Milwaukee: Spice Mecca

My latest story for Edible Milwaukee is out in the world. Spices, just in time for the holidays! It’s also where I magically trace the European settlement of Wisconsin to the spice trade.

A teaser:

Few things conjure the spirit of the holidays better than the scent of cinnamon, cloves, vanilla and nutmeg. These flavors have long been popular with Milwaukeeans. In 1846, Water Street grocer Frederick Wardner announced in the Milwaukee Daily Courier that he had just returned with the largest stock of dry goods and groceries, with special note made of ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves and pepper, that “has ever been exhibited to the good people of Wisconsin.”

SpiceHouse-2There’s something mystical about the idea of spices, invoking images of brightly colored mounds of seeds, flowers, and bark in an Eastern bazaar. While the terms are sometimes used interchangeably in the kitchen, herbs and spices are different. Herbs are the leaves of plants, while spices come from the roots, bark and seeds. Some plants provide both herb and spice, like cilantro, the leaves and coriander, the seeds of the cilantro plant. Most spices originate in the tropics, growing 15 degrees above or below the equator. Herbs, on the other hand, can be more temperate.

Demand for trade goods from Asia, especially spices like cinnamon and pepper, was high in the Middle Ages. But the distance and number of middlemen involved made these goods too expensive for any but the wealthiest of Europeans in the 1300s and 1400s.

The secret behind the spice trade was simple: huge demand and a tightly-controlled supply. The drive for more (and cheaper) spices drove Europeans westward in search of an alternative sea route to Asia. Among the first was Christopher Columbus who aimed for India but bumped into the Americas instead. To appease his creditors for his failure, Columbus named the New World natives he met “Indians” and their chilies “pepper,” two names that have confused people ever since.


Read more about spices and so many more delicious things at Edible Milwaukee

Make And Mend: Sewing in the Second World War

“It’s up to you to keep the home fires burning, to see that you and your family stay easy-on-the-eyes. Fortunately, you can be patriotic and pretty both. It’s easy to teach an old wardrobe new tricks, to resurrect the skeletons in your closet and bring them up to date. Come on, take those old knockabouts and turn them into knockouts, keep that glint in Uncle Sam’s eye and still do your stint towards Victory!”

That’s how the Spool Cotton Company enticed American women to sew during World War II. Everyone was asked to do his or her part for the war. Children saved pennies and collected scrap metal. Families planted vegetable gardens. Women learned to cook meals without meat, wheat, and sugar. Other women went to work in factories and farm fields. They also picked up a needle and thread.



Sewing had fallen by the wayside for many Americans with the growth of ready-made clothes in the 1920s. A whole generation of young people grew up thinking that they maybe didn’t have to sew anymore.

But during World War II, sewing became patriotic and women were urged to mend old clothes or make new ones. In 1942, the War Production Board issued regulation L-85 rationing natural fibers. Domestic supplies of wool, cotton, linen, rayon, silk, and nylon were needed for military uniforms and supplies. The government need for fabric grew so great that it depleted supplies of clothes and shoes.

To save on fabric, the War Production Board even regulated style, limiting fabric color choices and restricting the length of skirts and the fullness of pants. Cuffs were forbidden. Dresses were limited to one and ¾ yards of fabric.

As a result, women’s hems rose, pants legs narrowed, and jackets fell at the hip. Women stopped wearing silk stockings (which cost too much, while the new wonder fiber nylon was commandeered soon after its launch for parachutes, airplanes, netting, and tents) and began painting seams on their legs to give the appearance of wearing stockings. Men adopted single-breasted suits without pleats or cuffs. Some men struggled to even find a suit as the clothing industry focused on military needs.


And Americans began to mend their old clothes – “make do and mend” as the effort was known in Britain. “You’ve no idea how quickly wilted wardrobes respond to kindness,” counseled Make Mend for Victory. The booklet advised women on easy repairs for holes in stockings, fixing tears, and patching holes. Not oblivious to trends, it also covered alterations and restyling, the addition of collars and dickeys, and smart hats made from “a ball of yarn” and “a scrap of felt.”

Sewing for victory created a sewing boom but it didn’t last. While fabric shortages in Europe kept women sewing longer, many American women put aside their machines once the war ended.


Make Mend for Victory

Recalling Women’s Fight for the Vote in Wisconsin

Wisconsin Historical Images

Nov. 5, 1912, was a bad day for Wisconsin women hoping to gain the vote in a statewide referendum.

Wisconsin voters (all male, by definition) shot down the suffrage question. As the poster, pictured right suggests, many of them did so for fear of what women would do armed with the vote. (Since only men could vote, it’s not clear who the other half of the “menace” in question is).

Women’s rights groups began forming in Wisconsin in the late 1860s. Most focused primarily on suffrage and temperance, the latter of which generated particularly strong opposition from the state’s powerful brewing industry, as well as German-Americans. Many of these voters believed that enfranchised women would force prohibition on the state.

In 1911, Richland Center suffragist Ada James enlisted her father, state Sen. David James, to push for a statewide referendum on suffrage. His support along with the lobbying of the Wisconsin Federation of Women’s Clubs brought the issue to voters in the fall of 1912. Wisconsin men voted suffrage down by a margin of 63 to 37 percent. Many factors contributed to the referendum’s defeat, but the link between suffrage and temperance played a major role.

Seven years later, in 1919, Wisconsin became the first state to ratify the 19th Amendment, the measure that would give women the vote nationwide. It was Ada James’ father, David, who raced to Washington, D.C., after the state Legislature approved the amendment to give Wisconsin that honor.

Back-to-School: Dorm Life in the 19th Century

Though students may not bring their tea sets to college anymore — as Lelia Bascom did in the above image of her room in the old Chadbourne Hall at the University of Wisconsin in 1899 — the college experience has long been associated with dorm life.

For centuries, universities were built around massive libraries. Early dorms were imposing structures designed to separate students from the outside — noneducational, vice-ridden — world. The male students that traditionally occupied these rooms were subject to strict rules and routines, often enforced by dorm mothers.

Male students took up residency in the University of Wisconsin’s North Hall in 1851. Among the hall’s most famous residents in its early years was John Muir, who decorated his 1860s dorm room with some of his inventions designed to maximize his college experience. One was a combination bed/alarm clock that tipped him onto the floor at an appointed hour each morning and struck a match to light up the room. Another was a rotating desk that lifted his textbook from a stack, opened it to the proper page, and left it there for a preset time before replacing it with the next book.

A second dorm, South Hall, opened in 1855, and became the first female residence hall in 1863 when the first women were admitted to the UW. The student above, Lelia Bascom, benefited from the actions of her distant cousin, former UW President John Bascom, the man primarily responsible for giving women full coeducational status at the UW in 1863. It was a move steadfastly opposed by one of Bascom’s predecessors Paul Chadbourne, who later, in a most fitting bit of historical humor and revenge, became the namesake for the building housing female students. When the original Chadbourne Hall was demolished in 1957, it was the oldest women’s dorm in the United States.

See more photos of dorm life — and its evolution — in this wonderful gallery from the University of Wisconsin-Madison Archives.

July 4th, When Wisconsin Broke Free (From Michigan)

Map of the Wisconsin Territory Wisconsin Historical Images

Map of the Wisconsin Territory
Wisconsin Historical Images

On July 4, 1836, Wisconsin officially broke off from Michigan to become its own territory.

Michigan was one of several territories that the future Wisconsin had belonged. We’d been part of the original Northwest Territory, Indiana Territory, Illinois Territory, and finally Michigan before becoming a territory in our own right once enough people had settled here and Michigan became a state.

Land speculator, judge, and all-around Wisconsin booster James Duane Doty led the effort to create the Wisconsin territory. Much to Doty’s chagrin, President Andrew Jackson appointed his rival General Henry Dodge governor.

Doty didn’t let this setback deter him in his quest to shape Wisconsin. Dodge’s new job came with responsibility for conducting a census, holding elections, and convening a territorial legislature that would select a new capital. Doty purchased some land with a few partners on an isthmus where downtown Madison stands today. Doty then hired a surveyor who mapped out a hypothetical city that he named Madison after the former president who had just died and aggressively lobbied the legislature to select his planned city as capital. Out of 19 contenders, Doty won.

Doty finally became Wisconsin’s territorial governor in 1841, where he tried and failed to lobby public support for statehood.

This territorial seal, likely created in 1838, shows a farmer plowing behind a horse, a Native American, a river steamboat, lighthouse, and lake schooner, and the first Madison capitol building (though not a very accurate representation of that).

The Man Who Put Wisconsin Aviation on the Map

Schwister at the controls of the Minnesota-Badger WPT

Schwister at the controls of the Minnesota-Badger

This week in 1911, John Schwister of Wausau flew Wisconsin’s first homebuilt airplane christened the “Minnesota-Badger.” The name came from the two sites of construction: St. Paul, Minnesota, and Rothschild. Schwister made his inaugural flight on June 23, 1911, traveling several hundred feet at an altitude of 20 feet. It was the state’s first plane capable of sustained, controlled flight, meaning it could take off, land, and turn as directed in the air.

Schwister constructed his plane out of wooden ribs covered with light cotton. He initially designed it as a glider that he towed like a kite behind his car. He then added an early-model airplane engine that he ordered through the mail and taught himself how to fly his craft. The Minnesota-Badger made several more flights, including an exhibition at the Langlade County Fair in Antigo, pictured above. Another journey saw Schwister travel 27 miles at a sky-scraping altitude of 2,000 feet.

Although Schwister was seriously injured in a plane crash in 1912, he kept flying and kept constructing new planes — and his efforts inspired other Wisconsinites to take to the air in their homebuilt crafts.

John Muir: Celebrated Naturalist And Unrecognized Genius Inventor

Kids gather around John Muir's study desk Wisconsin Historical Images

Kids gather around John Muir’s study desk
Wisconsin Historical Images

John Muir, one of America’s most influential naturalists and champions of the wilderness, celebrates his birthday this week.

Born on April 21, 1838, in Dunbar, Scotland, Muir and his family landed in Wisconsin in 1849. They settled near Portage on land they called Fountain Lake Farm. It was there in the woods, prairies, and wetlands of the farm that Muir discovered his passion for nature.

As a young man, Muir was also a talented inventor and could have made quite a career for his mechanical devices. On the farm, he constructed water wheels, thermometers, clocks and an automatic horse feeder. His father disapproved of his tinkering so he spent his nights working in secret in a cellar workshop.

Muir, whose formal schooling ended when he moved to Wisconsin, craved education. So he took several of his inventions to the 1860 Wisconsin State Fair and scraped up enough attention and money to pay for his college tuition.

Muir made the combination desk and clock pictured above while he was a student at the University of Wisconsin in the 1860s. More than just keeping time, it was a study aid for the harried college student. He arranged his books in the order he needed to study and set the timer. After a click, the first book was pushed up from a rack below the top of the desk and thrown open for studying. After a set number of minutes, the machinery closed the book, dropped it back into the rack, and then moved the next book up and onto the top of the desk.

Muir filled his dorm room with these practical machines to maximize his college experience. Another of his inventions was a combination bed and alarm clock that tipped the bed up and the person sleeping in it to standing position and struck a match for the lamp at the appointed wake up hour. It was carved, as a former dormmate of Muir’s recalled, with “no other tool than a jackknife.”

Muir left the UW and Wisconsin in 1863 on what he called “a glorious botanical and geological excursion.” He didn’t consider his education done, however: “I was only leaving one university for another, the University of Wisconsin for the University of the Wilderness.”

Photographic Futures: High School Students Predict Careers in Photos

In this image, Menomonie High School senior William C. Klatt operates on a disembodied head using a bit of photographic trickery. Klatt’s photo appeared in a unique album, depicting members of the 1905 graduating class in quirky scenes that seem perfect to get us in the April Fools’ spirit.

The photographs were the work of Albert Hansen and Sarah Ana Heller, both students themselves. Hansen took the photos while Heller did the prophesizing, posing each student with a costume and setting appropriate to their fated careers. Heller also wrote the text that accompanied each photo. Some of her captions are humorous and all are intriguing, like this one for a young woman dressed as a cook: “The Queen of Madagascar has secured at an enormous cost and trouble the services of Birdie Retelstorf as chief cook for the royal family, where she serves such delicious dishes that the Queen would not part with her for love nor money. Recommendations can be received at any time from her majesty for any graduate from The Stout Manual Training School. Miss Retelstorf’s master piece in the culinary line is a toothsome dainty known as Missionary Salad.”

Students appeared as everything from doctors and socialites to cowboys, dentists, and violinists. In one image, a woman wins an international prize for her book on mathematics, a fate far ahead of its time. Hansen himself posed as a hobo while Heller’s profession was unclear. Of herself, Heller wrote, “Any person in the audience who will volunteer to predict the future of this singular looking object will receive a prize package of chewing gum at the close of this meeting.”

Heller dressed for an unknown future Wisconsin Historical Images

Heller dressed for an unknown future
Wisconsin Historical Images

Hansen took his first photo at age 14 and never stopped. He liked to experiment with the possibilities of the medium, as these photos demonstrate.

At least one student fulfilled his photographic prophecy. Fred Quilling really did become a pharmacist. After an apprenticeship and degree from Northwestern University, Quilling returned to Menomonie and ran a drugstore on the town’s Main Street for many years.

Hobo Hansen Wisconsin Historical Images

Hobo Hansen
Wisconsin Historical Images

Frank Lloyd Who? The Remarkable Aunts of the Famed Architect

Ellen Lloyd Jones and her sister Jane Lloyd Jones standing in front of the Hillside School which they founded and managed.

Ellen Lloyd Jones and her sister Jane Lloyd Jones standing in front of the Hillside School which they founded and managed. Wisconsin Historical Images

While Frank Lloyd Wright—his innovative buildings and his tumultuous love life—tend to get most of the attention, his mother’s remarkable sisters, Ellen “Nell” Lloyd Jones and Jane “Jenny” Lloyd Jones (“the Aunts” as Frank called them), had a lasting influence on him as well as the students they taught in their progressive coed school.

In 1887, Nell and Jenny founded Hillside Home School on their family farm in Spring Green. They commissioned their young nephew (Frank was 19) to design the building.

Jenny and Nell came to their educational enterprise with a wealth of experience. Nell had been the head of the history department at River Falls State Normal School, while Jenny had directed a kindergarten-training school in Minnesota. Uniting farm, home, and school, the Hillside Home School was a progressive “learn by doing” school that educated students—girls and boys—from elementary through high school. It was perhaps the first coeducational home schools in the country.

The school’s location on a 100-acre farm was touted as an asset to education. “The location of the school removes them from the distraction of the city and surrounds them with the ennobling influences of nature,” proclaimed an 1893 Hillside Home School booklet. The sisters believed that education should teach the basics like math and reading while also attending to the development of empathetic and engaged human beings. Many classes were held outdoors. Older students taught younger ones about responsibility and good manners.

Jenny and Nell also believed that women should exercise and play sports, a view that was not yet common. Femininity throughout much of the 19th century was delicate and passive, not healthy and strong.

Girls play basketball outdoors at the Hillside School Wisconsin Historical Images

Girls play basketball outdoors at the Hillside School
Wisconsin Historical Images

Frank, an indifferent student himself, was inspired by the freedom of the educational curriculum offered by his aunts. He’d chafed against the rigidity of formal academic requirements. Among the students to attend the Hillside Home School were the architect’s sons Frank Lloyd, Jr., and John Kenneth as well as the three children of Robert La Follette.

The school closed in 1915. Nell and Jenny ran it for its entire existence. The school’s buildings were later repurposed as a school and studio for architecture students on the grounds of Taliesin.

When the White House Came to Wisconsin

Coolidge fishing on the Brule. No idea what that big wad of white fluff behind him is - cotton candy?

Coolidge fishing on the Brule. No idea what that big wad of white fluff behind him is – cotton candy? Wisconsin Historical Society

It’s all about the presidents this month. Lincoln’s birthday, Washington’s birthday, and Presidents’ Day for all the rest (though really, Presidents’ Day is still officially Washington’s birthday and only became popularly known as Presidents’ Day in the 1970s). While Wisconsin might not lay claim to a president, it does boast a “Summer White House.” President Calvin Coolidge escaped to Wisconsin for three months in the summer of 1928 to fish the Brule River while working in a nearby high school.

In fact, Wisconsin has been a popular destination for fishing presidents. Since Ulysses S. Grant, five presidents have dropped a line in the state’s waters.

Ill health led Coolidge and his wife Grace to leave Washington for Cedar Island Lodge in Brule. The announcement sent residents into a panic as they prepared for their lofty visitors. They built a new railroad depot, strung telephone and telegraph lines, redid roads and constructed an airport. A makeshift Oval Office was set up inside Superior Central High School for the nation’s business. The whole city decked itself out in red, white and blue. And upon his arrival, a huge crowd turned up to greet Coolidge, embarrassing the man known as “Silent Cal.”

Coolidge appears to have spent most of his time fishing rather than politicking. In July, he welcomed presidential nominee Herbert Hoover and declared his support of Hoover’s bid for office to residents, visitors, and newsmen. But that was about it. The Duluth Herald reported that the president appeared “more anxious to master the paddling of a canoe against the Brule rapids than in learning what is going on.” Coolidge definitely kept his cool… if being cool meant his demeanor toward his job.

Coolidge left his summer White House able to fly fish and paddle a birch bark canoe. He hoped to come back to the Brule, but sadly, died before that came to pass.