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The Rise of Skilled Manufacturing

Between 1870 and 1900 the United States became the world's foremost industrial nation, emerging as the leader in meatpacking, timber and steel production as well as in mining. The nation experienced a stunning growth in the scale and pace of industrial production, which transformed business, the environment, the workplace, the home, and everyday life. In Wisconsin, early manufacturing was primarily extractive - - removing raw materials such as fur, lumber, and lead from the landscape and processing them for market. In contrast, by 1860 Milwaukee had become a center of modern manufacturing - - creating finished consumer goods from those raw materials. Its lumber and flour milling industries produced one-fourth of the value of all manufactures in the state that year.

As the market for consumer goods expanded, handicraft and artisan industries became increasingly less competitive and were absorbed by a factory system that produced standardized goods at economical prices. Milwaukee's strong base in small skilled craft shops provided a foundation for the large manufacturing companies that came to dominate the region. While Milwaukee was not Wisconsin's only city to experience a growth in skilled manufacturing during the late 19th century, it had the advantages of an expanding urban market, a steady stream of immigrant labor, and easy access to materials and customers through an ever-improving transportation system.

Despite the state's lack of coal, Wisconsin developed a heavy industry dependent upon these resources as an adjunct to its extractive industries. Milwaukee built foundry, machinery, and metal-working businesses before the iron and steel industries were concentrated in Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Chicago. Production of iron on a large scale began when the Milwaukee Iron Company opened its doors in Bay View in 1870. The plant produced iron rails for railroads--a seemingly inexhaustible industry as railroads expanded westward-- that provided a base for an enlarged foundry and machinery industry in Milwaukee.

Founded in 1861, the Allis Company (eventually Allis-Chalmers) constructed industrial machinery for manufacturers and would come to transform the flour-milling industry in the 1880s. Edward P. Allis purchased Milwaukee's Reliance Works in 1860 and began producing steam engines and other mill equipment just at the time that many sawmills and flour mills were converting to steam power. Allis also installed a mill for the production of iron pipe to fill large orders for water systems in Milwaukee and Chicago, and worked with millwright George Hinckley to develop a high-speed saw for large sawmills. By the late 1880s, the Allis Company was Milwaukee's largest industrial employer, building a world reputation as the center of heavy machinery for mines, power plants, and public utilities. In 1901, the company merged to become the Allis-Chalmers Company, producing machinery and other products until the late 1980s.

While Milwaukee's industries held the greatest variety, ranging from heavy machinery to paper toys, smaller Wisconsin cities generally had only one or two primary industries, many of which did not develop until after 1900. For example, agricultural machinery was a widely dispersed industry in Wisconsin by the 1870s. As technology advanced, the industry became more dependent on foundry and machine industries, resulting in increased concentration in larger plants along Lake Michigan. In Racine, J.I. Case produced threshers that became an industry standard as well as the steam engines that powered them. The many waterways of the Rock River Valley supported a variety of agricultural manufactures, particularly machine tools, by the area's highly skilled labor force. La Crosse was the principle exception to this wide dispersion of agricultural machinery manufacturing, becoming a center of lumbering and riverboat building rather than skilled manufacturing.

Large-scale papermaking took root on the waterpower of the lower Fox River by the 1880s, after the migration of wheat to Minnesota and Iowa in the 1870s. The first wood pulp mill began operations in Appleton in 1871. Most of the paper mills on the Fox were converted flour mills, while those on the upper Wisconsin River were more commonly associated with lumber money. Paper companies experienced their most rapid growth between 1900 and 1930, becoming the state's fourth largest industry by 1925.

Along Lake Superior and Lake Michigan, shipbuilding had been an important industry since the mid-nineteenth century and it expanded as industrial production techniques were applied in shipyards. Superior began building lake schooners in the 1850s and was an important supplier of cargo vessels during World War II. Sturgeon Bay had begun as a limestone and lumber shipping port, but quickly became a shipbuilding center. Shipbuilding also began in the 1850s in Manitowoc. Its shipyards produced hundreds of schooners, tugboats, and steamboats in the nineteenth century, and after World War I began producing freighters, car ferries, oil tankers, and bulk carriers. During World War II, the Manitowoc Shipbuilding Company received a Navy contract to build submarines, though the company had never built one before. Nevertheless, the shipyard managed to produce 28 ships in the time the Navy had allotted to build only 10.

Manufacturing continues to dominate Wisconsin's economy, much of it concentrated in metropolitan Milwaukee, where the manufacture of heavy machinery, tools, and engines rivals the more traditional brewing and meatpacking industries. Other important manufactures are vehicles, metal products, medical instruments, farm implements and lumber. The pulp, paper, and paper-products industry in the Fox Valley is one of the largest in the nation. Wisconsin's fertile soils also provide agricultural products to a large food processing industry. In the north, Wisconsin ports still accommodate large, oceangoing ships, as well as shipyards and coal and ore docks that are among the largest in the nation.

[Source: The History of Wisconsin vols. 3 and 4 (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin); Kasparek, Jon, Bobbie Malone and Erica Schock. Wisconsin History Highlights: Delving into the Past (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2004); Reaves, Shiela. Wisconsin: Land of Change (Sun Valley, CA: American Historical Press, 2004)]


Original Documents and Other Primary Sources

Link to article: A tariff advocate seeks worker support, 1880  A tariff advocate seeks worker support, 1880
Link to article: How aluminum becomes Mirro cookware  How aluminum becomes Mirro cookware
Link to article: The Sheboygan Press covers the strike in Kohler, 1934  The Sheboygan Press covers the strike in Kohler, 1934
Link to artifacts: Parker Pen trim lathe  Parker Pen trim lathe
Link to artifacts: A gas powered tractor for small-scale farmers  A gas powered tractor for small-scale farmers
Link to book: An 1888 milling catalogue from the Allis Company  An 1888 milling catalogue from the Allis Company
Link to book: A history of aluminum manufacturing in Manitowoc  A history of aluminum manufacturing in Manitowoc
Link to book: The history and making of Holeproof Hosiery  The history and making of Holeproof Hosiery
Link to book: Three new flour mills open in Superior in 1893  Three new flour mills open in Superior in 1893
Link to book: A trip through an instrument factory in Elkhorn, 1920  A trip through an instrument factory in Elkhorn, 1920
Link to book: A colorful and opinionated guide to Milwaukee businesses, 1877  A colorful and opinionated guide to Milwaukee businesses, 1877
Link to book: A look at Wisconsin industry on the eve of the Depression  A look at Wisconsin industry on the eve of the Depression
Link to book: A Labor Day souvenir from the 1900 celebration  A Labor Day souvenir from the 1900 celebration
Link to book: The many products of the Manitowoc Shipbuilding Company, 1948  The many products of the Manitowoc Shipbuilding Company, 1948
Link to book: Kimberly-Clark Company celebrates its history, 1922.  Kimberly-Clark Company celebrates its history, 1922.
Link to book: Catalog of outboard motor manufacturer Evinrude, 1929.  Catalog of outboard motor manufacturer Evinrude, 1929.
Link to book: Susan Frackelton's manual on ceramic arts, 1886  Susan Frackelton's manual on ceramic arts, 1886
Link to book: A catalogue of industries from Milwaukee's Industrial Exposition in 1881  A catalogue of industries from Milwaukee's Industrial Exposition in 1881
Link to book: The National Labor Relations Board tries to settle the Kohler strike, 1934  The National Labor Relations Board tries to settle the Kohler strike, 1934
Link to book: Kohler workers strike for Union recognition  Kohler workers strike for Union recognition
Link to book: The Kohler Company celebrates industrial progress, 1934  The Kohler Company celebrates industrial progress, 1934
Link to book: Kohler: A place to work and live (1920)  Kohler: A place to work and live (1920)
Link to book: A guide to Milwaukee's commercial industries, 1882  A guide to Milwaukee's commercial industries, 1882
Link to book: A bathing suit catalog from Gimbel Brothers of Milwaukee  A bathing suit catalog from Gimbel Brothers of Milwaukee
Link to book: Annual summaries of Milwaukee industry, 1919-1929  Annual summaries of Milwaukee industry, 1919-1929
Link to book: A Depression-era quilt design catalog from Walworth, Wis.  A Depression-era quilt design catalog from Walworth, Wis.
Link to images: Toy carriages and wagons from a Sheboygan factory, 1873-1875  Toy carriages and wagons from a Sheboygan factory, 1873-1875
Link to images: Images of the Winther Motor Truck Company  Images of the Winther Motor Truck Company
Link to images: Advertisements for farm equipment  Advertisements for farm equipment
Link to images: Photographs of automobile manufacturing in Wisconsin, 1905-1968.  Photographs of automobile manufacturing in Wisconsin, 1905-1968.
Link to images: Photographs of Wisconsin workers and factories, 1900-1909  Photographs of Wisconsin workers and factories, 1900-1909
Link to manuscript: Papers of ceramic artist Susan Frackelton, 1882-1953.  Papers of ceramic artist Susan Frackelton, 1882-1953.
Link to places: The Kissel Motor Car Industrial District  The Kissel Motor Car Industrial District
Link to places: The Kohler Company Complex in Sheboygan  The Kohler Company Complex in Sheboygan
Link to places: The Harley-Davidson Motor Company  The Harley-Davidson Motor Company

Primary Sources Available Elsewhere

Link to article: The tendency of youth to leave farm life, 1898  The tendency of youth to leave farm life, 1898
Link to book: State regulations for women workers, 1920  State regulations for women workers, 1920
Link to book: A study of women laundry workers in Milwaukee, 1913  A study of women laundry workers in Milwaukee, 1913
Link to book: Wisconsin Blue Books  Wisconsin Blue Books
Link to book: A history of the rubber industry in La Crosse, 1925  A history of the rubber industry in La Crosse, 1925
Link to book: The economic and agricultural riches of La Crosse, 1904  The economic and agricultural riches of La Crosse, 1904
Link to book: "Billie" the button describes how pearl buttons are made in La Crosse  "Billie" the button describes how pearl buttons are made in La Crosse
Link to images: Photographs of Wisconsin's heavy industrial manufacturing  Photographs of Wisconsin's heavy industrial manufacturing

Related Links

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A history of industrial development in Wisconsin
Read how Allis Chalmers brought technology to the farm
Allis-Chalmers' Vice President discusses the history and future of the company, 1960

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