Back Home Next

Early Madison: 1850s

Enlarge Elevated view of Pickney Street looking northwest. Wagons and wooden carriages are visible parked next to the unpaved street.

Pinckney Street, ca. 1859

Madison, Wisconsin. A typical busy bustling 1850s Madison street view. Visible are the American House and Bruen's Block buildings, located on the corner of East Washington Avenue and Pinckney Street near the Capitol Square.
WHI 11701

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 more than 150 years ago and help paint a picture of early life in Madison.

The objects featured here 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.

Boy's Dress, 1856

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.
Wisconsin Historical Museum object #1950.5744

Fireman's Trumpet, 1859

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.
Wisconsin Historical Museum object #1952.203

Beaded Bag, 1860

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.
Wisconsin Historical Museum object #1949.373

Porcelain Pitcher, 1846

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.
Wisconsin Historical Museum object #1973.61

Dane Cavalry Militia Uniform, 1855

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.
Wisconsin Historical Museum object #1951.2623

Boot Scraper, ca. 1850

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.
Wisconsin Historical Museum object #1971.160

Cuspidor, ca. 1860

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.
Wisconsin Historical Museum object #1954.2072

Memo Tablet, 1850

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.
Wisconsin Historical Museum object #1971.19