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A brief history of socialism in Milwaukee and where you can still see its remnants today

Milwaukee is famous for brewing beer. However, in the late part of the 19th century and in the early part of the 20th century, it was trouble that was brewing. Laborers were being overworked and underpaid. People were uncovering political corruption. City streets and waterways were dirty and unkempt. The fall of entire industries crippled Milwaukee-based companies. At least seven people were shot dead by the state militia during a march in support of an eight hour work day. This perfect storm parted the seas for the emergence of a strong socialist presence in the city of Milwaukee.

Berger, Seidel, Hoan and Zeidler

Victor Berger

Known as the “Moses” of Milwaukee Socialism, Victor Berger was instrumental in the emergence of the Social Democrats in the 1890s. Berger pushed for change not through demonstrations and marches, but through the polls. Through his printed newspapers, the Milwaukee Leader and Forward (not to be confused with the Wisconsin state motto) and the “Bundle Brigade,” a group of volunteers distributing leaflets, Berger worked to spread the word of socialism.

The "Sewer Socialists"

This printed media highlighted socialist candidates and their commitment to clearance of blighted areas of the city, increased employment opportunities, more cultural experiences for residents and cleaning up Milwaukee’s public works units. The Socialists’ commitment to public works like sanitation, water and power earned them the name “Sewer Socialists,” a title that members of the party embraced. After gaining traction and support from Milwaukee residents, the Socialists began to infiltrate the political arena in a big way.

Emil Seidel, Milwaukee's first Socialist mayor

Running on the platform of standing up for the working man, the first Socialist mayor in Milwaukee and in the U.S., Emil Seidel, was elected into office in 1910, along with 21 Socialist aldermen, 10 county supervisors and two judges.

Seidel was successful in raising the minimum wage for city workers from $1.75 to $2.00 per day, standardizing the eight hour work day, promoting the use of local businesses, supporting adult education through the establishment of the Milwaukee Vocational School (now known as Milwaukee Area Technical College) and creating a city parks system that was one of the best in the nation. 

Victor Berger

In 1911, shortly after Seidel's election, Victor Berger was elected as a member of Congress. Vehemently opposed to World War I, both Berger and Seidel’s first stints in the political arena were short-lived. Victor Berger would go on to be indicted by the Espionage Act for his spoken and written opposition to the war—calling it the rich man’s war, but a poor man’s fight—and was unable to take his seat in Congress despite being elected in 1918. By 1922, Berger’s conviction was overturned and he went on to serve three successive terms in Congress.

Daniel Hoan

In 1912, Emil Seidel was defeated in Milwaukee’s mayoral election by Gerhard Bading, a nominee supported by both the Republican and Democratic Parties. After Bading’s four years in office, during which he successfully repealed many of the reforms that Seidel worked to put into place, including the eight hour workday, one of the Milwaukee’s most notable figures, Daniel Hoan, was elected in 1916 and served 24 years as the Mayor of Milwaukee.

Daniel Hoan’s tenure in office can partially be attributed to his ability to make socialism more digestible for the average citizen, using compromise and strict adherence to legal processes as his main tactics. For example, while many members of the Socialist Party opposed World War I, Hoan compromised with local supporters of the war by creating the County Council of Defense, which coordinated defense work by local industries, bond drives and war relief efforts. His hands-off support of war efforts allowed him to gain the backing of cross-party voters, allowing him to remain in office.

Hoan brought national attention to Milwaukee by creating the country’s first public housing project and first public transportation system and fought for municipal ownership of several divisions of public works—the city’s water system and power plant. Hoan also vehemently blocked attempts by the Ku Klux Klan to host events in the City of Milwaukee during the 1920s, gaining him the city’s African American vote. While some of his actions made him less popular in the eyes of members of Milwaukee’s Socialist Party, his 24 years of public service as the Mayor of Milwaukee demonstrates the faith that Milwaukee residents had in him.

Frank Zeidler

By 1940, the political and economic state of Milwaukee was very different. Voters were ready for a change. Daniel Hoan was replaced with Democratic mayoral candidate, Carl Zeidler, who resigned to join the United States Navy during World War II. He was succeeded by nonpartisan candidate John Bohn, who served 6 years until Socialist candidate, Frank Zeidler, Carl Zeidler’s brother, captured the hearts of Milwaukee voters.

Mayor Frank Zeidler was elected on the platform that he would not add any debt to Milwaukee’s exceptional credit rating. However, with mounting pressure to keep up with other cities’ downtown development, to clear “blighted” areas and to create a highway to connect the suburbs to the city, Zeidler borrowed over $55 million from the federal government. Urban renewal efforts defined the bulk of Zeidler’s tenure in office. Though many saw these efforts as progressive, in reality, they masked the displacement of thousands of individuals and families, a large majority of whom were African American. Lack of adequate and affordable housing in the central city became more and more problematic as the population of African Americans in the central city grew exponentially.

Restrictive housing covenants, redlining, housing discrimination, labor market discrimination and social perceptions of race dominated the conversation around central city housing and urban renewal efforts during Zeidler’s 28 year tenure. Although Zeidler did make some effort to uncover and expose these issues, Milwaukee continued, and continues to this day, to struggle with the balance between central city development and protecting access to quality housing for all residents.

Racial tensions in Milwaukee and failing health prevented Frank Zeidler from running for the mayoral office again in 1960. However, following his stint as Mayor of Milwaukee, Zeidler was instrumental in the resurgence of the Socialist Party on a national scale and was the party’s Presidential Nominee in 1976, receiving just over 6,000 votes.

The past and present of Socialism in Milwaukee

The history of socialism is cemented in the idea that government should be a representation of us all. While there are strong examples of this idea in many reforms that socialists pushed for, there is also clear backlash from other political parties and institutions where suggested reforms did not fit into their ideals.

Though the era of Milwaukee's Socialist mayors is over, their legacy is still all over Milwaukee. Here are a few more places where you can still see remnants of our socialist past:


After visiting Germany’s Oktoberfest, Mayor Henry Maier proposed the "Milwaukee World Festival," which eventually became Summerfest. While Maier was a Democrat, he succeeded Frank Zeidler, the last of Milwaukee's Socialist mayors, entering into a political climate with a heavy socialism influence, making it hard to ignore how socialist the idea of "the people's festival" is at its core.

Milwaukee County Parks 

In the words of John Gurda: Charlie Whitnall was the godfather of the park system as we know it today. He was a Socialist. He became this impassioned planner and advocate for green space. The system we know today—he was patient and persistent and smart. He worked at the public bodies at the city and county levels. They both had park systems, both city and county. They weren’t merged until the end of 1936.

The template for the park system that he published in 1923—the theory was that he wanted people to be within the influence of nature. Like many Socialists and others of that era it was believed that if you were in the presence of nature, that influence would be better on your personal life, as a citizen. If you overlaid the present park system with Whitnall’s map in 1923, it’s pretty close. He was the mastermind.

The lakefront

Up until 1929 when the lakefront development project was completed, the most precious part of the lakefront was owned by the richest people in the city. You can still see some of their mansions up on the hill. To create more public space, Milwaukee's Socialists decided to build a new lakefront by filling in part of the lake to create more access.

Turner Hall

The first Turner societies in the United States were organized in 1848 by German immigrants and exiles carrying the torch of liberty and democratic reform. These “48′ers”, as they were called, created vigorous athletic, cultural, and social societies throughout the country in the tradition of the German Turnverein societies. The Turner motto, “Sound Mind in a Sound Body,” expresses their holistic vision for realizing human potential through the harmonious integration of intellectual and physical development.

The Milwaukee Turners formed in 1855 and built Turner Hall in 1883, complete with a gymnasium, restaurant/beer hall, meeting rooms and the grand two-story ballroom. Now the building is most popular as a concert hall and the Turners are best known for their focus on athletics and gymnastics, but the group used to be known for its political power and socialist ideologies too. Mayors Emil Seidel, Daniel Hoan and Frank Zeidler were all among its members.

Membership Manager | Radio Milwaukee