It's a question that many of us have probably thought of while we're out for a walk on a beautiful summer evening in Milwaukee. You bend down to tie your shoe, and there, next to your foot, is a date, stamped into the sidewalk like in the picture above.
Well, maybe you haven't wondered what the date is doing there, but it's a question that occurred to listener Stephen Howe, anyway, and he got in touch with our Bubbler Talk team to figure out the answer. So why are dates stamped on Milwaukee sidewalks? There turns out to be a pretty simple answer.
They're required to be there.
In fact, it's been required by law since construction of concrete sidewalks kicked into high gear at the turn of the 20th century. "A lot of cities started to really look into the idea of having a quick construction technique, and something that is sanitary," says Al Muchka, curator of history collections at the Milwaukee Public Museum, and our first repeat Bubbler Talk expert.
Before concrete, Muchka says, sidewalks were often made out of wood, boardwalk-style. "They didn't last. They deteriorated, and anything that dropped on them would stain them or mar them. They got to be a nuisance."
After some experiments with crushed granite and paving brick in Milwaukee, the city turned to concrete. "The projected life for this stuff is twenty or more years," Muchka says. "But the city also needed a way to monitor the sidewalks, to know who was building them, when they were installed, and how long they were useful."
Hence, the requirement that sidewalks come with a date, and the name of the contractor stamped in them. Muchka remembers growing up on 24th Street in the 1960s, seeing dates as far back as the 1910s and '20s still stamped on sidewalks in his neighborhood.
And the longest-lasting ones, he says, also make for powerful advertising for a contractor. "If you looked at a piece of concrete and it was installed in 1970, and it's got a really great contractor name that still exists, wow, you might want to use those guys."
Likewise, the city knows who to track down if all the sidewalks of a certain vintage crumble before their time. "It's an accountability thing," Muchka explains. "If things start breaking down, you really do have a way to go back and work with these contractors to get proper repair and replacements."