Horses to Horsepower - Automobiles in Wisconsin History | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Horses to Horsepower - Image Gallery Essay

Automobiles in Wisconsin History

Horses to Horsepower - Automobiles in Wisconsin History | Wisconsin Historical Society
Song titles used to illustrate what might happen at faster highway speeds. 45 miles per hour, "Highways are happy days;" 65 miles per hour, it's "When the roll is called up Yon-der I'll be there:" 85 miles per hour, it's "Lord I'm coming home!"

Safety Singing

Wisconsin. Safety poster issued by the Safety Engineering Department of Employers Mutual Insurance Company of Wausau, Wisconsin, to urge automobile drivers not to speed. View the original source document: WHI 41772

EnlargeCrowds jam the midway at the Wisconsin State Fair.

Wisconsin State Fair Midway

Crowds jam the midway at the Wisconsin State Fair, several automobiles parked in center. View the original source document: WHI 26216

During the early 1900s, automobile inventors perfected the operation of the new vehicles and extended the application of internal combustion engines to other vehicles such as trucks, buses, and fire engines. An entirely new industry grew to manufacture cars, tires and other necessary parts. Automobile manufacturing initially took place in many locations around Wisconsin, but it gradually consolidated during the 1920s and 1930s at locations in Clintonville, Kenosha, Milwaukee, Oshkosh and Racine. So great was the automobile industry's effect on Wisconsin during this period, that as early as 1925 the value of automobile-related products manufactured in the state was greater than the value of the products of the dairy industry.

The images in this gallery are an eclectic group. The early twentieth century group, the Wisconsin Good Roads Association, requested photographs of some of the road construction. Several of these are in the Melvyn Diemer collection. Others are noteworthy because the unknown photographer found the road construction scene or the latest model car fascinating; just as people do today. Click on the galleries below, arranged by subject, to browse images about automobiles in Wisconsin.  

A Changed Transportation System

The growing use of automobiles required improvements in roads and road building technology. At the turn of the century Wisconsin roads were not much better than the dirt and plank roads of territorial days. In Wisconsin the state Highway Commission, which would become a national leader, took on the role of planning, constructing and maintaining the new road system. Even the system for identifying and marking highways, which is still used today, had to be created. A new tax on gasoline established a segregated fund for highway construction.

Farmers were among the first to benefit from automobiles and improved roads, as motorized vehicles allowed them to deliver their produce to market more quickly. Their children were better educated because rural one-room schools could be consolidated. Public health services were brought to people in remote locations.

EnlargeParked in the foreground along a curb is an International Model M-2 milk truck owned by Pevely Selected Milk Co.

Milkman Making Delivery from International Model M-2 Milk Truck, 1933

Parked in the foreground along a curb is an International Model M-2 milk truck owned by Pevely Selected Milk Co. View the original source document: WHI 7129

Blacksmiths who had been an essential part of the horse-based economy virtually disappeared as an occupation, but new jobs evolved relating to the new technology. The automobile industry was among the first sectors of the economy in which efficient assembly-line construction methods were applied, a change which dramatically altered the nature of manufacturing work. Another important shift in the work environment occurred during the 1930s when the United Automobile Workers Union assumed a leadership role in organizing industrial unions. Hints of the important economic role of tourism were apparent as early as the 1920s, when improved roads opened all parts of the state to the automobile and travelers needed places to eat, sleep and fill their gas tanks.

A Wave of Change

During World War II rationing of gasoline and tires limited personal automobile use, but the end of the war brought a new wave of changes. More and more families moved to the suburbs and commuted to work by automobile. Interstate highways and local expressways further encouraged the trend. At the same time many stores and businesses relocated from central shopping districts to suburban shopping centers where customers could easily find parking. Domestic architecture changed, too, in response to the automobile. Garages, which had been small, detached barn-like structures during the 1920s, evolved so that the garage, often containing two or three cars, eventually dominated the front facade of many homes.

American enjoyed a love affair with automobiles from introduction at the beginning of the 20th century and the reasons for that love say much about the American character. By the close of that century, however, the drawbacks of the nation's automobile-based culture were becoming increasingly apparent. Although the future of the automobile is uncertain, it will surely continue to affect us all for decades to come.

View the Galleries

 Advertisments for the automobile industry


 All images containing automobiles


 Automobiles and machinery on farms throughout Wisconsin

Farm roads & machinery

Images of The Heil Company, a Milwaukee, Wisconsin welding company started in 1901 that eventually transitioned to manufacturing garbage trucks

The Heil Company

 Images of Nash Motors Company of Kenosha, Wisconsin started in 1916

Nash Motors

 Road construction, workers, and machinery images

Road construction industry

 Images of service stations from many time periods and locations in Wisconsin

Service Stations

 Automobiles at the Wisconsin State Fair, photographs from many years 

 Wisconsin State Fair

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