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Stories from the Start: Early Life in Madison

Imagine life in 1856 when Madison formally became a city. Who settled here? How did people go about their daily lives? The artifacts in this online exhibit tell stories from 150 years ago and help paint a picture of early life in Madison. The actual objects, along with early illustrations and maps of Madison, can be seen at the Wisconsin Historical Museum from April 4 through June 17, 2006.

A Slice of Life

These objects present a snapshot view of daily life in Madison. At first glance they appear recognizable, but upon closer examination, they reveal differences, from subtle to significant, between the lives of early Madison residents and people today. Click on the thumbnails to see the larger images.

Boy's dress, 1856 (Catalog #1950.5744)
John Kiser, born in 1855 near Madison, wore this peach dress shortly after his parents moved to Oregon, Wisconsin in 1854. At that time both boys and girls wore colorful dresses and skirt outfits from infancy to early childhood. It was not until the age of six that boys were allowed to wear a pair of knee-length pants. Children's clothing design and colors were not gender-specific as they are today.

Fireman's trumpet, 1859 (Catalog #1952.203)
Madison Fire Company No. 2, organized in 1857 and comprised mostly of men of German descent, won this ceremonial trumpet at a fireman's skills tournament in La Crosse, Wisconsin in 1859. Early Madison buildings were constructed primarily of wood, and fire was a constant threat. Private companies, not cities and towns, provided fire protection. The scope of government services was very small compared to today.
Beaded bag, 1860 (Catalog #1949.373)
This handbag, decorated with a floral design of glass trade beads and green silk, was purchased in Madison in 1860. The bag is of Iroquois origin.
Porcelain pitcher, 1846 (Catalog #1973.61)
Leonard Farwell was instrumental in developing Madison in the 1840s and 1850s as a businessman, promoter, and governor. He purchased this pitcher as part of a dinner set while traveling in Paris in 1846 and brought it to Madison after moving here in 1849. Early Madison did not enjoy great wealth and cultural amenities. The fine goods and possessions owned by its affluent individuals and families came from other places.
[Dane Calvary Militia uniform, 1855 (Catalog #1951.2623)
Lieutenant Timothy Brown wore this uniform coat and hat as a member of the Madison post of the Dane Cavalry Militia in the late 1850s. Prior to the Civil War, military units were organized at local levels and often along ethnic lines and social status. They hosted balls, festivals, and other social gatherings for the community's elite. These activities were more significant than the military function.
Boot scraper, ca. 1850 (Catalog #1971.160)
This cast iron boot scraper, used for cleaning mud and dirt from the bottom of shoes, came from the Monona Avenue (Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd.) home of the Jairus Fairchild family. Like most developing towns, Madison had a frontier quality. Mud filled the streets and posed a continual problem for building and home interiors.
Cuspidor, ca. 1860 (Catalog #1954.2072)
Gritty spittoons for chewing tobacco were found not only in rowdy saloons but in the homes of influential families. This brownware cuspidor came from the home of Simeon Mills, who by 1860 was a successful businessman and government clerk in Madison.
Memo tablet, 1850 (Catalog #1971.19)
Madison businessman Cassius Fairchild used this ivory memo tablet (a pocket calendar) to organize his busy schedule. There is a tablet for each day of the week on which Fairchild wrote and erased notes and appointments. Just like today, daily life was a busy pursuit, and the memo tablet performed the same basic functions as today's PDAs.

Settlers' Stories

Madison experienced explosive population growth between the 1830s and 1860s. Yankee settlers comprised the majority of residents until an increasing number of foreign-born and first-generation European Americans chose to make their homes in the booming capital city in the 1850s. Among Madison's early residents were Roseline Peck, Levi Havemann, and Alice Hough.

Roseline Peck

Roseline Peck (WHI 38795)
Eben and Roseline Peck are considered the first white settlers of Madison. Together they ran a public house in a cabin just east of Capitol Square. Born in Vermont, Roseline (1808-1899) moved with her husband to Blue Mounds in Wisconsin Territory in 1836 and to Madison in April 1837. While the cabin was still under construction, she boarded travelers, territorial legislators, a few local residents, and workers constructing the first Capitol building in Madison. That fall Roseline gave birth to the first white child born in Madison, a daughter named Wisconsiana Victoria Peck. The Pecks moved to Baraboo, Wisconsin in 1840. Mrs. Peck endured a difficult life in Wisconsin. Her husband abandoned her in the 1840s, leaving her to raise and support the family by herself.
"First House Built in Madison," painted by C.A. Johnson (Catalog #2003.99.1)
This oil painting on canvas depicts the Peck cabin which stood on Butler Street, where the G.E.F #3 Building stands today. Early residents declared the painting an accurate representation of the cabin. Third Lake (Lake Monona) is in the background.
Brass key, 1837 (Catalog #1981.31)
This is the key to the padlock on the door of the Peck cabin.
Fiddle and bow, 1830s (Catalog #1969.304.2,a)
Roseline Peck played this fiddle, with its carved lion's head scroll, at gatherings inside the Peck cabin. As she played, residents and travelers danced on the hardwood floors. Mrs. Peck provided the entertainment at the first wedding in Madison, held at the cabin in April 1838, as well as a New Year's Eve party later that year.
Bracelet and earrings (Catalog #1971.186)
Although she was not wealthy, Roseline Peck possessed this set of jewelry which had been passed down through her family.
Money bag (Catalog #1951.2202)
Roseline Peck used this heavy canvas apron with its hidden interior pouch as a money bag. An item such as this was a necessity given the absence of banks in Madison before 1853.

Levi Havemann

German-born Levi Havemann (1824-1905) came to Madison in 1854 as a skilled wood carver and cabinet maker. He crafted most of the decorative carving in the senate and assembly chambers during the construction of the second State Capitol in the late 1850s. Later, he made the cabinet for the taxidermied "Old Abe," the eagle that had served as the mascot for the 8th Regiment of the Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry during the Civil War. The cabinet and the stuffed eagle were lost in the 1904 Capitol fire.

Handmade table, ca. 1860 (Catalog #1998.21.1)
Havemann lived at several locations around Madison including a home on Gorham Street near today's James Madison Park. According to family history, Havemann harvested wood from that land to make this table. More information on this item.

Alice Hough

Alice Hough was born in Pennsylvania in 1834 and came with her family to Wisconsin in the spring of 1853. Her father, a civil engineer and land surveyor, capitalized on the opportunities provided by the developing city. In 1860 Alice lived with her mother, siblings, and nieces and worked as a teacher. She spent most of her life in the family home on Henry Street at West Washington Avenue and died of pneumonia in 1899.

Silk dress, ca.1855 (Catalog #1946.920)
Alice Hough probably did not wear this plaid silk dress while teaching school; it was likely one of her "Sunday best" possessions.
Silk wrapper, ca. 1855 (Catalog #1946.921)
Alice Hough wore this wrapper, a housecoat, around her Henry Street home.
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