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George Watts & Son Celebrates 140 Years

Sep. 15, 2010
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Keeping a small, independent specialty store open for a year of business is commendable; keeping one open for 140 is extraordinary. George Watts & Son, purveyors of rare, valuable serving ware and home décor, has been in business since 1870, and plans to celebrate its impressive milestone by hosting a number of events at the store.

The roots of the shop go back to 1870, when George Watts, an immigrant from Bristol, England, took an excursion boat from Chicago to Milwaukee. While walking along Reed Street (now South Second Street), the 18-year-old responded to a “Boy Wanted” sign hanging in the window of Massey and Co., merchants of china, glass and sundries. He was hired and immediately put to work, tasked with sweeping the floor and unpacking merchandise. Watts was able to buy partnership in the company with a loan, and later the entire store.

When it outgrew its original digs, the store, now under the George Watts banner, moved to a narrow three-story building on North Milwaukee Street in 1879. By 1911, George’s son, Howard, was working full time at the shop. Four years later he was his dad’s partner. When George Watts died in 1919, Howard was prepared to take the store to a new level.

To generate the money needed to reinvest in George Watts & Son, Howard issued bonds for the family store. He hired Milwaukee architect Herbert Tullgren (whose portfolio includes the Astor Hotel, the Milwaukee Western Fuel building and more than 50 apartment buildings throughout Wisconsin) to design and construct an Italian Renaissance-style building at the corner of Jefferson and Mason streets. In 1922 George Watts & Son occupied a small section of the first floor and leased the remainder of the building to other entrepreneurs. The building housed the Kohler Co., Henerlaw Jewelers, the Millie Ann Koerner Gift Shop, a tiny bookstore and MacArthur Interior Decorating, Milwaukee’s most prestigious interior decorator.

The Cook sisters, who opened the Cook Tea Shop in 1901, moved their restaurant from Jackson Street to a space designed according to their specifications on the second floor of Watts’ new building. They brought with them their recipe for Sunshine Cake, a stunning triple-layer sponge cake filled with French custard and topped with a boiled frosting that is still served today.

Howard’s son, George, joined the family business in 1946 after serving nearly four years in the Marine Corps during World War II. George wasn’t one to listen to his mother’s advice, who said that retailers should avoid talking about sex, religion and politics so as not to offend any potential customers. According to Insurrection in Milwaukee: The Right to Rise, a political memoir written by George Watts, “Much to the horror of some of [its] customers, George Watts & Son Inc. in the late-1940s and 1950s was the first business to hire black employees and place them in positions of prominence.”

In 1967, when Watts was serving as secretary of Milwaukee World Festival (now known as Summerfest), he believed Mayor Henry Maier wasn’t acting appropriately when it came to open housing and civil rights issues, and said as much. “You can’t have a world festival because we don’t have anything to be festive about,” he said. Watts thought it was “immoral” to have a festival when people’s rights were being abridged. He added, “The mayor should have the moral courage to face his white constituents and tell them that he has to be for open housing and that they should be for it too—because it is right.”

When Watts passed away in 2005, his wife of nearly 60 years, Martie, maintained ownership of the shop. Her grandson (and the great-great-grandson of the original George Watts) Sam, fifth-generation president and store manager, is committed to continuing the George Watts & Son legacy by improving its Web presence through online shopping, gift registration and social networking.

For information about George Watts & Son, and its anniversary sales and events Sept. 20-25, visit 761 N. Jefferson St., call 1-800-747-9288 or go to www.georgewatts.com.


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