Main Street evolves

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In response to Eric Bakovic's recent Language Log post asserting that he doesn't live on Main Street, Victor Mair sent this recent New Yorker cartoon:

The OED traces Wall Street as a term "denoting the American financial world or money-market" back to 1841:

1841 Week in Wall St. p. ix, In the expressive language of Wall-street, he has himself been ‘flunked’.
1871 L. M. ALCOTT Little Men xiv. 244 The firm [was] broken up… The barn, which was the boys' Wall Street, knew him no more.

Since the 1841 citation was in a publication identified as "Week in Wall St.", presumably the metonymic identification actually goes back somewhat further.

The term Main Street for "The principal street of a town" goes back to the 17th century (well, 1598, so marginally the 16th). But the only figurative extensive given in the OED is glossed as "The mediocrity, parochialism, or materialism regarded as typical of small-town life (esp. after Sinclair Lewis's novel Main Street, 1920)".

An example from 1855 seems, ironically, more in tune with the current meaning of Wall Street than with the current meaning of Main Street:

1855 N.Y. Tribune 31 Dec. 4/4 It has risen to its present position of bloated arrogance and swaggering insolence by the liberal and unstinting patronage it has received from the full purses and free hands of Eastern men in Main street and elsewhere.

The earliest Lewisian citation in the OED is from 1931:

1931 Times Lit. Suppl. 9 Apr. 282/3 He dislikes uniformity, mass-control, Main-street and Rotarian ideals.

And the earliest OED citation for a Main Street/Wall Street contrast is from 1992, and treats Wall Street as a reference to "big business" rather than the financial industry as such:

1992 Mother Jones Sept.-Oct. 9/1 The Republican party..stretches from Main Street to Wall Street, encompassing complacent, small-town Babbits and corporate CEOs.

Though the usage (by all parties) in the current crisis continues to identify Wall Street with the financial system, Main Street seems to have mutated to cover pretty much everybody else — or at least all participants in business and financial activity who are not employed at a high level in the financial industry — without any implications of mediocrity, parochialism, materialism, or complacency.

I believe that this mutation of Main Street, and of the Main Street/Wall Street opposition, goes back several decades. For example, a NYT editorial from 1/11/1981, "Manic Magic on Wall Street":

We do not mock the man or his followers. We only wish they'd put their occult energies to more constructive purpose.  Imagine if, instead of shouting "sell everything," the economic seers were to promise national salvation by urging business to sell short and every worker to work cheap, for 10 percent less.   That would cure inflation overnight and leave us all demonstrably richer.  Could it be that this remedy hasn't been tried because Main Street, unlike Wall Street, is too square to invest in magic?

But I'll leave it to our commenters to track this phenomenon to its historical roots (and to unpack the logic — and the sense of the first person plural — that connects "every worker to work … for 10 percent less" with "leave us all demonstrably richer").


  1. Andy J said,

    October 2, 2008 @ 7:33 am

    In the UK the corresponding terms would be the City and the High Street (the definite article is essential in both cases) . It is ironic that the City is in fact dispersed geographically between the actual streets of the City of London and Docklands (often colloquially referred to as Canary Wharf) some 3 miles distant. For those who do not know, the City of London is not synonymous with London (cf NYC), but a largely autonomous district of Greater London, also referred to as the Square Mile. We readily talk about the High Street as representing everyday commerce (but, as with Main Street, not corporate business).

  2. Geraint Jennings said,

    October 2, 2008 @ 7:51 am

    But the concepts of "high street banking" and "main street banking" presumably muddy any clear blue water between "high street/main street" and "the City/Wall Street".

  3. Mark F. said,

    October 2, 2008 @ 8:24 am

    By the 50's, Disney had "Main Street USA" as a part of Disneyland. So the idea of Main Street as something with positive, rather than negative, connotations goes back a long way.

  4. mark seidenberg said,

    October 2, 2008 @ 8:40 am

    Shouldn't the caption read, "Wall St. is Main St."?

    As in "Wall St.. IS Main St."

  5. Virtual Linguist said,

    October 2, 2008 @ 9:00 am

    There is an article in today's UK Independent entitled 'Main Street grudgingly swings behind bailout'. Main Street always refers to the US in the UK media. The Independent felt the need to define the term for its readers. Here's the paragraph:

    Now the mood has shifted 180 degrees, after the plunge in share prices prompted by the 'no' vote, and a realisation that a once-arcane breakdown in credit markets is starting to cause real pain on Main Street – the real world of production, jobs and local banks, from whom ordinary Americans borrow to finance everything from a new car to university education for their children.

    And here's the reference:

  6. Andy J said,

    October 2, 2008 @ 9:14 am

    @Geraint. "But the concepts of "high street banking" and "main street banking" presumably muddy any clear blue water between "high street/main street" and "the City/Wall Street"."
    In the UK the two concepts of retail banking (on the High Street) and wholesale/merchant banking in the City are clearly understood as separate. The problem is, in both the US and the UK, the sub-prime mortgage issue which precipitated the current situation originated on the HighStreet/Main Street and was consolidated in the City/Wall St into the less-than-fully-understood instruments which then went on to undermine conifidence between banks at the international level, so arguably there was never much clear blue water, just a certain amount of sewage, between the two.

  7. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    October 2, 2008 @ 9:56 am

    The Main/Wall opposition appears to have been popularized by a book published in 1927 by William Z. Ripley, Main Steet and Wall Street. It's available on Internet Archive here.

    Ripley's book was preceded by some headlines in 1926, e.g.:

    SCHIFF DOUBTS NEED OF BLUE-SKY LAWS; They Fail to Protect Ignorant Buyers and Hurt Legitimate Business, He Says. WOULD INVOKE PENAL CODE Banker, Defending Wall Street, Calls It Just as Important as Main Street.
    New York Times, Jan 28, 1926. p. 29

    Wall Street Prepares to Sell Butter and Eggs to Main Street; $200,000,000 COMBINE OF CHAIN STORES AFFECTED
    The Atlanta Constitution, Feb 3, 1926. p. 18

    And even earlier is this, bringing together Lewisian Main Street with UKian High Street:

    IAN HAY IN DEBATE WITH SINCLAIR LEWIS; Two Authors Discuss 'Main Street and High Street' Before a London Audience.
    New York Times, May 30, 1923. p. 3

  8. John Roth said,

    October 2, 2008 @ 10:36 am

    I'm mildly puzzled than anyone would find the transition puzzling: it tracks the major shift in the US population from a country with lots of small towns and relatively few big cities to one where most of the population exists in large cities with their attendant suburbs. Before the shift, the typical "big business" the average person would see would, indeed, be on the town's Main Street.

    Likewise, the illogic in the quote is because the writer is parodying someone's point of view as being magic.

    John Roth

  9. Peter said,

    October 2, 2008 @ 12:38 pm

    Mark — Why did you not credit the cartoonist, William Hamilton, by name? If this was just a drawing you inserted, you would cite the artist's name; if it was just a textual statement that you quoted, you would cite the author's name. So why not, when there is both a drawing and textual statement, credit the cartoonist?

  10. Karen said,

    October 2, 2008 @ 1:07 pm

    Well, for one thing, his name is right there in the cartoon. It's not like Mark is pretending he drew it.

  11. Rubrick said,

    October 2, 2008 @ 2:10 pm

    I've had the feeling that "Main Street" as denoting "ordinary citizens" has been influenced by some bleedthrough from "mainstream", though I have no evidence.

    I was recently listening to a radio commentator discussing the economic crisis, and she said something about its affect on "mainstream America". I did a double-take, as my brain is now primed to expect the driven-into-the-ground "Main Street".

  12. JRH said,

    October 2, 2008 @ 3:34 pm

    My first exposure to "Main Street" was the Main Street, USA section of the Magic Kingdom park at Walt Disney World. I didn't think such places really existed, as none of the major roads in Fort Lauderdale was called "Main" (and they certainly weren't anything like Disney's Main Street in character). Years later I did find a Main Street, in Saint Petersburg, but it's only a 2-block-long diagonal road that runs alongside the railroad tracks.

    I've never lived in a suburb or a small town, so to this day, the idea that this "Main Street" place has any relation to where I live seems completely foreign. The association of "Wall Street" with finance is far more understandable and natural, because it refers to an actual street with banks and stock exchanges nearby that I can point to on a map.

  13. Garrett Wollman said,

    October 2, 2008 @ 9:43 pm

    "Main Street" to me — in this particular metaphor at least — conjures up images of a small midwestern city in the 1950s, and I think that its prominence at present is due in no small part to the fact that the targets of today's political rhetoric are precisely people who grew up in small midwestern cities and towns during the 1950s. Those so-called "swing states" are primarily in the northern midwest, and the "swing voters" are people between the ages of 40 and 60 (born between 1948 and 1968.

  14. Geoff Nunberg said,

    October 5, 2008 @ 4:53 pm

    The generic use of "Main Street" was already evident in 1921 when the Indiana novelist Meredith Nicholson wrote an essay in response to Lewis's book called "Let Main Street Alone!" (in a collection called The Man on the Street available at Google Books). An example: "Between what Main Street wants and cries for and what Main Street really needs there is a considerable margin for speculation.",M1

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