The Pfister Hotel has been decking its halls and welcoming holiday travelers for 125 years. The first Christmas in the hotel was a busy one. Manager Sam H. Brown worked tirelessly to ensure the rush of seasonal guests experienced the same high level of service The Pfister Hotel was quickly becoming synonymous with. Head Steward, Euran May, former steward of President Harrison, had the kitchens and wine cellars stocked with the finest provisions and Chef George Roth planned a holiday meal he was certain would dazzle guests. Today, the roles in the hotel are a bit different, but those same essential tasks are being diligently completed with the same zeal shown in 1893.
Looking back on Christmas in Milwaukee during the hotel’s first year, much more is familiar than foreign to our modern eyes. Like today, much of December was spent making merry, with an emphasis on gift-giving, decorating and seasonal gatherings.
Economically, times were hard in Milwaukee during the hotel’s opening year. Newspapers estimated that more than 12,000 residents ate their Christmas meal at the “Free Kitchen.” City-dwellers came together to aid those in need. Women’s social clubs worked diligently to sew clothes for the needy and organize coat drives. Iconic retailer of yesteryear, Gimbels, was celebrated for making donations that allowed 200 children serviced by the Rescue Mission to receive a toy, candy, popcorn, nuts and an orange for Christmas. Milwaukee Public School made sure its youngest pupils were taken care of, providing all kindergartners with a classroom Christmas meal. Modern Milwaukeeans continue to be a philanthropic group, giving more than 3 billion dollars annually to charities.
Both then and now, social gatherings are an essential part of the season. The social registries found in every newspaper breathlessly listed upcoming balls, parties and the visiting holiday guests in town to celebrate Christmas. An essential event on nearly every Milwaukeean’s calendar was a Christmas Bazaar hosted by their church. Most congregations in the city hosted this event for parishioners to share a meal and enjoy festive entertainment as a community. Informal fun was available for the young and the young at heart who bundled up to partake in sleigh rides. Unlike today, where the season of holiday celebrations begins after Thanksgiving and runs through the New Year, most of the 1893 events were scheduled between Christmas and New Year’s Eve.
Rather than the Joneses, Milwaukeeans were more likely to be trying to keep up with the Millers or Kowalskis in 1893. Regardless of the neighbors, city-dwellers strived to be modern and fashionable. Today’s baubles and bows were not yet popular, so Milwaukee tree-trimmers decorated their trees with wax tapers, tinsel and, if it was in the family budget, fresh fruit. The stylish decorator adorned her home with red flowers and candles and was accompanied by a well-dressed gentleman companion sporting a boutonniere of mistletoe. While today some check the tabloids to see the holiday decorations of celebrities or view Christmas portraits of famous families, turn of the century Milwaukeeans eagerly read accounts of Queen Victoria’s Christmas Ball and scanned the list of gifts that were sent from across the country to first daughter “Baby Ruth” Cleveland, daughter of the sitting President.
The food and gifts we share with loved ones have always been an essential part of a Milwaukee Christmas. Brew City shops featured extended holiday hours and newspapers were filled with ads suggesting gifts for our nearest and dearests. Cigars were popular gifts for men, with some shops giving away Havana-made cigars with the purchase of other items, like 25 cent ties or encyclopedias. Unlike today’s holiday flyers, advertisements for toys and other gifts for children were a rarity. We often hear laments about modern children and their reliance on screen time, but this is not solely a contemporary concern. In an editorial published in December, 1893 it was noted that children of the era are too dependent on toys and lacked the ability to entertain themselves, unlikely previous generations. It appears parents then and now share similar concerns about their children.
Perhaps more important than the gifts are the foods we associate with end of the year celebrations. Holidays were, and still are, a time when our taste buds become nostalgic for the flavors from our childhood. Milwaukee immigrants were eager to recreate the tastes of Scotch Shortbreads, Barbarian Christmas Cake, English Mince Pie and other traditional foods from their former lands. Home cooks imported the needed ingredients, including flour, to make the treats they remember from their former lands. Today, we still celebrate with foods that honor our cultural heritage, but we are more likely to leave the preparations to one of the city’s many ethnic restaurants, bakeries or food markets.
It seems as if Wisconsin weather was every bit as unpredictable 125 year ago as it is now. While it would be another 61 years until Bing Crosby would croon a ditty about longing for a “white Christmas,” it was something very much on the minds of Brew City residents. Christmas Day of 1893 was a dry one and with a high of 48 degrees, it was very certainly not a white one. Meteorologists predict the hotels 125 Christmas will be colder, yet no more white than its first.
Whether we’ll be dusting snow from our jackets or strolling the streets in shirt sleeves on December 25th still remains to be seen. However the day finds us, if The Pfister Hotel is part of your holiday celebration, we hope the magic of the season find you while you are our guest. Wishing you a very-merry 125th Christmas!