Socialism in Milwaukee and the Emil Seidel Collections

Aims McGuinness, Associate Professor of History, University of California, Santa Cruz

Milwaukee is a city where socialists have found success to a greater extent than any other U.S. city. Regardless of what one thinks of that history, Milwaukee socialists’ efforts to realize their dreams for the future have indisputably shaped our city. This digital resource offers an introduction to the history of those dreams.

Socialists in Milwaukee enjoyed extraordinary success at the ballot box in the twentieth century, including a record of three socialist mayors. Emil Seidel served as mayor from 1910-1912 and became Eugene Debs’ running mate when Debs ran for president in 1912. Victor Berger became the first socialist to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, in 1910. Daniel Hoan, the second socialist mayor, led the city from 1916-1940 and was praised by non-socialists for his fiscal leadership and public health achievements. Frank P. Zeidler, the city’s third socialist mayor, was elected at the dawn of the Cold War, in 1948, and served three terms in office before deciding not to run for re-election in 1960.

The “sewer socialists,” as Milwaukee socialists came to be known, gained a reputation for their pragmatic solutions for providing basic public services such as water treatment, education, parks, and libraries. Yet there is much beyond sewer socialism that is worth knowing about the history of socialism. The history of socialist and left politics in Milwaukee stretches back to the mid-1800s and continues into the present. Socialist ideas and projects have taken many different forms over time, and the city itself has changed dramatically.

This digital resource offers an introduction to some of the rich materials related to the history of socialist politics in Milwaukee contained in the collections of the UWM Archives. Our collections are focused especially on Milwaukee’s first socialist mayor, Emil Seidel. This digital collection includes the entirety of Seidel’s personal papers, his official papers from his time serving as Mayor of Milwaukee, and his unpublished autobiography. Additionally, the digital collection includes selections from the UWM Special Collections’ monographs by and about the Milwaukee Turners.

The autobiography of Emil Seidel, which has never been published, offers fascinating glimpses into Seidel’s formation as a socialist before, during, and after his time as mayor in 1910-12. Seidel accompanied his manuscript with his own pen-and-ink drawings of places of importance to him, such as his childhood home on Milwaukee’s North Side. The collection offers Seidel’s recollections of critical moments in the foundation of the Socialist Party of America and the socialist movement in Milwaukee. The manuscript also includes Seidel’s reflections on what he viewed as the continuing relevance of socialism in his later years, in the late 1930s and early 1940s, a period of decline in the Socialist Party’s support both in Milwaukee and nationally.