Then & Now

Historic Moments that shaped our city

There are moments when an event or an idea alters the course of history. In an instant, life is forever changed. But most change is incremental—a series of moments stitched together by the hands of time. The Progressive Era of the 1890s and early 1900s was a period of revolutionary growth and transformation, a moment when reform-minded citizens, journalists, academics and influential leaders began the work that—for better or worse—would define the way we live today. 

EDUCATION: Lead the Way

In 1856, a German immigrant woman from Watertown started the first kindergarten in the U.S. The first in Madison appeared in 1879, and in the early 1900s the Woman’s Club was instrumental in expanding the program. Back then the curriculum was designed to acclimate children to social interaction and classroom discipline—more like today’s preschools. While the state constitution has required free public education for four- to twenty-year-olds since 1848, many school districts, including Madison, still don’t offer pre-kindergarten despite evidence that early childhood education is a key indicator for future success—or failure. In 2007 only fifty-eight percent of students entering the Madison Metropolitan School District passed the kindergarten readiness test. A generous grant by CUNA Mutual Group Foundation to jump-start support and education services for low-income children (who comprise nearly half of the city’s public school population) and a United Way initiative called Born Learning aim to increase readiness to seventy-five percent by 2013. That, coupled with countywide four-year-old kindergarten programs—already under way in Monona Grove, Stoughton and Deerfield—will give more kids a healthy head start. A 2005 analysis by NorthStar Economics in Madison says taxpayers benefit when our kids board the bus a year earlier: “For every state dollar invested in pre-K, sixty-eight cents would be returned in savings to the education system.”

KIDS’ HEALTH: Youthful Thinking

When your kid catches a cold, a dose of Children’s Tylenol and a sick day usually do the trick. A hundred years ago, exposure to germs could be deadly. While scientists had identified many of the pathogens that cause infectious diseases—which ushered in a public health movement to reduce the risks—poor sanitation was a major problem and vaccinations weren’t common. According to local historian David Mollenhoff, when contaminated milk was identified as a major cause of tuberculosis, the city stepped in to prevent an epidemic. “Madison became the first city in the state to require all cows used to supply a city with milk to have an annual tuberculin test,” writes Mollenhoff in Madison: A History of the Formative Years. Now milk is pasteurized—and organic if you care to pay a little extra. And kids have the luxury of being kids. “Most people don’t know that the safest time in your life is between the ages of five and nine,” says Patrick Remington, a UW professor and director of the Wisconsin Population Health Institute. “You’ve survived the challenges of infancy and exploring the world as a toddler and you’re not yet old enough to engage in self-destructive behavior.” But that doesn’t mean school-age kids aren’t at risk. Take diet and exercise. Childhood obesity can lead to diabetes and other life-threatening diseases later in life. A progressive, reform-minded approach worked with sanitation problems. Could it do the same for unhealthy lifestyles? Remington thinks so. He regards nutritious school lunches and physical activity as being just as integral to good education as reading and math. “If it’s a good idea then let’s put it into the system and make it a requirement,” he says.

KITCHENS: Home Front

Today’s home makeovers favor open, airy great rooms where the kitchen meets the living room in a warm and spacious way. “This whole idea of the contemporary living space is exactly what it was like two hundred years ago,” says UW art history professor Ann Smart Martin. Back then, she says, kitchens were social spaces as much as cooking spaces, where family and friends gathered around the hearth for warmth, conversation and sustenance. Along came science and innovation, though, and by the early twentieth century labor- saving gadgets, built-in sinks, stoves and cabinets, and safety and sanitation concerns relegated kitchens to their own separate spaces, usually toward the back of the house and sometimes in a separate building altogether. Modern kitchens sporting granite countertops and Sub-Zero appliances have morphed back into social spaces for the cocooning of our culture. And with more people cooking to be both healthy and economical, society is returning to its roots. “We’re back to where we were two hundred years ago,” says Martin.

CIVIL RIGHTS: Legacy Family

In 1902 the first African American church in Madison, African Methodist Episcopal (now St. Paul A.M.E.), opened its doors. “Organizers purchased a building from a Norwegian congregation and had it moved to East Dayton Street,” says Betty Banks, whose grandfather, William Miller, a lawyer and social-justice activist, donated the land for the building. While Miller and his wife Anna Mae, a teacher, moved here so their children could attend desegregated schools, racial discrimination kept them from practicing their professions. William worked as a messenger for Gov. Robert La Follette. “In reality, he was more of an aide,” says Banks. “He advised La Follette on issues that impacted the lives of Black people … Grandmother went before the Legislature on issues that were important to children.” The Millers were also important figures in the civil rights movement as founding members of the local chapter of the Niagara Movement, the NAACP’s forerunner. Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois were “frequent guests at the Miller home,” says Banks, who has followed in her family’s humanitarian footsteps. Among her many accomplishments, she is co-founder of Club TNT (Today not Tomorrow), a weekly TV variety show produced by and for teens.

PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION: Clang, Clang, Clang Went the Trolley

If it ever feels like the Madison debate over streetcars is neverending, that’s because it is. Mule-drawn streetcars of the late 1880s were too slow. The electric streetcars that followed were too noisy. Then, ironically, this popular form of transportation encouraged sprawl as developers began their land acquisition and neighborhood development marched toward the suburbs. Those of us who love to shop Monroe Street and can’t get enough of the Schenk-Atwood neighborhood’s charm have rail lines to thank for moving residents and businesses east- and westward. Although the streetcars that ran until 1935 were private ventures with city-approved franchises, the politics of money plagued them throughout their existence just like today. Current mayor Dave Cieslewicz has tabled his dreams of bringing the electric streetcar back but says if the city and county secure federal funds for a commuter rail system, things could start to change—and streetcars could become part of a comprehensive solution to reversing the direction in which our ancestor trolleys took us.

ALCOHOL: Battling Booze

Raging debates over alcohol use and abuse in Madison are not only notorious, they’re historic. Wisconsin Historical Society historian Jim Draeger says we shouldn’t be all that surprised by the conflict in a city “founded by Yankees but run by Germans,” a reference to the former’s puritanical leanings and the latter’s cultural and economic ties to brewing. Since the late 1800s the city council has tried everything from limits to all-out bans on liquor licenses to making it prohibitively expensive to operate a tavern to a more modern ordinance outlawing public drunkenness. The Tellurian alcohol and drug treatment facility was named after former U.S. Senator George McGovern’s daughter Terry, whose battle with alcohol ended in her freezing death on the east side of Madison in 1994. While our current mayor, the police department and the university seem to have calmed the once-riotous State Street Halloween bash, excessive drinking on football Saturdays and an alarming number of alcohol-related crimes, car accidents and domestic disturbances are among the scourges that continue to dog us. Dismayed by the social and economic toll alcohol abuse has taken on our community, county executive Kathleen Falk recently launched a promising alcohol abuse reduction initiative. The UW funded ID scanners at eight downtown liquor stores, and UW Health organized a coalition to reduce drunk driving and underage drinking, and the legislature is poised to enact harsher penalties on drunk driving. We’ll drink (in moderation) to that.

STYLE: Fashion Forward

When America began its tectonic shift from farms to factories, Madison followed suit—and suited up—in response to the customs of the day. While the Victorian era of female corsets and unexposed skin were just fine by the temperance-minded society being cultivated by Madison’s elite, it simply wasn’t practical attire for the more leisurely pursuits at the turn of the last century. While a picnic in the park might still call for a pair of fine wool trousers or a floor-length skirt, bicycling, baseball, tennis and rowing, to name a few popular activities, required more casual, and often revealing, clothing. According to David Mollenhoff in Madison: A History of the Formative Years, “A new emphasis on exercise and athletics posed a serious problem for women’s fashion.” And so began the dressing down of Madison, which has gone on to develop a reputation over the years for its casual—even cavalier—attitude toward fashion. Black-tie is usually optional at formal affairs, and you’ll almost always spot a pair of Birkenstocks under the table at a high-end restaurant.

AUTOMOBILES: Cruise Control

While the promise of streetcars raised the price of land at the city’s edges, the relative affordability of cars—cheaper than buying and maintaining a horse and buggy—was what eventually drove residents there. And they didn’t stop in the ’burbs. Sunday drives became de rigeur and regional travel boomed. Wisconsin adopted the country’s first highway numbering system in 1918. For women especially, the car provided one more taste of freedom. While the men worked, affluent women drove to shops on the bustling Capitol Square or to Woman’s Club meetings at Grace Episcopal Church. While temperance unions and suffrage groups had been organizing for women’s rights for decades, the “auto buggy” was one of many liberating changes that helped hasten the march toward equal rights. A hundred years later, American carmakers are in deep financial trouble, while hybrids and electrics are addressing the need for renewable resources and reduced dependence on fossil fuels. In Madison, an innovative pay-by-the-hour car-sharing business called Community Car is growing in popularity, offering residents the opportunity to “divorce their car.” Notably, more women are members.


One of the most visible links to the Greenbush neighborhood’s past is the Italian Workmen’s Club near the corner of Park and Regent streets. While the building was constructed in 1922, the club itself was organized in 1912 (and remains a vibrant social center) after the first Italian immigrants had arrived in Madison to work the railroads a few years earlier. They were poor and settled in an impoverished area that had long suffered from neglect by the city, which ignored marshy plots of land teeming with garbage, and the landlords, who built cheap flats out of recycled materials from demolished buildings. While Italians came to Madison in search of jobs, African Americans came for education and freedom, and many Jewish immigrants arrived around the same time to seek refuge from growing anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe. Progressive Era reforms such as building permits and housing codes somewhat improved living conditions in the ’Bush, but racial and religious discrimination made it more challenging for new residents to thrive. The community finally acknowledged the problems in 1916, when the women’s Civics Club hosted a national housing expert who called Greenbush “as bad a slum as any city in the country,” according to Stuart Levitan in Madison: The Illustrated Sesquicentennial History, Vol. 1. Around the same time, a UW student’s senior thesis chronicling life in the ’Bush caught the attention of Associated Charities (now Family Service) and Attic Angels (now a senior health care and living service), who donated the funds to build the Neighborhood House that still exists today as a community support and resources center with a mission to “facilitate the growth of a diverse, responsible and welcoming community.” The Madison Civics Club continues as a popular speaker’s bureau, and its current co-chairs are African American women.


A hundred years ago Wisconsin was home to nearly a dozen Native American boarding schools—but prepping for an Ivy League education was far from their mission. Instead, the federal government’s forced assimilation policy aimed at school-age children across the country “was intended to destroy Native language, culture and religious expression,” says journalist and UW–Madison Life Sciences Communication associate professor Patty Loew, a member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe and author of Indian Nations of Wisconsin. “In contrast, today a state statute requires the teaching of Wisconsin Indian history, culture, sovereignty and treaty rights in order to preserve Native cultures and promote understanding by mainstream Wisconsin residents.” Add to that an award-winning series by Wisconsin State Journal reporter Jason Stein on endangered Native languages, which caught Gov. Jim Doyle’s attention. His 2009 budget bill includes competitive grants tribes and school districts can apply for as part of a broader strategy on Native language preservation.

WISCONSIN IDEAS: Sift and Winnow

One way to describe the legacy of the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s profound impact on our health and welfare is to look at some of its most significant scientific advancements in reverse. In 2011, the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery will open its state-of-the-art doors to some of the most exciting and innovative interdisciplinary research on the planet. The areas of discipline span nanotechnology, biotechnology and information technology, but don’t let these ivory-tower titles fool you: the objective is to translate scientific discoveries into practical applications that will improve our lives and fuel our economy. It’s the kind of forward thinking UW has embraced since it was founded under the state constitution in 1848 and designated a federal land-grant institution in 1866. In 1890, agricultural chemist Stephen Babcock built a device to standardize milk quality, securing Wisconsin’s future as the dairy state (he’s also the namesake of the delicious ice cream). Later his single-grain experiments on cows led to the science of nutrition. In 1925, biochemistry professor Harry Steenbock founded the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation to license his vitamin D technology, which eradicated rickets, and reinvested the proceeds to fund more research. Today, vitamin D-based drug discoveries by Steenbock’s protégé Hector DeLuca comprise seventy percent of WARF’s income, $50 million of which is being used to build the Institutes for Discovery, where twenty scientists will continue to forward the Wisconsin Idea.

Brennan Nardi is editor of Madison Magazine.

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