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Oscar Mayer’s History Dates Back Nearly A Century In Madison

Vintage Wisconsin: How Oscar Mayer Landed In Wisconsin

East Side History

In the above image, seven workers along with Oscar F. Mayer, Oscar G. Mayer, Oscar G. Mayer, Jr., and Little Oscar (not a “real” Oscar at all but Meinhardt Raabe) hold what is purported to be the “largest sausage in the world.”

Oscar Mayer has a long history in Madison. The founder, Oscar F. Mayer, was a German immigrant who came to Detroit at age 14 and worked as a butcher’s apprentice. He then moved to Chicago where he worked for another meat market and then in the city’s infamous stockyards (check out Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” for a refresher). Mayer and his brother opened a meat market of their own on Chicago’s heavily German north side in 1883. The business continued to grow, helped by the popularity of wieners at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.

It was Mayer’s son — also named Oscar — who told his father about a small meat-packing plant on the outskirts of Madison that he’d learned about on visit with his in-laws. The company purchased the plant in 1919, mostly because it was cheap and available. It was also closer to farmers, which would cut down livestock transport costs.

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But more than just a business opportunity, the company soon took an active part in the community and in the lives of its workers. With homes scarce in a tight rental market, Oscar Mayer built 50 affordable homes for workers. They also paid for the extension of the streetcar to the plant to help employees get to work. By 1920, Oscar Mayer’s Madison plant had become the fifth-largest packing plant in the country.

The number of women workers at the plant increased in the 1940s, though women had worked at Oscar Mayer even before the wartime shortage of male workers. The company ran ads lauding the company as “a good place to work” for both men and women in The Capital Times and the Wisconsin State Journal in 1920. Like in many industries though, the range of jobs open to women, from meat inspection to processing and casing, increased during wartime.

Some of these women stayed on after the war. Female office workers, for instance, formed a club known as “the Oscarettes” in the late 1940s.

Madison became Oscar Mayer’s company headquarters in 1957.

The company announced earlier this month that its Madison plant would be shutting down.

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