Our first official quest for Vintage Eats took us to the most opulent and historically rich place we could think of. The Pabst Mansion was built in 1892 on Milwaukee’s Grand Avenue, a boulevard lined with the finest mansions of the city. The 1890s were known in Milwaukee as “The Pabst Decade”, which speaks volumes about the family’s considerable influence during this era.
Captain Frederick Pabst, a German immigrant and one of Milwaukee’s premier citizens around the turn of the century, made his fortune in – you guessed it – brewing. In 1863, Pabst became half-owner of a small, prosperous brewing company founded in 1844 by a fellow German, Phillip Best. Pabst had married Best’s daughter a year prior, and through a change in circumstances, left his original career as a ship’s captain on Lake Michigan and started studying the business of beer. With his hands at the helm (pun fully intended), the newly-renamed Pabst Brewery grew to produce over 100,000 barrels of beer a year and ultimately provided Captain Pabst with the kind of wealth that allowed him to become integrally involved in the development of Milwaukee throughout the Gilded Age. Pabst was responsible for a great deal of civic development, from building The Pabst Theatre to The Whitefish Bay Resort, to forming and presiding over the board of the Wisconsin State Bank.
When we were deciding how to launch Project Vintage Eats, we felt like it was appropriate to start here, as the house was built quite conveniently near the beginning of our project’s stated date range for recipes (1880-1955) and at a time when etiquette and tradition were observed most facetiously.
The Pabst Mansion was built to entertain. The family was heavily involved in business and charity in the city, which meant that they frequently hosted families of fellow brewery owners, dignitaries, and members of the higher class. The Mansion was a dinner party home, with a lavish dining room featuring a table large enough to accommodate full formal place settings for up to 22 guests.Victorian Era place settings could involve almost thirty different pieces of silver and glassware, including charming little vessels called salt cellars. Salt cellars were tiny crystal wells, filled with coarse salt and placed at each individual place setting. In the Victorian Age, it was considered proper to have one’s own salt well, and the closer one sat to the host’s main salt well, the higher one’s status in society. The table was heavily laden with fine china, porcelain, and crystal, which was passed down through Maria Best’s family. The lavish decoration of this room reflects an overall lavish attitude in the Victorian Era towards the acts of eating and gathering. The dining room set the style and tone of a residence, and gave the homeowners an opportunity to show off as many of their fine possessions as possible, as well as their impeccable table manners (of which there were many to observe, indeed).
Moving through the dining room, we found ourselves in the kitchen, shown at right. The original kitchen featured an 1897 range powered by coal gas, which was eventually swapped to make room for a modern elevator. The Pabst Mansion in an of itself was quite modern is its day. The house had electricity, a telephone room, and a battery-operated alarm system, among other amenities. Employed in the house at any one time were 10-12 servants – in other words, three servants for every one person living under the roof. For our next blog post, we’ll talk about what daily meals might have looked like here as well as the courses and foods most commonly served at formal dinners. It’s also time for us to bring you a recipe complete with production photographs. Vintage Eaters, stay tuned for Wednesday’s noon blog post, where we’ll unveil more photos from the Pabst Mansion and show you the dishes we decided to make for the occasion. Hint: here’s the cookbook we’re using – a true tribute to Frederick Pabst’s German heritage.
The Vintage Eats Project would like to express its gratitude to Ralph Jones, our guest photographer who took these wonderful photos; and also, to the helpful staff of the Pabst Mansion, specifically Executive Director, Dawn Day-Hourigan and Volunteer Coordinator, Josh Fundell, for graciously accommodating us on our visit. We’re looking forward to a continued conversation with you about the history of Milwaukee, this beautiful landmark and the culinary life that was lived herein.