Chicago and Milwaukee share a lot in common. Both Midwestern cities are located just 90 miles apart on the western shore of Lake Michigan. They each are home to diverse ethnic communities that host fun outdoor festivals during the warmer months. In addition, both towns have a long history of making beer and rooting for the two oldest teams in professional football.
Chicago and Milwaukee also share a proud manufacturing heritage. In fact, “making stuff” is part of the DNA of both cities. Over the last 175 years, a wide variety of products have poured out of the numerous assembly lines, foundries and machine shops scattered around Chicago and Milwaukee.
I recently had a chance to visit temporary exhibits in each city that highlighted just a few of the many products that were once made in local factories.
My first stop was the Grohmann Museum, located on the campus of the Milwaukee School of Engineering. “The Magnificent Machines of Milwaukee” display (based on a book by a local mechanical engineer named Thomas Fehring, P.E.) featured a variety of objects that were invented and produced in the city.
The exhibit featured profiles of the engineers behind the products, which included things such as early typewriters, outboard motors and deep sea diving helmets (the latter is still made in Milwaukee by a company called DESCO).
One of my favorite displays was an old silent movie showing the “mechanical marvel” in action. It caught my eye because a number of years ago, I wrote an article about this early attempt at automated assembly. It’s amazing what the talented engineers at A.O. Smith Corp. came up with 100 years ago.
I also recently visited a small display at the Rogers Park/West Ridge Historical Society on the North Side of Chicago. Its “Made in Chicago” exhibit was more scattered and not as well presented as the Milwaukee display, but it was equally fascinating.
Vintage products included things such as a Bell & Howell movie projector, a Schwinn bicycle and a Victor adding machine. Those brand names are long gone, but the well-made products are testaments to the talents and hard work of generations of Chicagoans.
To learn more about the plethora of products that were once made on assembly lines in the city and suburbs, be sure to get your hands on a copy of Made in Chicago: The Windy City’s Manufacturing Heritage.