Presenting Our Past

Smartwear Emma Lange in Milwaukee

A Smartwear Emma Lange Suit originally owned by Janet Smith Moebius, donated by Judith Kaiser. Courtesy of the Milwaukee County Historical Society.

A Smartwear Emma Lange Suit originally owned by Janet Smith Moebius, donated by Judith Kaiser. Courtesy of the Milwaukee County Historical Society.

Smartwear Emma Lange originated as two separate companies by Walter Lange and Emma Lange. The two had separate locations in downtown Milwaukee, including a store in the Pfister Hotel. The two soon combined, and became a true family business being passed down from family member to family member. The store changed from its single downtown location into the suburbs, with multiple stores in suburban malls. The department store was unique for its time in that Emma Lange was started by a woman, and later the combined company was run partially or fully by women. It can be suggested that this opened up positions for women that typically were not available.

Smartwear and Emma Lange started during the time many other department stores were founded in Milwaukee, just before the 20th Century. Department stores evolved out of dry goods stores, most which started with the growth of Milwaukee from a trading post into a large settlement, during the early to mid-Nineteenth Century. These department stores were larger and more organized than their predecessors, and contained more consumer goods rather than everyday staples such as food and tools.

Smartwear Emma Lange focused primarily on Women’s wear for their advertising, though they carried all different products in their various departments. For women’s wear, they ranged from collegiate sweaters to housecoats. Their advertising featured primarily hand drawn figures, with photographs taking space in the 50s and 60s. Their advertisements usually took the form of folding flyers and mailers, as well as newspaper advertisements.

Tools of the trade: drafting tool set of Janet Smith Moebius, donated by Judith Kaiser. Courtesy of the Milwaukee County Historical Society.

Tools of the trade: drafting tool set of Janet Smith Moebius, donated by Judith Kaiser. Courtesy of the Milwaukee County Historical Society.

Our Smartwear items were donated by Judith Kaiser, whose mother, Janet Smith Moebius, was an advertising director for Smartwear Emma Lange in the 1930s. She started by designing window displays for the downtown store. Everything Janet Smith Moebius made for the company was hand drawn, including pictures and lettering. Her work was produced in advertising flyers, Christmas catalogs, and newspaper advertisements.

Smartwear Emma Lange was just one native department store that was successful. The most famous Milwaukee department store was Gimbels, which at one point became the biggest department store in the world. Schuster’s, another native department store, was started about the same time as Gimbels. Both stores were drawn to Milwaukee by the large German community. Milwaukee no longer enjoys hometown department stores, but their legacies are remembered by many.

Amanda Scott, Intern.

A picture of Schuster's employees in front of the store. Department stores employed a large number of women, usually work on the sales floor. Courtesy of the Milwaukee County Historical Society.

A picture of Schuster’s employees in front of the store. Department stores employed a large number of women, usually work on the sales floor. Courtesy of the Milwaukee County Historical Society.

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