I have recently become fascinated with the old police/fire call boxes on street corners around Milwaukee. My fiance’ is from the Milwaukee area, so we run into these old boxes in random areas around the city. I have noticed them before and didn’t really think anything of it. While watching an episode of American Restoration, Rick’s Restoration got an NYPD police call box in that a customer wanted restored. That episode really got me fascinated about these old call boxes that Milwaukee had. There is little information that I could find on the internet about these specific call boxes. There are plenty of pictures, but what I want to know the history of these interesting devices as they relate to Milwaukee.
First off, I should explain what a call box is for someone who may not know. The cast-iron boxes where either mounted on poles or had a cast-iron stand (like Milwaukee’s). The box could be used for police officer on the “beat” to call in to police headquarters, or for headquarters to notify police officers on the streets of information. These call boxes served as the early communication for Milwaukee’s police force. Early boxes contained telegraph units for communication. The boxes were locked and were only accessible by a police officer. Later on they were opened up for public use.Milwaukee’s boxes were called combination alarm boxes. This design housed both police and fire alarm system in one box.
Pictured below is one of many call boxes located around Milwaukee. They are painted blue, although this one is faded and chipping. Others show signs of being repaired or repainted.
The is some interestin history behind these boxes. The alarm boxes in Milwaukee were invented by Oscar D. Kleinsteuber and patented in 1915. Kleinsteuber was appointed as a police and fire system utility man in Milwaukee on October 2, 1882. He became superintendent of the system in 1913. Oscar worked with his brother Hugo to invent and patent the combination police & fire call box. The patent was approved in December 1915. Hugo went on to patent the automatic traffic light that is common today.
The Kleinsteuber brothers’ inventions was a huge milestone in public safety. Cities around the country used the Kleinsteuber designed call box. Call boxes were not new to big cities. Milwaukee had its first call boxes at early as 1908. It was Oscar’s invention of the combination box for both police and fire alarms that revolutionized them, and Milwaukee set the example for the rest of the country with the Kleinsteuber type of call boxes.
I have been trying to examine where the call boxes were made. On one of the cast-iron doors of these call boxes it says Fire and Police Alarm Post Co. It has been difficult to find a significant amount of background information on the firm, but there is some information about it. It was a Milwaukee based company that built Kleinsteuber’s call boxes and eventually Hugo’s traffic lights. The company was started around 1915 under the name Kleinsteuber Combination Post Company , and change names around 1920. In a 1921 issue of Electrical World an article said that a factory to build the cast-iron equipment was located on the corner of Mitchell Street and 39th Street in Milwaukee. It also stated that while 250 posts were already being made for Milwaukee, and agents would sent out to various cities to market them.
In 1923, however, a red flag went up, and city officials stopped doing business with that company. The reason being was that Oscar Kleinsteuber, then superintendent of police and fire systems, and his brother Hugo, then assistant superintendent, were involved with the company and city officials. This doesn’t add up with the photographs I have posted. Each call box also has year of manufacture cast on a door. My picture has 1927 cast on the door, and others I have found have other years past 1923 also cast on the door as well as the name Fire and Police Alarm Post Co. In a Milwaukee Journal article from October 29, 1930, Milwaukee city officials were planning to install newer call boxes around the city. In the article it states that the Federal Electric Company of Chicago was the exclusive manufacturer of Kleinsteuber’s alarm boxes. The Federal Electric Company had to have been manufacturing Kleinsteuber’s call boxes under Alarm Post Co. name after 1923.
Milwaukee officials began looking into updating the alarm boxes. There were issues in manufacturing the combination boxes because Kleinsteuber held patent rights yet. The Milwaukee Malleable & Grey Iron works won a contract to build 50 new alarm boxes for the city. In October 1930, A newer design was going to replace the original Kleinsteuber boxes. The new boxes were being designed to help cut costs of building the posts.
There is still information to be learned on the Alarm Post Company, and why a newer design was being devised to replace the older boxes. Maybe an old Milwaukee police officer remembers using these old call boxes. I think they are really interesting historical pieces. I wouldn’t mind buying one of these old units and restoring it for a conversation piece.