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Highlights Archives

Edmund Eisenscher's Milwaukee Photographs

CIO members joined Lincoln Brigade veterans in a demonstration to demand the breaking off of U.S. diplomatic relations with Francisco Franco's fascist Spain, 1950 (WHI Image ID 3202)
WHI 3202

The Eisenscher gallery showcases 133 photos taken by Edmund Eisenscher (1909-1995), photographer for the "Wisconsin CIO News." Today only about 11 percent of American workers belong to a union. But when Eisenscher was working, more than a third of working Americans were union members. Milwaukee was one of the nation's leading manufacturing centers and, after four decades of socialist government, one of its strongest union communities, too. Residents considered labor unions a basic part of the social fabric like schools and churches. Eisenscher's images document the role unions played in people's lives during this vanished era.

A Snapshot of Daily Life in 1940s Milwaukee

Eisenscher's photographs are especially valuable because they depict more than just strikes and demonstrations. Instead, most of his images show union members and their families outside of work at recreation such as dances and bowling. His focus on life outside the factory conveys a sense of the strength of unions and the central role they played in workers' lives. Dozens of images capture parties, picnics, weddings, bowling and other sports, and various social events. Eisenscher also took photos of the factory floor, strikes and union meetings but the unique value of his work is its depiction of everyday life for working-class Milwaukee people during and after World War II.

To Learn More

Eisenscher's original photographs are available in the Archives Reference Room at the Society's headquarters in Madison. The Society library microfilmed the "Wisconsin CIO News" and will send it anywhere in the nation through interlibrary loan (consult your local librarian).

For more on Eisenscher's life and times, see these two books from the Wisconsin Historical Society Press:

  • Blue Jenkins: Working for Workers by Julia Pferdehirt tells young readers the story of an African-American union leader who led battles against discrimination in work, housing and economic opportunity in Racine during the years Eisenscher was taking his photos.
  • A City at War: Milwaukee Labor During World War II by Richard Pifer is a scholarly examination of how workers in Wisconsin's largest city responded to the war.

Two other titles provide additional context for Eisenscher's photographs:

:: Posted January 31, 2012

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