New Aquisitions

Bright Lights, Big City
The Famous Lighted Letters of City Hall

Milwaukee City Hall in its contemporary likeness first opened its doors in 1895. In 1906, illuminated letters designed by City Electrician David McKeith were mounted on the south wall of the building with the purpose of announcing events, welcoming conventions, advertising charities, and conveying general greetings. Forty-two inches in height, made of wood, and painted white to stand out in contrast to the darker exterior of the building, each letter was lit by fifteen individual twenty-five watt lamps during nighttime. There were 122 units on hand at any given time, about forty percent of which were able to be used for multiple letters. Depending on the number of requests, the wording on the sign was changed approximately 250 times a year.

To maintain the aesthetic of the building, the design of the letter display made it possible to do all maintenance from a catwalk located behind the message itself. The letters could be removed from their framework without the use of any tools which also reflected the design’s commitment to safety by eliminating anything that could be dropped to the sidewalk and cause injury.

In the mid-1970s, the world saw the letters first hand as “WELCOME MILWAUKEE VISITORS” crossed their television screens in the opening for Laverne and Shirley. Yet, by 1988, the practicality of the sign diminished and as the cost of maintenance rose, Mayor John O. Norquist and the Historic Preservation Commission decided to retire the letters.

Come see the Illuminated Letters on display at the Milwaukee County Historical Society.


Corporal Henry Mason Civil War Letters
Donated by George Nelson

A collection of 93 letters written during the Civil War have found a new home at MCHS’ Harry H. Anderson Research Library. The letters of Corporal Henry Mason, Co B, 24th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry, reveal unique insight into the daily lives of soldiers during fighting under the Union flag. Writing at times with much sentimentality and emotion, at others briefly with stark details of the war effort, Mason reveals the diverse and colorful plight of the Civil War soldier.

Enlisting in 1862, Cpl. Mason served with the regiment for over two years, seeing action at Chickamauga, on Sherman’s “March to the Sea,” and at the Battle of Franklin, Tennessee. At Franklin in late November, 1864, Cpl. Mason was severely wounded, and eventually lost his leg. No one doubted his recovery, until in December he took a turn for the worse and died on December 23, 1864, at a hospital in Nashville, Tennessee. The collection of letters includes one written by his nurse notifying the family of his unfortunate passing.

The letters were recently donated by George Nelson of Carmel, California, whose wife is a descendant of Cpl. Mason. MCHS is very grateful to have acquired such an exceptional collection, and is eager to continue the transcription process started by the donor once the letters are accessioned.

The letters are available for public research. Contact the Research Library at 414-273-7487 for more information or to set up an appointment.

Letters 25 and 58 of the collection. Letter 58 is included with original envelope.