Milwaukee Sewer Socialism | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Milwaukee Sewer Socialism

How Wisconsin Became America's Most Socialist State

Milwaukee Sewer Socialism | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargeThree-quarter length formal studio portrait of Victor Berger and Emil Seidel.

Victor Berger and Emil Seidel

Three-quarter length formal studio portrait of Victor Berger and Emil Seidel. View the original source document: WHI 56202

Milwaukee Socialists in the early twentieth century sought to repair the damage of the Industrial Revolution on the local level by cleaning up neighborhoods and factories with new sanitation systems, municipal water and power systems, community parks and improved education systems. They were called "Sewer Socialists." Socialists rejected Progressives' idea that government could regulate industry; they focused on eliminating corruption and graft.


Milwaukee Socialists joined with the labor movement to form a new political party called the Social-Democrats in 1897. Socialists won major elections in Milwaukee in 1910. Milwaukee became the first Socialist city in the United States. Emil Seidel was elected mayor of Milwaukee to become the nation's first Socialist mayor. The party also won seats on the city council and the county board. Most importantly, Victor Berger went to Washington as the first Socialist Congressman.

Victor Berger

Victor Berger (1860-1929) was the symbol of Milwaukee Socialism. Berger was an Austrian immigrant. He developed moderate government reforms in the name of Socialism. Berger also drew on Milwaukee's large German population and active labor movement to unite the Socialists. Berger published regular newspapers in both German and English. In advance of elections, Berger distributed free newspapers using a “bundle brigade,” these papers were published in a number of languages.

Seidel and Berger lost in 1912. In 1916, Milwaukee elected another Socialist mayor named Daniel Hoan. But Socialists never totally controlled Milwaukee government after 1910. However, Hoan remained in office until 1940 and Socialists continued to exert moderate influence in Milwaukee politics.

Fight with Congress

EnlargePortrait of Robert M. La Follette during his tenure as U.S. senator from Wisconsin.

Fighting Bob La Follette

Portrait of Robert M. La Follette during his tenure as U.S. senator from Wisconsin. La Follette was the leader of the Progressive movement in Wisconsin, and often collaborated with Socialists like Victor Berger. View the original source document: WHI 10650

Berger won a Congressional seat again in 1918. But the House of Representatives refused to let him take his seat because he had violated the federal Espionage Act due to writing and printing editorials that opposed World War I. Wisconsin Governor Emanuel Philipp called a special election to fill Berger's seat in 1919; voters elected Berger back into Congress. The House still refused to seat him. Berger ran again in 1920 but was defeated by Republican William Stafford. Although he lost, the House dropped their charges against Berger. He ran for Congress in 1922 and won. The House finally allowed Berger to take his seat. He served for three consecutive terms.

Berger focused Milwaukee Socialism on municipal reforms. Milwaukee Socialism proved that an honest, efficient government could work on the state and local levels. Voters supported the city-wide reform programs of the Milwaukee Socialists. Milwaukee's government was soon recognized as the best in the country.

Learn More

[Sources: The History of Wisconsin vol. 4 (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin); Kasparek, Jon, Bobbie Malone and Erica Schock. Wisconsin History Highlights: Delving into the Past (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2004); Berger, Meta. A Milwaukee Woman's Life on the Left, ed. Kimberly Swanson. (Madison, Wis.: State Historical Society of Wisconsin Press, 2001); Hamilton, Shane "A Victor Without Peace" American History 102 ]