City Chronicles, 120; Milwaukee Commission on the Economic Study of Milwaukee and Bruno V. Bitker, Report of the Commission on the Economic Study of Milwaukee (Milwaukee: City of Milwaukee, 1948), 34, 41, 44.
  13. ^ John R. Ottensmann, “Changes in Accessibility to Employment in an Urban Area: Milwaukee, 1927-1963,” Professional Geographer 32 (1980): 422, 424, 428.
  14. ^ Gurda, The Making of Milwaukee, 377-378; William J. McMahon, et al., Restructuring of the Milwaukee Economy, 1979-1989 (Milwaukee: Urban Research Center, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, 1992), 1, 5.
  15. ^ McMahon, et al., Restructuring of the Milwaukee Economy, 2, 7, 18, 8, 10; Gurda, The Making of Milwaukee, 417-418, 421.
  16. ^ Ipums Tabulations.
  17. ^ Gurda, The Making of Milwaukee, 422-423; Margo Anderson, “Epilogue, Milwaukee’s Usable Past,” in Margo Anderson and Victor Greene, eds., Perspectives on Milwaukee’s Past (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2009), 317-29. For an overview of current private sector economic development efforts, see MMAC, Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, “Talented Workforce: MMAC’s Blueprint for Economic Prosperity,” accessed March 25, 2019.

For Further Reading

Gurda John. The Making of Milwaukee. Milwaukee: Milwaukee County Historical Society, 1999.

McMahon, William J., et al. Restructuring of the Milwaukee Economy, 1979-1989. Milwaukee: Urban Research Center, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, 1992.

Still, Bayrd. Milwaukee: The History of a City. Madison, WI: The State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1948.

Walsh, Margaret. The Manufacturing Frontier: Pioneer Industry in Antebellum Wisconsin, 1830-1860. Madison, WI: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1972.

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