Cream City

Today we have a broad palette of colors for buildings. But it wasn’t always that way. You may know that paint color was historically limited, so it is understandable that other materials would have limited colors as well. In fact, material types have in some cases created regional identities. For example, the Chicago common brick. As it turns out, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is one of these places. Milwaukee’s local cream colored brick has even given the city a nickname: Cream City.

Cream City brick came from local Milwaukee kilns starting in the 1830s. The characteristic color comes from the high concentration of lime and sulfur found in the Menomonee Valley clay. This local building material was used for a wide variety of buildings in Milwaukee up until the 20th century. Today, restoration efforts have uncovered and cleaned historic brick and even led to the creation of new cream brick to aid in the restoration of the city’s characteristic appearance.

Does your city have a characteristic color, material, or other building theme? I’d love to hear about it!

Sources and Further Reading:

Read more about Cream City Brick on Visit Milwaukee

This is not the first time I’ve written about building colors! If you missed it, check out Early American Houses: Why so Dark?

There are a variety of color trends that happened with bricks thanks to changing technologies and trends. Get a peek here.

One of my followers cued me into this trend. I always learn the best things from you guys, thank you!


6 thoughts on “Cream City

  1. Hi Susie, your Aunt Kathy and close friend of mine pointed me to your blog. I am a brick sculptor and artist in Bristol, UK, which is a city built on the red brick from the local quarries. Interestingly the local vernacular across the UK is linked to the geological deposits found beneath towns and cities. There is a local brick here called Cheddar Gold that is very similar to your cream brick, it may have a similar material make-up. The red clay here is called Cheddar Red. Both these bricks have no relation to cheese funnily enough, apart from the fact that the cheese is made just a few miles away! Thanks for your post. Rod.


    1. Hi Rod, thanks for the great insights! I love the Cheddar names. The brick link to local geology is fascinating. I’ll have to keep an eye out for it more when I’m traveling, especially in the UK!


  2. Nineteenth Century buildings demonstrate regional and local brickmaking patterns in quality, size, and color. Sometimes those patterns are hyper-local. I remember being quite taken with a type of brick I encountered several times in Sheffield, Alabama that I dubbed “Sheffield Black.” It is a common brick (not pressed, though generally well-formed with few non-age-related defects) with no frog and is a deep purplish brown color, almost black, on the outside and inside of the brick. I found it in some of the commercial buildings dating to that town’s establishment during the late-Nineteenth Century New South industrial boom. It disappears by the 1910s with the last building I have seen it in dating to 1903.

    However, demonstrating the hyper-locality of bricks in both place and time, the (very) nearby town of Tuscumbia has no Sheffield Black bricks. Its Nineteenth Century bricks are brick red in color and fairly large in size, particularly the earlier one goes back in time. Salvaged bricks from the non-extant 1820s Masonic Lodge are noticeably larger than late Nineteenth Century bricks.

    Milwaukee, as well as Baltimore, are known for their distinctive brick colors partly due to large brickmaking industries and large deposits of suitable clay that allowed those cities a certain uniformity for several decades. One can contrast that with the large, but sometimes subtle, variety found throughout rural areas east of the Mississippi (tapering off west of the Mississippi).

    Although this area is not as studied as it should be, one can still find several books and journal articles on regionalism and localism in Nineteenth Century brickmaking, a few of which that I have read are listed below.

    The Great Hudson River Brick Industry: Commemorating Three and a Half Centuries of Brickmaking by George V. Hutton

    Brick by Brick: Building St. Louis and the Nation, April 15 – July 31, 2004 organized by Samuel Cupples House at Saint Louis University

    Nineteenth-Century Brick Architecture in the Roanoke Valley and Beyond: Discovering the True Legacies of the Deyerle Builders by Michael J. Pulice

    The Singack and Mead’s Basin Brickyards in Wayne Township by Charles S. Jackson

    “’Brickmaker + Farmer’: Damariscotta River Brick Making in the Nineteenth Century and the Traces of Maine’s Agro-industrial Past” by Járgen G. Cleemann published in Buildings & Landscapes: Journal of the Vernacular Architecture Forum; Volume 22, Number 1; Spring 2015


    1. This is amazing, thanks for all the information! Building color history, including regional variations, is absolutely fascinating. I’ll have to dig into some of these reads!


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