Gregory G. H. Rihn (milwaukeesfs) wrote,
Gregory G. H. Rihn

Pabst Mansion, "Wind It Up"

On thing Georgie and I got in before I set off to Oklahoma City was a
visit to the Captain Frederick Pabst mansion here in Milwaukee. It was
in part a refresher visit for us, since we hadn't been to the museum in
years, but we particularly went to see a current exhibit, "Wind It Up:
19th and Early 20th Century Mechanical Objects", which is running
through June 7th.

For those not familiar with it, the Pabst Mansion is a fine example of
Flemish Revival style architecture (with many elements in common with
Milwaukee's newly restored City Hall). Built by Pabst as a "retirement
home" in 1890-92, the beautiful house is one of the few remaining
mansions along "Grand Avenue" (as Wisconsin Avenue was then) which was
the city's posh neighborhood.

The house was fortunately well preserved: after the death of Captain and
Mrs. Pabst, the family, who had homes of their own, sold the house to
the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, which used it as the Archbishop's
residence until 1978. This resulted in the structure being preserved and
much of the original furniture being kept in storage. In 1978, a
preservation group acquired the house and shortly after opened it as a
museum. Preservation and restoration efforts continue. The house is
simply gorgeous, and well worth seeing at any time. There is a "photo
tour" on their website:

We made time to go on a Thursday morning, since Thursdays, Fridays, and
Saturdays during the 11:00AM and 2:00PM tours, they demonstrate some of
the wind-up mechanisms. "Wind It Up" is a small show, occupying part of
one of the upper rooms, but fascinating nevertheless. The display cases
were full of unusual toys and devices, including musical boxes, wind-up
acrobats and dancing dolls, watches, clocks, and other "toys", many of
which were intended as family entertainment from days before television,
radio, or even phonographs.

The demonstration showed off working examples of the music boxes,
musical dishes, and singing birds. There were also some fascinating
automata. One of them, the Smoking Turk, was fairly elaborately
animated. Another was an example of a "whistler," a type of musical
gadget I've never heard of before. The device, in this case a rare
"double whistler" is a carved figure of two "Irishmen" that whistle
tunes. According to the demonstrator, the mechanism is an actual slide
whistle pumped by a diaphragm driven by the wind-up mechanism.

As products of their time, the artifacts reflect the attitudes of the
age, which includes some regrettably "non-PC" elements. One of the
singing birds incorporates an actual stuffed canary. As "novelties" may
of the automaton's figures are "exotics" like blackamoors, "Turks" or
the aforementioned Irishmen. Nevertheless, the sheer ingenuity of the
mechanisms makes them an interesting study.
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