“Feeds and Supplies” Poster Debuted in 1901
By John Gurda
Her origin is a mystery. For more than a century the auburn-haired goddess in the diaphanous gown has been hovering beside a globe that depicts Milwaukee as a beacon of light at the center of the world. Her expression is self-satisfied, faintly smug, perhaps even a little drunk. In her left arm this Victorian angel holds a palm frond—perennial symbol of victory. On the top of the globe, somewhere around Manitoba, rest the tools of Milwaukee’s—and Wisconsin’s—various trades: a gear for industry, a pick for mining, an ax for forest products, and a sheaf of grain for agriculture. Behind the globe, in artfully rendered perspective, smoke-belching locomotives and steamships are busy carrying local products away to distant markets. The graphic image reinforces the textual message: Milwaukee Feeds and Supplies the World.
The “Feeds and Supplies” illustration is an exercise in unabashed
boosterism dating from a time when Milwaukee was very much on the rise.
The illustration is featured on a poster so ubiquitous that it’s become genuinely iconic. The goddess and her globe adorn thousands of Milwaukee area walls, including my own, as an attractive, cheap (still only five dollars), and slightly kitschy expression of local pride. For such a popular piece of art, the details of its provenance are surprisingly obscure. We don’t know the artist, and we can only speculate about the symbols. The image’s intent, however, is crystal-clear. The “Feeds and Supplies” illustration is an exercise in unabashed boosterism dating from a time when Milwaukee was very much on the rise. It was created for the cover of The Book of Milwaukee, a supplement published by the Evening Wisconsin newspaper in 1901. The tabloid was one in a lengthy series of books, broadsides, and brochures used to promote the city around the turn of the twentieth century.
Milwaukee was in the throes of rapid industrialization at the time, growing into its role as “The Machine Shop of the World” but still processing the products of its agricultural hinterland, particularly grain and livestock. Local boosters wanted everyone to catch the wave of civic excitement. The Evening Wisconsin, which appeared in one form or another from 1847 to 1937, editorialized that it was a “dire necessity … to make Milwaukee more conspicuous and render it more attractive to outsiders.” The goals were investment, employment, and ultimately population.
The newspaper’s Book of Milwaukee, accordingly, was filled with glowing accounts of the city’s leading industries, including those that produced food and beverages. “The Peerless Cream City” was ballyhooed as “the largest barley market in the world”—a function of its role as a beer capital—as well as a globally important supplier of flour and meat products. Wisconsin was an agricultural powerhouse, and Milwaukee, as her largest city, benefited in turn.
There is little evidence that the cover image of the tabloid took the community by storm. The artwork was striking and the slogan was catchy, but “Feeds and Supplies” was hardly the only promotional effort of its time. The well-fed goddess languished until recent decades, when she was plucked from obscurity and placed on the familiar poster.
The Evening Wisconsin created The Book of Milwaukee with equal parts of optimism and hope. “Built upon stable foundations, the prosperity of Milwaukee is assured,” gushed the editors. “Its progress in the past is recognized as the happy prologue to a glowing future.” Glowing or not, we are that future. The world we feed and supply may be smaller than the one our ancestors served, but Milwaukee is still a manufacturing stronghold, and we’ve become a center of urban agriculture as well. In the spirit of the original illustration, may the redheaded goddess light our way to an even brighter tomorrow.
John Gurda is a Milwaukee-born writer and historian who has been studying his hometown since 1972. He is the author of nineteen books, including histories of Milwaukee-area neighborhoods, industries, and places of worship. “The Making of Milwaukee” is Gurda’s most ambitious effort. With 450 pages and more than 500 illustrations, it is the first full-length history of the community published since 1948. Milwaukee Public Television created an Emmy Award-winning documentary series based on the book in 2006.
In addition to his work as an author, Gurda is a lecturer, tour guide, and local history columnist for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He holds a B.A. in English from Boston College and an M.A. in Cultural Geography from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Gurda is an eight-time winner of the Wisconsin Historical Society’s Award of Merit.