School, suffrage, and… seatbelts? Wisconsin’s famous firsts

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By Christina Lorey

March 19, 2024

By 1836, the land we now call Wisconsin reached a population of 10,000, making the region eligible for its own territorial government. President Andrew Jackson appointed a territorial governor, and representatives chose Madison as the site of the future capital.

By 1846, the Wisconsin Territory’s population had exploded to 155,277–far above the 60,000 citizens required by law to become a state. Lawmakers called for a constitutional convention, and on May 29, 1848, Wisconsin became America’s 30th state. And we’ve been outdrinking the rest ever since (kidding, of course… that’s far from our only contribution!)

Here are some other notable Wisconsin firsts, from the archives of the Historical Society:

🎒 1856 – First Kindergarten

The first kindergarten in the United States was opened in 1856 by Margarethe Meyer Schurz in Watertown. 

⌨️ 1869 – First Typewriter

The first typewriter was invented by Milwaukee newspaperman and politician Christopher Latham Sholes in 1867. The rights for his invention were sold to Remington Company.

🚙 1873 – First Automobile

The Reverend John W. Carhalt built a steam-propelled automobile called “the Spark” at Racine. In 1908, at the International Automobile Exposition in Paris, France, Carhart was addressed as the “Father of Automobiles,” and was given a cash reward for his invention.

🚜 1878 – Invention of the Knotter

John T. Appleby patented the knotter. Attached to reapers, this invention ties bundles of grain with twine.

🏎️ 1878 – First Auto Race in the US

The state legislature offered $10,000 to the inventor of a machine that could move from Green Bay to Madison under its own power. Alexander Gallagher of Oshkosh won; his vehicle’s average speed was 6 mph. 

🎪 1882 – First Ringling Brothers’ Show

The Ringling Brothers’ first performed in Mazomanie on November 27.

🇺🇸 1885 – First Flag Day

Bernard J. Cigrand, a 19-year-old teacher, and pupils at Stoney Hill School, Ozaukee County, celebrated the birthday of our flag on June 14, 1785. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed the day National Flag Day.

🚆 1886 – First Successful Electric Commercial Streetcar

Appleton operated an electric street railway on August 16, 1886.

🛣️ 1917 – First Highway Numbering System

Created in Wisconsin, the highway numbering system was later adopted nationwide.

🗳️ 1919 – First State to Ratify the Women’s Suffrage Amendment

In the fight for women’s rights, Wisconsin was the first state to register ratification of the women suffrage amendment.

💪🏽 1932 – First to Help the Unemployed

Governor Philip La Follette signed Wisconsin’s first unemployment compensation law on January 28, 1932, becoming a model for the nation. Wisconsin was the first state to pass an unemployment compensation law.

🚺 1960 – First Woman Elected to a Major State Office

Dena Smith was elected state treasurer.

🚘 1961 – First Law for Seat Belts

In September, Governor Nelson signed into law the requirement that safety belts be on the front seats of all new cars sold in the state beginning with the 1962 models. This was the first law of its kind in the country.

🚲 1966 – First Bikeway

This bikeway, the first in the nation, is marked from Kenosha to La Crosse. Riders may pick up the trail at any point along its route.

🏳️‍🌈 1982 – First Statewide Gay Rights Law Passed

Wisconsin led the way by passing the country’s first statewide gay rights law.

MORE: 5 things you didn’t know were invented in Wisconsin


  • Christina Lorey

    Christina is an Edward R. Murrow-winning journalist and former producer, reporter, and anchor for TV stations in Madison and Moline. When she’s not writing or asking questions, you can find her volunteering with Girls on the Run, the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, and various mental health organizations.

CATEGORIES: Our Wisconsin


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