When Oshkosh Was 'Sin City'
Over the course of their history, Wisconsin's timber and paper industries have dramatically reshaped the state's landscape and continue to play a major role in its economy. Beyond launching what is still a multibillion dollar industry and stripping away vast swaths of old-growth forests, Wisconsin's early paper barons left both deliberate and unintentional marks on the state's social fabric.
During the second half of the 19th century, laborers poured into Wisconsin, many of them drawn to lumber and paper businesses in the Fox Valley, an area surrounding the Fox River that includes the cities of Oshkosh, Neenah, Menasha and Appleton. These cities rapidly urbanized and a whole new market sprang up for commercialized entertainment — from drinking and dancing and sex to boxing matches and burlesque and racist minstrel shows. These often rowdy leisure activities also gave workers a social sphere in which to share ideas about labor organizing and economic justice.
Jillian Jacklin, a Ph.D. history student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is a native of the Fox Cities and studies how the industrial and civic leaders presiding over the region's industrial boom sought to keep the working classes' social and political ferment in check. In an Aug. 29, 2017 presentation at the Wisconsin Historical Museum in Madison, she detailed how the work of religious organizations and morally-minded reformers aligned with the political wishes of the region's powerful people.
In the talk, recorded for Wisconsin Public Television's University Place, Jacklin recounted how the Fox Valley's industrial boom played out along class lines, and how these conflicts helped to shape subsequent conservative politics in the region.
The social currents shaping Wisconsin life during the late 19th and early 20th centuries also played an important role in the state's progressive movement. Progressive politicians may have been economic populists, often relying on support from farmers and laborers of modest means, but they often favored policies that cracked down on activities like prostitution and public drunkenness. While these politicians benefited from a strong support base of workers and farmers, they also supported anti-vice legislation that sought to regulate the behavior of that very support base.
The political awareness of working-class Fox Valley workers helped to fuel the rise of a progressive wing of the Republican Party in Wisconsin, and was a factor in Robert La Follette's election as governor in 1900.
- As it flows north over the course of 35 miles, the Fox River falls 170 feet, roughly the height of Niagara Falls. The river's potential for hydropower attracted businesses like lumber, paper, textile and flour mills to the area during the 1870s. Paper plants did not become a large part of the region's economy until the last decades of the 19th century; However, the area's first paper mill opened in Appleton in 1853.
- Investment from Eastern industrialists during the 1880s helped to fuel much of the growth of paper mills in the Fox Valley, as did vast timber stands north of Appleton.
- Appleton was the second city in the United States with a centralized electrical power grid, thanks to a hydroelectric operating station that opened in September 1882. This infrastructure was among the many factors that local business and civic leaders pointed to when touting the Fox Valley as a center for progress, innovation and urbanization. To such leaders, burgeoning development gave the area a "progressive" character. However, these improvements didn't translate to social equality; workers often experienced unfair treatment, were paid low wages and had their lives shaped in more subtle ways by the power of industrialists.
- In August 1898, woodcutters in Oshkosh went on strike in an effort to gain better wages and working conditions. Half of the strikers were women and children, who earned even less than the male laborers. Many of those women and children lost their jobs after the strike. (The strike escalated into a high-profile labor battle, involving violence and the use of "scabs." Workers voted to end it after the violence led to criminal proceedings.)
- Immigrants and transient workers who came to the Fox Valley to work in its expanding industries often brought along leisure customs and value systems that clashed with the desires of wealthy industrialists. Commercialized forms of entertainment often brought men and women together in social settings, something morally conservative community leaders would object to. These workers often liked to spend their wages on leisure activities that industrialists and members of the middle class considered "corrupting."
- The social lives of workers also worried industrialists because workers would use social gatherings to discuss political ideas and labor organizing. Many of these itinerant laborers were willing to fight injustice, because they'd suffered injustices in other places they'd lived.
- Some local officials didn't get in line with state-level efforts to crack down on vice because of personal connections. Edmund Fitzmaurice, mayor of Berlin, had trouble doing so because the cousin of his police chief ran a "house of ill fame" in the community.
- One form of entertainment popular at the time was blackface minstrel shows. These performances' racist depictions of African Americans carried over into the birth of vaudeville, which also promoted stereotypes about black people and others, including the homeless and Irish immigrants.
- As more women began to enter the workforce in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, social reformers focused more on engaging female workers. Organizations like the Young Women's Christian Association advocated for a "Christian womanhood" that centered around domestic life.
- Social reformers responded to the quickly urbanizing area's growing leisure marketplace with actions that included opening a Young Men's Christian Association chapter in Appleton, which encouraged volunteerism among Lawrence University students and offered social activities (like Bible studies) considered more morally upright.
- Social reformers and industrialists sought to battle activities they considered vice, and the political consciousness they believed vice helped to fuel. The 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago was one example of how elites created their own gathering spaces centered around wholesome family activities. Additionally, new laws like those addressing "vagrancy" restricted the movements of migrant workers, in an effort to divide workers along lines of race, class and lifestyle.
- Historians disagree about how "progressivism" was defined and when exactly the Progressive Era took place. Some scholars place the era around the 1920s and others a few decades earlier.
- On her connection to Fox Valley and its politics: "Growing up in the area, I became really interested when I came first to college at UW-Madison and then began my graduate work in uncovering why the area is known for its social conservatism. It maybe isn't so much in this state, per se, but nationally the area is known for its political and social conservative [character], having been the birthplace of Joseph McCarthy and, also, it's currently the home to the John Birch Society, a conservative political think tank."
- On how people perceived Oshkosh during its period of rapid development: "Oshkosh was known not only for the Oshkosh woodcutters strike but also as Sin City at the turn of the 20th century. It gained an infamous reputation for having quite the leisure scene, with cheap laborers and a more transient workforce encompassed by single men and also lots of single women, which was pretty scandalous at the time. Gambling, drinking, and also prizefighting."
- On the friction between industrialists' pursuit of maximum profitability and their need for a steady supply of labor: "George Paine, owner of the successful Oshkosh lumber company, for example, believed like his counterparts — Kimberly-Clark in the paper industry — that supplies should cost more than workers. This created a conundrum, given the transient nature of the post-Civil War era workforce and competition for workers with eastern manufacturers and the extractive economies of the west."
- On policies designed to exclude people from various ethnic and racial groups: "With the assistance of law enforcement officials, local elites sought to maintain an image of a lily-white city by discouraging the foreign element from residing in the area. This resulted in an anti-vagrancy ordinance the police officers individually applied to 'blacks, eastern and southern Europeans, and Oneida from the adjacent reservation.' Similar to their treatment of African Americans, American Indians and certain European immigrant groups, the police targeted Irish newcomers as well as citizens in an attempt to keep these individuals out of the city."
- On gender roles in this era: "Middle-class activists and local elites understood that women workers would spend more time with men while on the job but did not approve of social interaction between men and women off the shop floor. As more working-class women, generally young and single, entered the workforce in local paper mills and woodenware factories, they found themselves with new freedoms that they did not experience at home with their families. Differently than in Victorian society, the expansion of corporate capitalism created commercialized forms of entertainment that brought men and women together. This development created anxiety among local reformers and industrialists, because they worried about the moral corruption of working women. As a result, they encouraged industrial workers to stay away from saloons, billiards, dance halls and other popular venues that permitted heterosocial contact."
- On the role of sex work in this era: "Those working women who sold sex in exchange for money viewed their profession as superior to factory work, and, in many cases, they enjoyed their profession. In these ways, working-class people influenced the shape of Progressive Era politics and reform efforts, as well as corporate designs for cultivating social order and a moral and industrious workforce in the region. Industrialists actually hurt themselves by keeping wages low and doing little to improve to the conditions under which their workers toiled. Employers could not control their workforce. Workers were going to do what they needed in order to survive and enjoy their lives."
- On state-level efforts at moral reform: "In Wisconsin, the movement to end sex work climaxed with the formation of the Teasdale Vice Committee and the enactment of the Linley Law in 1913, which effectively outlawed organized vice in the state. Members of the government commission, tasked to investigate the prevalence of what was called 'white slavery,' sought to encourage the enforcement of the slew of moral codes that the state legislature approved, hoping to persuade county district attorneys to implement the laws. They had a difficult time doing so. Headed by state Senator Howard Teasdale, the committee worked to correspond with local reform organizations and public officials who supported their cause. The politicians did receive feedback from Fox Valley residents who worried about the corrupting effects of prostitution."
- On Harry Houdini's connection to the Fox Valley: "He was born in Hungary, and his father was one of the first rabbis, actually, in Appleton. Again, they lived there for five years before moving to New York City, but Harry Houdini did visit the Fox River Valley a few times when he would perform in local circus acts and vaudeville performances … he ended up doing a lot of different escape artist acts. And, really, he promoted a sense of revolution and justice amongst workers through his performances. This idea that no matter what was getting them down at the time, that they did have the opportunity to escape. And his revolutionary message was profound, as were the messages that workers sort of imbibed when they would partake in these variety and vaudeville shows."