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Children in Urban America

A Brief History of Milwaukee

The place that is now Milwaukee has been the site of nearly continuous settlement for thousands of years, but when Europeans began visiting the area in the late eighteenth century, Winnebago, Potawatomi, and other native Americans were living in and near the marshy land where the Milwaukee River joined Lake Michigan. White traders and trappers operating out of Green Bay -- including the founder of Milwaukee, Solomon Juneau -- visited the site frequently for the next century and a half; serious settlement of Milwaukee by whites did not begin until the 1830s, when Indian title to the land was finally broken.

Milwaukee's fortunes over the next several decades were tied closely to the booms and busts of western land speculation, changes in transportation technology, and the development of cash crops in the vast farm lands to the west. Incorporated by the territorial legislature in 1836, Milwaukee's population hit 20,000 in 1850, 55,000 in 1865, and 200,000 in 1890, when it was one of the country's largest twenty cities. The number of residents in the city of Milwaukee reached a peak of 740,000 in 1960 before falling to 630,000 in 1990; the metropolitan area rose to around a million-and-a-half during that same time. By the latter date, the city of Milwaukee made up something like three-fourths of that population.

Despite the city's annexation of hundreds of square miles between the 1920s and the 1960s, a ring of suburbs still nearly surrounds the city. Extending up Lake Michigan and to the west are: Shorewood, Whitefish Bay, Fox Point, Bayside, Glendale, River Hills, and Brown Deer. St. Francis, Cudahy, South Milwaukee, and Oak Creek take up the southern shore of the county's stretch of Lake Michigan, while Franklin, Greendale, Hales Corners, Greenfield, West Allis, West Milwaukee, and Wauwatosa wrap around the southern and western edges of the city.

Milwaukee and Milwaukee County have participated in most of the economic, social, and political transformations experienced by most metropolitan areas in the United States over the last 150 years. By the late nineteenth-century Milwaukee was a major industrial and transportation center, with tens of thousands of workers employed by the tanneries, foundries, packing plants, breweries, and other world famous manufacturers, such as Allis Chalmers, Allen-Bradley, Harley Davidson, and Miller Brewing. Linked to the eastern United States by the Great Lakes and to the west by ten different rail lines, Milwaukee could claim, as one turn-of-the century poster did, to "Feed and Supply the World."

Although the city reached its economic peak after World War II, by the 1970s Milwaukee was a "rustbelt" city that underwent the same wrenching economic dislocation as dozens of other northern metropolitan areas. Although it failed to recapture its former glory as a manufacturing center, the economic upturn in the 1990s returned prosperity to Milwaukee, despite a serious gap between the employment opportunities and subsequent socio-economic standing of white and African American residents of the county.

Milwaukee has also experienced most of the social and political trends of the last century-and-a-half of American history. From a demographic standpoint, the city's mix of German, Irish, and "Yankee" residents before the Civil War -- half of its 45,000 residents were foreign-born in 1860 -- and the arrival afterwards of Slovaks, Russian Jews, Italians, and Poles (for instance, Milwaukee boasted 70,000 Polish-born residents by 1910) created a diversity still reflected in summertime ethnic festivals that each attract up to a hundred thousand people annually. The rapid growth of the African American and Hispanic populations after the Second World War and of the Asian population since the 1980s reflects the population shifts in many other cities; about 70 percent of students in the Milwaukee Public Schools are now children of color.

Politically, Milwaukee experienced a typical period of corruption and bossism in the Gilded Age that ended in 1910 with the election of the first of several Socialist administrations that would govern the city until the Second World War. It remains a Democratic stronghold in a Republican state. Finally, Milwaukee shares with most major urban areas economic and social problems all too common at the turn of the twenty-first century, with a rising (if temporarily plateaued) crime rate, deteriorating infrastructure, and strained race relations.

The city's political traditions, ethnic and racial developments, and economic rise and fall have deeply affected the experiences of the children growing up in Milwaukee. To cite one example, the appalling child mortality characteristic of industrializing cities of the nineteenth and early twentieth-centuries also plagued Milwaukee. When the first socialist mayor, Emil Seidel, entered office in 1910, one of his first priorities was the establishment of the Child Welfare Commission, which hired public nurses, conducted public education, and distributed vaccines. Partly as a result of this program, the life expectancy for the average Milwaukeean nearly doubled to over fifty-three years by 1932. In the years since, and especially in the 1990s and early twenty-first century, Milwaukee has been at the forefront of such nationally prominent child-related controversies as school choice, charter schools, and welfare reform.


Ralph M. Aderman, ed., Trading Post to Metropolis: Milwaukee County's First 150 Years (1987)

Harry H. Anderson and Fred I. Olson, Milwaukee: At the Gathering of the Waters (1981)

Frank A. Aukofer, City with a Chance (1968)

Steven Avella, ed., Milwaukee Catholicism (1992)

Thaddeus Borun, ed., We, the Milwaukee Poles (1946)

William G. Bruce, History of Milwaukee City and County (1922)

James S. Buck, Pioneer History of Milwaukee (1890)

Mario Carini, Milwaukee's Italians: The Early Years (1984)

Kathleen Neils Conzen, Immigrant Milwaukee, 1836-1860 (1976)

Agnes M. Fenton, The Mexicans of the City of Milwaukee, Wisconsin (1930)

John G. Gregory, History of Milwaukee, Wisconsin (1931)

John Gurda, The Making of Milwaukee (1999)

A History of the Counterculture in Milwaukee (1960-1975), (1975)

Gerd Korman, Industrialization, Immigrants and Americanizers: The View from Milwaukee, 1866-1921 (1967)

Judith Walzer Leavitt, The Healthiest City: Milwaukee and the Politics of Health Reform (1982)

Nancy O. Lurie, A Special Style: The Milwaukee Public Museum, 1882-1982 (1983)

R. L. McNeely and Melvin Kinlow, Milwaukee Today: A Racial Gap Study (1987)

John L. Rury and Franak A. Cassell, eds., Seeds of Crisis: Public Schooling in Milwaukee Since 1920 (1993)

Bayrd Still, Milwaukee: The History of a City (1965)

Louis J. Swichkow and Lloyd P. Gartner, The History of the Jews in Milwaukee (1963)

Joe William Trotter, Jr., Black Milwaukee: The Making of an Industrial Proletariat, 1915-1945 (1988)

Robert W. Wells, This is Milwaukee (1970)

Larry Widen and Judi Anderson, Milwaukee Movie Palaces (1986)

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