Robert Wagner and the Milwaukee Furniture Company

What if you already know most of the names and dates of your ancestors' lives, but you want to find out more about how they lived? In this case, Robert Wagner's great-granddaughter Mary Alexander knew that he had come from Germany and that he married Alvina Ehlert in Milwaukee in 1869. The Wagners had four children: Hugo Carl, Frieda Sophia, Hertha Wilhelmine, and Adele Erma Alvine. Mary also knew that Robert had a furniture factory, because a number of his pieces are still in the family. A number of local history sources can help fill in the details. Here is a sampling of some of my research findings.

Milwaukee City Directories

City directories showed where Robert Wagner lived and worked. Rather than spending hours looking up each year on microfilm, I took an initial sampling around the time of the marriage and at later intervals. Amazingly enough, he was the only Robert Wagner listed in Milwaukee for most of those years.

1867 Edward's Milwaukee Directory
Wagoner, Robert, shinglemaker, John E Eldred [Eldred was a shingle manufacturer on 114-118 S. Water]

1868 Thickens Milwaukee Directory
no Robert Wagner or Wagoner was listed but there was a Miss Alvine Ehlert, saleswoman, res. 410 Wells

1869 Thickens
Wagner, Robert, sawyer JE Eldred, res. 627 Wells

1870 Thickens
Ehlert, Alvina, dress-maker, 515 Sherman, res. same
[assuming that this is Robert's wife Alvina, the lag-time in listing is not at all surprising]
Wagner, Robert, lab, res 627 Wells ["lab" = laborer]

1871 Thickens
Wagner, Robert (Volkmann & Co) res. 627 Wells
Volkman & Co. (John C Iverson and Robert Wagner) picture frame and moulding mnfrs 112 Spring


1876 Milwaukee city directory
Wagner Robert (J.C. Iverson & Co) res 274 13th

1877 same


1889 Wright's City Directory of Milwaukee
Wagner Robert (R Wagner & Co) r 273 14th
Wagner R & Co (Robert Wagner & Oscar Drishaus), furniture mnfrs, n.w. cor 15th and St Paul av

1890 Wright's
same as 1889 but also lists
Wagner Hugo C, clk 425 E Water h 273 14th

1891 Wright's
Robert and Hugo's listings same as 1890
Wagner R & Co (Robert Wagner, Oscar Drishau and John H Voss) Mil. Furniture Co. 15th, cor. St. Paul av.


1909 Wright's
Wagner Adele teacher 21st dist 1 h 1919 Cedar
Wagner Frieda teacher 22d dist 2 h 1919 Cedar
Wagner Hugo engraver h 352 15th
Wagner Hugo carp h 544 27th [not sure yet which is Robert's son Hugo]
Wagner Robert sales h 1919 Cedar

1910 Wright's
same as 1909 except for
Wagner Hugo lab h 556 E Water [Hugo the carpenter is still listed at same address]
Wagner Robert agt h 1919 Cedar

1911 Wright's
same as previous except
Adele not listed (now married?)
Hugo Wagner the carpenter is the only Hugo listed
Wagner Robert mnfrs-agt h 1919 Cedar

The Milwaukee Sentinel (1870-1890) card index

This card catalog at the Milwaukee Public Library covers many small items of local news. Information found there can also be cross-checked in the Milwaukee Journal.

Searches for "Robert Wagner" and "R. Wagner & Co." produced the following articles:

2 July 1873 (p.8, col 1/2):
"Seriously Hurt
While Mr. Robert Wagner and son were driving along Seventh street, about four o'clock yesterday afternoon, the horse took fright, and after running a short distance threw the occupants out into a ditch. The boy was so badly hurt that his life is despaired of and his father was also seriously injured. The Wagners reside on Twelfth near Cherry, whither they were conveyed for medical treatment."

"Local Brevities
The boy Wagner, injured by a runaway on Seventh street, died at a late hour last night."

4 July 1873 (p.8, col 2)
"The boy Wagner is not dead, as reported after the runaway on Tuesday evening."

[Which son was this? At first we thought this was Hugo, born in Feb. 1873, but then when I looked up the 1870 census (see below), I found that Robert and Alvina had had a son named Oscar, born April 1870. And the 1900 and 1910 census records stated that Alvina had given birth to 5 children, of whom 4 were still living. Still have to check out the cemetery and death records.]

14 Oct 1879 (p.8, col 4):
"Robert Wagner has retired from the firm of Iverson & Co."

22 Nov 1886 (p.3, col 3):
"A fire broke out in R Wagner & Co's large furniture factory, corner Fifteenth and Fowler streets, shortly before 3 o'clock yesterday afternoon, and caused a loss of $150. The fire originated from the boiler."

[I still have to transcribe articles on the Milwaukee Furniture Company.]

Census records

1870 U.S. Census, Milwaukee Co. WI; City of Milwaukee, Fourth Ward p. 113, lines 26-28 (27 June 1870)
Robert Wagner (27), laborer, listed with wife Alvina (19), and son Oscar (3 months). Robert and Alvina were both born in Prussia. Oscar was born in Wisconsin in April. Robert's real estate was valued at $600.

1880 U.S. Census, Milwaukee Co., WI; E.D. 101 (City of Milwaukee), p. 19, lines 12-17 (6 June 1880)
At 274 Thirteenth Street, Robert Wagner (41), merchant, listed with wife "Emelia" (39); son Hugo (14); daughters Frieda (7) and Herda (5 - listed as a son); and servant Minna Brunow (15). This census gives Robert's birthplace as Prussia and his wife's as Hanover. The children were all born in Wisconsin and the maid in Prussia.

1900 U.S. Census, Milwaukee Co, WI, E.D. 144 (City of Milwaukee), p. 4, lines 29-35 (4&5 June 1900)
At 2429 Cedar, Robert Wagner (57), city agent - drugs, listed with wife Alvina (age 49 crossed out, replaced with 58); son Hugo C (27), city agent - furniture; daughters Frieda (25) and Hertha (23) both school teachers, and Adele E (15) at school. They also had a servant, Clara A Ristow (13). Robert and Alvina were both born in Germany and both had immigration date 1863. Robert was a naturalized citizen. The children and the maid were born in Wisconsin. Alvina had had 5 children, with only 4 still living.

1905 Wisconsin State Census, Milwaukee Co. (City of Milwaukee, 16th Ward, 2nd Precinct), sheet 6, lines 47-50, June 1905)
No street address given. Robert Wagner (62), commercial traveler, listed with wife Alvine (55), and daughters Frieda (30) and Adalia (20).

1910 U.S. Census, Milwaukee Co, WI, E.D. 167 (City of Milwaukee, Ward 16), p. 5, lines 30-34 (21 April 1910)
At 1919 Cedar, Robert Wagner (66), salesman - manufacturer's agent, listed with wife Alvina (59); daughters Frieda (35) and Adele (25), both school teachers; and servant Norma Hartkoff. Birth information same as 1900, but Alvina's immigration date is 1851. Again she is listed as having had 5 children with 4 still living.

1920 U.S. Census, Milwaukee Co, WI, E.D. 59 (City of Milwaukee), p. 8, lines 14-18 (12 & 13 January 1920)
At 1919 Cedar, Robert Wagner (77), agent - mfg. plant and now a widower, listed with daughters Frieda (45, still single) and Adele Calhoun (35, divorced), both school teachers; grandson William Calhoun (8); and servant Rose Zingsheim (19).

Naturalization papers

At the Milwaukee County Historical Society I found Robert Wagner's naturalization papers. He signed his declaration of intention in 1868 and became a naturalized citizen in 1890. These papers stated that he was born in Prussia in 1843 and emigrated to the US, landing in New York in October 1863. His witnesses were Wm. Schmidt and Max Gerlach [?].

Robert Wagner's signature on his naturalization petition, 1890


Usng the death dates provided by the Wagners' great-granddaughter, I looked up their obituaries in the Milwaukee Journal and Milwaukee Sentinel. Alvina Wagner had only brief notices:

Milwaukee Sentinel, 23 July 1913 (Wed. morning) p. 4, col 5:
"Mrs. Robert Wagner, 63 years old, wife of Robert Wagner, 1919 Cedar street, died Thursday [sic - Tuesday?] afternoon. Funeral services will be held at the residence at 2 o'clock Thursday afternoon. Burial at Forest Home cemetery will be private.

Milwaukee Journal, 24 July 1913 (Thurs), p. 11, col 4:
Listed under DEATHS: "Alwine Wagner, 1919 Cedar st, 62, Forest Home"

Robert Wagner's obituaries were more substantial:

Milwaukee Sentinel, 12 Jan 1927 (Wed, latest city edition), p. 5 col. 1):
Large headline "Furniture Co. Pioneer Here is Dead at 83 - Robert Wagner came to Milwaukee in 1863; Was Long Ill"
"Robert Wagner, 83, a resident of Milwaukee since 1863 and formerly owner of the Milwaukee Furniture company, died yesterday at his home 3304 Cedar street, after a short illness. He is survived by three daughters Miss Frieda Wagner, a teacher at the Grand Avenue school; Mrs. Adele W. Calhoun, and Mrs. L.K. Bolton, Des Moines, Iowa, and one son, Hugo C. Wagner of Evanston, Ill. Funeral services will be at 2 p.m. tomorrow at the home, Burial will be in Forest Home cemetery."

Milwaukee Journal, 12 Jan 1927 (Wed), p. 7 col. 1, with photo:
"Last Rites Thursday for Robert Wagner, 83" (This obituary repeated much of the information above, but also called him "Milwaukee's oldest active salesman.")
"Mr. Wagner came to Milwaukee in 1863 from Germany. He started the Milwaukee Furniture Co. a few years later, but the panic of 1893 forced him out of business. Since that time [one line illegible - scratched microfilm] Milwaukee representative for M.L. Barrett & Co., Chicago, sandpaper manufacturers. Until the day of his death, he was active in business, driving his car around the city, making from 12 to 20 calls a day."

Other Business History Sources

Not long before Wagner's company went under, this listing appeared in the book Milwaukee's Great Industries (1892, W.J. Anderson, ed.):

One of the growing and progressive manufacturing industries of the Cream City is the Milwaukee Furniture Company, located on St. Paul avenue, in the Menomonee Valley manufacturing district. The business was established in 1880 by R. Wagner, and has enjoyed a phenomenal growth and attained substantial success. Among the many articles produced a specialty is made of chamber suits, sideboards, chiffoniers, china closets, etc. It has a plant worth $40,000, and last year turned out $125,000 worth of goods, an increase of $50,000 in value of product in the last five years. The bulk of the raw material used is produced in Wisconsin and Michigan, and the sales reach the leading markets of the United States and Mexico.

Bear in mind that this book was full of boosterism, so that every business listed has a similar glowing description since they probably helped pay for the publication! The publishers ran this ad for the Milwaukee Furniture Company:

Milwaukee Furniture Company ad, 1892

The Milwaukee Furniture Co. did not officially incorporate until 1895, and the record in the Wisconsin Historical Society's collection of Incorporation Records of Defunct Domestic Corporations listed their capital stock as $25,000. The document was signed by Robert Wagner, A. Wagner (possible Alvina?) and Hugo Wagner.



Here are some other people researching the same family:

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