Activity: Main Street Then and Now

This activity supports Disciplinary Literacy in Social Studies — Thinking Like a Historian — Change and Continuity.

Grade level: Elementary.

Duration: One or two class periods.


1)   Have students search the Recollection Wisconsin collections to find photographs and postcards depicting Main Street (or other downtown areas) in your local community or a neighboring city. To find images of historic Main Streets and downtowns through Recollection Wisconsin:

  • In the Keyword Search box, enter the words main street or downtown plus the name of your community.
  • Browse Collections by Category and choose “Local history” from the Subjects list. These collections contain photographs and other materials from communities around Wisconsin.

2)   Working independently or in groups, ask students to compare these images with recent photos of the same location. Have them identify differences between the downtown area then and now, such as types of commercial businesses and retail stores, signage, clothing, and types of cars or other forms of transportation.

3)   Then ask: How are these changes a reflection of changes in our society? What has not changed? What can these changes and similarities tell us about the basic interests and needs of local residents over the years?

Extension activity for advanced students: Consider using websites such as HistoryPin or What Was There to show students photographs of historic streets overlaid with contemporary street views, or upload historic photos of your own community to these sites (be sure to request permission from the library or museum that owns the original photos first!).

Corner of Main and Algoma Streets, Oshkosh, Wisconsin, 1910. Oshkosh Public Library.

Corner of Main and Algoma Streets, Oshkosh, Wisconsin, 1910. Oshkosh Public Library.