It’s wedding season and while wedding trends come and go, elaborate, one-of-a-kind affairs have long been in fashion. Milwaukee historian John Gurda tells us about the 1881 wedding deemed the most brilliant in Milwaukee’s social history.
The wedding season is with us again. Crepe-papered cars cruise by with their horns blaring on Saturday mornings, couples pose for pictures in the fanciest clothes they will ever wear, and even the humblest halls have been booked for months.
Some of this year’s nuptials will tax the ingenuity of local caterers and the pocketbooks of doting parents, but it’s doubtful that any will rival a Milwaukee wedding that took place in 1881. That ceremony united a Scottish doctor, William Mackie, with a Scottish farmer’s daughter, Isabella Mitchell. It was widely considered the social event of the century.
Isabella happened to be a favorite niece of Alexander Mitchell, the wealthiest man in Wisconsin. Mitchell was a power in three barely related fields—banking, railroads, and insurance—and his home was a sprawling mansion that crowned an entire city block at Ninth and Wisconsin. The French-style landmark is still very much in use as the Wisconsin Club.
Although Alexander generally fit the stereotype of the tight-fisted Scot, he spared no expense for his niece and nephew-to-be. Nearly 1200 wedding guests descended on the Mitchell mansion.They represented the cream of Wisconsin society.
While they waited to congratulate the newlyweds, the guests enjoyed one of the most elaborate floral displays the city had ever seen. As the Milwaukee Sentinel reported, “Magnificent bunches of variegated and odorous blossoms occupied every point of advantage within the ducal residence.”
One massive arrangement spelled out the couple’s initials in tube roses against a background of lilies, carnations, and heliotropes. Just to make sure his guests knew who was paying for all this splendor, Alexander Mitchell had his florists build another bank of blossoms with “AM” at the center.
At the heart of the grounds was a dance pavilion that looked like something out of Camelot. The poles of this oversized tent were topped with eighty silk pennants, including the flags of Scotland, the United States, England, France, and Germany. Inside the pavilion hung coats of arms for the McKenzies, McGregors, MacDonalds, and a dozen more Scottish clans.
Local reporters could hardly find words to describe the scene. Mitchell’s estate, gushed the Sentinel, had been transformed into “a purely mythological retreat” that “called up the recollection of stories from the Arabian nights.”
Culinary splendor was evident as well. The lucky guests dined on “everything tempting,” reported the newspaper, “in or out of season.” The rarer delicacies included boned turkey with truffles, sweetbread salad, buffalo tongue with jelly, pickled oysters, and salmon salad with capers. Dinner was followed by seven kinds of ice cream, a variety of ices, puddings, and fruits, and, of course, wedding cake—nearly 200 pounds of it.
The celebration went on well past midnight. When the last Chinese lantern had been extinguished and the final bottle of fine wine emptied, it was clear that the event had set a new standard for local entertaining.
The Evening Wisconsin called the Mitchell-Mackie wedding the “most brilliant event in Milwaukee social history,” without the slightest fear of contradiction. Using the wealth he commanded as Wisconsin’s king of capital, Alexander Mitchell threw a party fit for royalty, and the memory of its splendid excesses lingered for decades, even among the common folk who had only watched at the gate.