history lesson, settlement cookbook

History 101: 1900’s Wisconsin

Time Period

The nice thing about The “Settlement” Cook Book is that it has an actual publication date (1903). This makes our job of contextualizing the recipes much easier.

Downtown Milwaukee, c. 1900

America’s early 20th century is often called the “Progressive Era” because of all the middle-class families who wanted to make the country a better place. The industrial revolution had forever changed America by this point: railroads crisscrossed the country, clothing and everyday goods were produced in factories, and families were beginning to move to cities in droves. The country had blossomed without much governmental oversight, though, which led to widespread corruption, child labor, and exploitation of people and resources.

(This is the era that spawned Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, about the disgusting conditions of the Chicago meatpacking industry. Trust me, it’ll put you off meat for a while.)

So many middle-class men and women decided to do something about these problems. They were called “Progressives” because they believed in change, and they believed that state and the federal government could be used to make individuals’ lives better. Progressive men campaigned for transparency in politics and direct elections, while women fought for laws to restrict child labor. Other Progressives attacked railroad barons and those gross meatpacking factories. This continued up until America entered World War I (in 1917); after that, people got more interested in spending money with abandon (the Roaring Twenties). But thanks to the Progressives, government had reined in a lot of the excesses of the late 19th century.


Early 20th century Wisconsin was no different than the rest of America. The Wisconsin Historical Society has a great description of how Wisconsinites got involved in the Progressive Movement, if you’re interested in learning more. However, more important to our purposes on this blog is the other major change affecting America (and Wisconsin in particular) at this time: immigration.
Newly arrived immigrants at Ellis Island, New York

By the 1840s a number of Scandinavian and German immigrants had settled in the Midwest, hoping to set up farms. (Remember Kirsten, the American Girl doll?) According to the Wisconsin Historical Society, a lot of ethnic tension developed between the German-Americans and the “native” Americans (what native-born white Americans called themselves). Ultimately the German-Americans were forced to assimilate into American culture to some extent. In turn, their culture began to integrate Midwestern culture.

So by the 1880s and 1890s, the Germans and Scandinavians had settled down and found their place. Now a second wave of immigrants arrived: primarily Jewish and Eastern European families. By 1900 they were beginning to adapt to American culture and get involved in Progressive causes.

How It All Relates to Cooking

We’ve got two strands here: Progressivism and immigration. We’re going to tie them together and make a nice little history braid. (Sorry, couldn’t resist the cheesiness.)
Those helpful middle-class women of the Progressive Movement decided to help out the Jewish mothers and children who were trying to find their place in Milwaukee society. So they established a settlement house, known as the Settlement (very creative). These houses offered classes in English, cooking, and other domestic and vocational skills, so the recent immigrants could assimilate to American culture more quickly.*
The Settlement in Milwaukee

Lizzie Black Kander, the author of The “Settlement” Cook Book, helped create the Settlement and led a number of cooking classes, which culminated in her writing the cookbook. Since she believed that cooking was one of the best ways to get immigrants to shrug off their “backwards” European culture and adopt the “desirable” American culture, she emphasized cooking American foods. Yes, it’s patronizing.

But here’s the kicker: remember those German immigrants from the 1840s? And how they’ve assimilated by 1903? Well, that’s why their food can be found in The “Settlement” Cook Book. They had assimilated so much that their food was considered part of mainstream American culture.
So this cookbook of ours boasts recipes for popular German food, regular “American” food like sandwiches and roasts, as well as the most basic of things. Like recipes for making coffee. (More on that soon.) It’s going to be quite different from colonial Williamsburg!

* The most famous settlement house was Jane Addams’ Hull House in Chicago.


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