Touring the old times at the Chudnow Museum of Yesteryear

What is a man with 1,000 bars of vintage antique soap to do with it all?

For Avrum “Abe” Chudnow (1913–2005), 1,000 bars of soap was just the tip of the iceberg. The voracious collector had thousands of everyday items from the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s — enough to fill a museum 20 times over. Today, that’s exactly where many of them are displayed: Milwaukee’s Chudnow Museum of Yesteryear.

The museum is located on 11th Street, just south of Kilbourn Avenue — due west from the Courthouse but across the freeway. There, says executive director Steve Daily, the Chudnow Museum becomes a vast representation of “American material culture.”

Even more than that, it is a walk-through record of Milwaukee in the early 20th century, with rooms designed to evoke experiences like visiting a soda shop, hardware store, and even a speakeasy. Fourteen rooms in this expansive house, built in 1869, are designed as settings that revive the past.

Chudnow never lived here, but purchased it in 1966 for his law practice, real estate business, and as a home for his ever-expanding collection. Daily recounts that Chudnow’s wife was delighted because his treasures had been taking over their own domicile. As the son of a peddler, Chudnow was fascinated from an early age in the stuff of everyday life, from machines and toys to packaging and signs. Each room is densely outfitted with pieces that tell the story of life in these decades.

The recreation of a hardware store features gas stoves and innovative electric appliances. During the nascent years of the 20th century, such stores offered an array of items that testified to the changes brought on by electricity in private residences. By the 1920s, 60 percent of households enjoyed this new convenience, and it spurred desire for gadgets that made domestic chores a bit easier. After all, just working in the kitchen was the equivalent of a full-time job for many a housewife.

The former dining room on the first floor has been transformed into the H. Grafman Grocery Store, originally located at 603 W. Vliet St. Chudnow had a close connection to the Grafmans, his wife’s family.

Packages of coffee, flour, cereal, spices and other dry goods are on display, many of which still contain their original product. An old-fashioned ice box with wood facing shows how food was kept chilled, and its furniture-like appearance calls to mind trends in current kitchen design. An ornately decorated scale and cash register, like others seen throughout the museum, are reminders of the elegant design and craft lavished on utilitarian devices.

The Chudnow Museum of Yesteryear brings back the past in their "Wonderland Park" display. Photo: Kat Minerath.
The Chudnow Museum of Yesteryear brings back the past in their “Wonderland Park” display. Photo: Kat Minerath.

For a real eye-opener, visit the Bay View Drug Store display. A variety of bottles and jars with labels advertising all manner of potions line the walls, as do advertisements touting various curative benefits. Many of these treatments were aided by the addition of substances like alcohol, cocaine, and heroin. Daily notes that in those days, “medicine was a wide open field — that’s why the FDA was created.”

A less narcotic example of an old-fashioned remedy was directed toward women in the form of skunk oil. It was an oily, greasy lotion used to prevent wrinkles, and though it came from the aromatic animal, it fortunately did not use the scent of the skunk in its recipe.

Upstairs, the office of one of the home’s former occupants is recreated. Dr. Joseph J. Eisenberg had his medical practice here, receiving patients in a room that brings together many of the doctor’s professional belongings. In the 1920s and ‘30s, he not only saw patients, but also performed operations and X-rays in a room that is now outfitted as a small movie theatre.

The doctor’s old recovery room is now home to a display of toys, a source of fascination for the young and old. Lincoln Logs, and the lesser-known Lincoln Bricks, were invented by Frank Lloyd Wright’s son, John. It could be said that he followed his architect father in a D.I.Y. fashion.

An Easy Money game by Milton Bradley was a competitor with Parker Brothers’ iconic Monopoly, shown in a 1940s version that used wooden game pieces because of metal shortages during World War II. Gambling acumen was to be gained through a horse racing game that offered instruction on proper techniques for being a bookie as well as placing bets.

Other exhibits feature matters of interest to men and women of the time, such as displays of women’s changing hairstyles and fashions, offering context for the rebellious appearance of the flapper. A barbershop with a red velvet chair was a male retreat, and in this installation, has a secret door that opens to a speakeasy for a cocktail after a shave and haircut.

Daily estimates that only about 5 percent of Chudnow’s total collection is on view, but the museum changes exhibitions periodically to explore different themes. Politics is one topic currently at the forefront. Displays include one on Wisconsin’s “Fighting Bob” La Follette, a formidable Progressive candidate for president, and a gallery of political memorabilia highlighting the career of Milwaukee’s longest serving Socialist mayor, Daniel Hoan.

Strolling through these rooms, with their extraordinarily presented pieces, is a rare glimpse back through time. It reflects how much can be learned through even the most ordinary items, and instills admiration for the devotion of Chudnow, whose ceaseless collecting of the past became a gift for the future.

The Chudnow Museum of Yesteryear is located at 839 N. 11th St. The museum will celebrate St. Patrick’s Day on March 12 and 13 by offering Green River Floats, made with Green River Soda, free with admission. Admission is $5, $4 for seniors and students; the museum is open Wed. to Sun. Visit chudnowmuseum.org for more details.