Views of Main Streets in small villages and large urban centers throughout Wisconsin and across the United States are windows onto single moments in the lives of individual communities. These images reveal the ongoing changes taking place in everyday life across the decades, including transformations in architecture, advertising, commerce and clothing.
Some of the most visible changes are related to transportation. As seen in this gallery, horse-drawn wagons and carriages gave way in the early 20th century to electric streetcars, which ran through many large and mid-sized Wisconsin cities. By the 1920s, the streetcars were gone, replaced by cars and buses.
Not all main commercial streets are known as “Main Street.” In Mineral Point, the central street is called High Street, following the naming tradition in British towns. In Madison, the main street is State Street, and in Wisconsin Rapids, it’s Grand Avenue. What’s Main Street called in your town?
- Main Street, Woodville, ca. 1900 A crowd gathers for the photographer in this postcard of the town of Woodville, in Saint Croix County. Source: Woodville Community Library by way of University of Wisconsin Digital Collections.
- Main Street, Ripon, looking south from square, 1886 This stereograph view of Ripon's Main Street shows a dirt street and a raised sidewalk of wooden planks. Source: Ripon Historical Society.
- Detail of Ripon stereograph, 1886 A closer look at this image reveals groups of people standing on the sidewalk in front of a row of storefronts and a callout to a local business, "J. E. Brown Merchant Tailor and Clothing." Source: Ripon Historical Society.
- Corner of Main and Algoma Streets, Oshkosh, 1910 This colorized postcard shows a streetcar at the center of a busy Main Street intersection. According to Jungwirth, History of the City of Oshkosh vol. 1 (1993), electric streetcars ran through much of downtown Oshkosh from 1897 until 1928. Source: Oshkosh Public Library.
- Main Street, Menasha, looking west, 1910 Workers lay cement while an electric streetcar passes in the foreground. Source: Menasha Public Library by way of University of Wisconsin Digital Collections.
- Main Street, Hortonville, ca. 1911 This postcard was altered to include an electric trolley--but there's no evidence that streetcars ever ran in Hortonville. Source: Hortonville Public Library.
- Main Street, New Richmond, 1920-1930 In the 1920s and 30s, streetcars passed out of fashion in favor of the automobile. Source: C.A. Friday Memorial Library by way of University of Wisconsin Digital Collections.
- High Street, Mineral Point, 1876-1890 Not all main streets are called "Main Street." In the Cornish settlement of Mineral Point, the central street is known as High Street, following the naming tradition in British towns. Source: Mineral Point Historical Society.
- Madison's main commercial street is known as State Street. General traffic was permitted on State Street until 1974, when the city transformed the street into a pedestrian mall. Source: UW-Madison Archives by way of University of Wisconsin Digital Collections. State Street, Madison, 1950-1960.
- Grand Avenue, Wisconsin Rapids, ca. 1960 In Wisconsin Rapids, the main street is Grand Avenue, shown in this 1960s postcard as a vibrant and bustling center of the community. Source: McMillan Memorial Library.
The materials in this slideshow come from the following digital collections. Click the links to browse the full collections.
- Barron, Chippewa, Dunn, Eau Claire, Pepin, St. Croix, and Rusk Counties – Local History Collection. Part of the State of Wisconsin Collection from University of Wisconsin Digital Collections
- Hortonville Memory Project, Hortonville Public Library
- Main Street, Oshkosh, Oshkosh Public Library
- McMillan Memorial Library
- Menasha Local History Collection, Menasha Public Library. Part of the State of Wisconsin Collection from University of Wisconsin Digital Collections
- Mineral Point Historical Society
- Ripon Historical Society
- UW-Madison Collection, UW-Madison Archives. Part of the University of Wisconsin Collection from University of Wisconsin Digital Collections