As readers of this blog know, I spent a greater part of two decades in Milwaukee and think of it as my home town of cherished memory. I still remember when it was the undisputed brewing capitol of America, “Beer Town USA.” Although the largely German heritage population took their beer seriously, they could poke fun at themselves, as evidenced by the vintage postcards shown here.
One of my favorites is a card that announces “Touring in Milwaukee,” that shows a mustached gent driving a primitive automobile who is sitting on a crate of beer bottles and whose engine is a beer barrel. A malt house and a brewery are shown in the distance. It is particularly notable for its attention to other Milwaukee favorites including cheese (specifically here, limburger), frankfurters, sauerkraut and pretzels. Those epitomize the town we know and love.
The breweries often issued their own comic cards. The Miller Brewery, to my mind, was the most creative, poking fun at both Milwaukeeans and their beer. “The Water Wagon in Milwaukee” is humorous in virtually every aspect, showing a group of townsfolk's riding a barrel of High Life beer while drinking from steins and goblets being filled by a man standing on the back of the vehicle next to a spigot. As in the earlier postcard, the dachshund is the canine of choice, shown here as the source of locomotion.
The recently invented airplane was another theme for a comic Miller card, with a quaint little driver steering the flying machine while quaffing a Miller while cruising over the Miller Brewing Company. Note that the propellers are made of sausages as are the landing struts. The theme here is “The High Life in Milwaukee.”
Miller Beer issued a card that clearly was aimed at a caricature of the beer-drinking resident of Milwaukee — a gent with a large “beer belly“ and a distinct German accent drinking from a bottle of Miller High Life and intoning “How Is Dot for High Life Beer.” Ish dot making fun of the drinking local drinking public? Yah, dot ish!
Schlitz beer usually took a more sophisticated approach to its humorous trade cards, featuring spoofs of Shakespeare’s plays. Above right is a faux scene from Hamlet, Act One, Scene One. Here Hamlet is in despair because of the death of his father and the quick marriage of his mother to the new king, his uncle (the murderer). In the play itself the king utters most of the words on the card — except he and the queen are not holding foaming steins of beer, nor does he admonish Hamlet to try a Schlitz.
Shakespeare also is lampooned in a second Schlitz card. The card depicts a scene from Richard III when Richard has been defeated in a pivotal battle and has been thrown from his steed. As the Bard wrote it, he cries: “My horse, my horse, my kingdom for a horse.” In the Schlitz version, the king thinks that a glass of beer will do just as well as horse. One interesting touch is that the Schlitz logo has been attached to the shield of the spearman at top left.
The next Schlitz card is something of a mystery, obviously meant for a Milwaukee audience and carrying local connotations. It may be referencing the Eagles Club, a national fraternal organization that was very active in Milwaukee, perhaps hailing a national Eagle’s convention. A male figure at lower right is carrying the key to the city. He is identified as Mayor Becker. Elected at 29 in 1906, Sheldon Becker was known as the “Boy Mayor of Milwaukee.” A Republican, he did not grow old in the job, defeated two years later by a Democrat and never ran again. Thus, the card can be dated 1906-1908.
Joining Miller and Schlitz in promoting humor in advertising, Pabst tended toward more elegant settings for many of its trade cards. There is implicit humor in a young woman dressed in what looks like a ball gown and pumps wielding a feather duster as if she is the cleaning lady. The caption reads: “A little talk over the wires with…” When opened it appears she is phoning a local beer "stube" that carries a variety of Pabst products.
But Pabst could downright folksy sometimes, as exemplified by this “Greeting from Milwaukee” postcard. Mimicking the familiar football cheer of the time, it depicted a bottle of Pabst Blue Ribbon being opened by a waiter for a customer. As the cap is being lifted, a “Z-i-s” sound is heard. Then as the carbon monoxide gas explodes out, a “Boom.” Finally as the gent quaff the brew, a satisfied “Ah.”
The fourth member of the Milwaukee “Big Four” breweries of the time, Blatz, generally was more serious in its advertising. I have been able to find only one Blatz card in the humor genre and that may have originated from a saloon in St. Paul, called the Corner Buffet. The card, dated 1905, shows a row of the proverbial bald-headed men watching a burlesque chorus line. A patron has thrown a bouquet of roses on stage with note, “meet me.” The message is that kicking about the weather won’t help but drinking beer from “world famous Blatz Brewery” would help some.
There they are: Ten examples of how Milwaukee and its brewers could make fun of the city, its citizens, and Milwaukee beers. While engaged in serious competitive merchandising efforts, they also had concluded that smiles sold suds.