Madison in 100 objects

Ancient civilizations are defined by their artifacts. If Madison were suddenly smothered by a Mount Vesuvius, or swallowed up by Lake Mendota like Atlantis, what would future archaeologists conclude about us? What would we want them to find — and what would we wish had stayed buried forever?

There's the Capitol dome, to be sure, its solid granite mass standing in mute contrast to the noisy political battles that raged below. The colorful, sunburst-patterned chairs of the Union Terrace — long since turned to rust — would hint at carefree summer days by the lake. Paul Soglin's mustache (we're taking some liberties with the physics here) probably ought to be in there. Heck, Madison's "Mayor for Life" might still be in office then.

Starting today, and for the 99 days that follow, the Wisconsin State Journal will run short appreciations of 100 objects that define Madison. Many of them, like those Terrace chairs or the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile, are pure Madison trademarks. Others, like the brats we consume by the hundreds of thousands each year at the World's Largest Brat Fest, may not have been invented or even made here but have come to be so closely associated with Madison that they're in our blood.

For longtime residents, these things remind us of home. For newcomers, we hope they'll serve as a sort of Cliff's Notes to getting to know the city better.

Based on the lively debate we had within our newsroom, it's safe to say we won't all agree on what objects best represent the city.

For starters, what is an object? The first draft of our list included several of the people and places that make Madison unique. Lake Mendota? Sure, but is it an object? We determined it isn't. But a Hoofers sailboat bobbing on the surface of Madison's biggest lake in summer is.

So why limit ourselves to just objects? Part of it is practical. Madison's personalities, historical and contemporary, could fill volumes.

A list of the places that have earned a spot in our heart — Camp Randall Stadium, the Arboretum, Rennebohm's — really deserves its own treatment.

But when we consider an object, it focuses our attention on the thing itself. Our houses are filled with objects, personal possessions that take on meaning over time. That meaning is magnified when the sense of possession is shared by thousands of others.

To be sure, we don't all see these objects the same. Rather, they provide a sort of Rorschach test in which our perceptions say more about us than what we're looking at. For example, few objects provoke as strong a reaction as the "blue fist" poster that was ubiquitous in parts of Madison during the 2011 protests against Gov. Scott Walker. Love it or hate it, it's forever associated with Madison and its famous liberalism.

Or take "Nails' Tales" (please). The obelisk of concrete footballs outside Camp Randall is either an abomination or a towering representation of the University of Wisconsin's football dominance.

To pick our list of 100 objects, we convened two groups of reporters and editors, solicited ideas through social media and consulted with local historians. Inevitably, we've overlooked something, which is where you come in: If there are items you think we should include, please call or send us your suggestions at 608-252-6120 or

Get local news delivered to your inbox!

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Test your memory by matching photos of some of the 100 objects that define Madison.

Photos are chosen randomly — always two of each. There are easy, medium and expert levels, all of which you can play on any device, but levels below expert will appear better on phones and tablets.

Listen up!

Sign up for our Podcasts email!

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.