Geographic Curiosities: the East-West Divide in Wisconsin

In Uncategorized on 5 June 2010 by verseau

Those who know me well know that I have an unfettered love for maps.

This love reflects my long-standing fascination with geography. It’s been some time since I devoted an intellectually-oriented post on this blog to the subject (like this one from a few years ago). But sometimes things just spark my interest.

One such thing is the state of Wisconsin. Wisconsin is one of the thirteen states I haven’t been to (aside from a brief layover in Milwaukee, which I don’t count). In other words, it is essentially a mystery to me. I have no idea what life on the ground is actually like, but from my omniscient cartographic bird’s eye view, I have noticed an interesting pattern.

That is, eastern Wisconsin and western Wisconsin often do not like to be the same.

This east/west demarcation was first brought to my attention by the famous pop/soda/coke map, which plots the dominant term for a generic soft drink across the United States:

You’ll notice that in western Wisconsin, “pop” dominates as it does in the vast majority of the Midwest (with the exception of the large “soda” bastion around St. Louis). Eastern Wisconsin is somewhat unusual in its preference for “soda.”

A similar pattern emerges with another dialectal term – that used for the drinking apparatus commonly found in schools or public parks. The three most commonly used terms – “water fountain,” “drinking fountain,” and “bubbler,” are mapped by the Harvard Dialect Survey:

“Water fountain” is used by speakers on the purple dots; “drinking fountain” on green; and “bubbler” on red. Although the pattern in Wisconsin is not exactly the same as for pop/soda, we notice a strong concentration of “bubbler” in the eastern part of the state. (But not by coincidence – the word “bubbler” is derived from the trademarked name of the original water fountain developed by the Kohler Company in Kohler, Wisconsin).

After seeing these dialect maps several years ago, I hadn’t given much thought to the east-west divide in Wisconsin until I watched this fascinating lecture series from Stanford about U.S. electoral geography. In one lecture, the professor discusses the divergent voting patterns of eastern and western Wisconsin, which apparently dates back to the earliest days of the state’s history. To some extent, this pattern is still evident in the modern day. The east/west split can perhaps best be seen in the results for the 1988 and 2004 Presidential elections.

1988 vote by county:

2004 vote by county:

(These maps come from Dave Leip’s wonderful online atlas. Note that the colour scheme follows the pre-2000 convention, with Democratic-leaning counties in red and Republican-leaning counties in blue).

Again, the pattern is not perfectly consistent, but the counties do show a remarkable level of contiguity in their voting preferences. We are certainly not dealing with a north-south divide.

In the Stanford lecture, the professor speculates that the divergent politics could be explained, at least initially, by settlement patterns. Namely, the eastern (or more conservative) area was dominated by people of German ancestry, whereas the western (or more liberal) area had more Scandinavian settlers.

Modern ancestry maps can shed some light on this hypothesis:

Now, surely some of these geographic differences (particularly the dialectal ones) are probably better explained by things like population density than they are by ancestry. The eastern half of the state is clearly the more urbanized overall, as demonstrated by the density map below. But this makes the political division all the more interesting, as the general trend among American whites is for those in more rural areas to vote Republican, and vice versa. This seems to suggest that ancestry or some kind of deep-rooted culture in each part of the state really is important, because it trumps the national tendency.

So, what do you think? Are these geographic patterns all just a vast coincidence? There are certainly few other states with such a seemingly neatly defined duality. But whether there really is a ‘tangible’ east-west difference can only be determined by people who know Wisconsin well. Any natives care to chime in?


7 Responses to “Geographic Curiosities: the East-West Divide in Wisconsin”

  1. I love maps so much too! You have so much in common with me man. I don’t mean to seem like a stalker or anything.

  2. I’m a Milwaukee native. The soda/pop/coke and bubbler/drinking fountain patterns are something that I’ve always found interesting as well. I don’t have any concrete insight on the divide, but it may have to do with the highways that run through the state. 94 connects Chicago to Milwaukee to Madison to Minneapolis. The democratic counties in the southern half of the state are all along the highway. The two largest and most influential cities are located on this path. Milwaukee and Madison are both fairly progressive and culturally independent cities, much like Chicago and Minneapolis. There is also a North/South connection between Oshkosh, Appleton, Green Bay, and the North woods of Wisconsin near the Upper Peninsula. The cultures of these cities are entirely different than the East/West big city string. The counties containing Milwaukee and Madison are consistently Democratic, where counties with Green Bay, Oshkosh, and Appleton are consistently Republican.

    As for the bubbler bit, the bubbler was first patented in Kohler, Wisconsin. Milwaukee, is the closest large city to Kohler. I would guess that this spread to Madison and Minneapolis from there. The red indicating use of bubbler shows up in these main cities. There is a bit of an anomaly though. New York and the area surrounding it that use bubbler as well.

    I think this is somehow related to the scattered use of soda vs. pop. New York and Milwaukee both use soda. But, California and the St. Louis area use soda as well, which isn’t consistent with the notion that soda and bubbler go hand in hand.

    Soda does look like it is more closely related to the Democratic/Republican split. Soda follows the North/South string of cities (with the inclusion of Milwaukee). Pop follows the East/West string (excluding Milwaukee). Minneapolis and Chicago both say pop, so it makes sense that the area surrounding the freeway says it as well. My only idea about Milwaukee’s break from the North/South, East/West pattern is that the culture is different. If you get to know Milwaukee, you realize that it doesn’t make much sense. It has a very different feeling.

    I’m not convinced that Scandinavian or German heritage have too much to do with either of these trends. Both Milwaukee County and Dane County (containing Madison) have a higher concentration of German settlers than Scandinavian settlers, yet both vote democratic.

    • Thanks for the native insight. I should have noted how Milwaukee and Madison are independent cities that often don’t fit the regional patterns. I think you’re right that the influence of cities on other cities is also very important; in terms of dialect change, we call this the “Gravity model.”

      Just one correction about “bubbler” – it’s used around Boston, not New York. I was told by one of the linguists behind the Dictionary of American Regional English that the extent of “bubbler” use fits exactly with the advertising area of the Kohler Company in the late 19th century. Perhaps they had a second HQ in the Boston area.

  3. @verseau:
    How do you explain the large “soda bastion” around St. Louis? Did a lot of people who settled in that area originally come from the Northeast? I always wondered about that.

    • @verseau:
      Hey buddy I’m not trolling or anything. I would honestly just like to know your thoughts on that.

  4. To be honest, I don’t have a solid answer. Anecdotally, some Missouri friends (from the other side of the state) consider St. Louis residents as “East Coast wannabes,” but I’m not sure exactly what contributes to this perception (aside from their using “soda,” of course).

    It seems plausible that St. Louis could have experienced a lot of immigration from the Northeast, considering its position as the “gateway to the west” in the early 1800s. On the other hand, the first attestation of “pop” for a carbonated drink appears to date from 1861, after the first peak of the western exodus.

    “Soda water” and “soda fountain” appeared near the start of the 19th century, so presumably it was the word of choice for everyone in the beginning. I can’t say with certainty why it was supplanted by “pop” in, say, Chicago, but not St. Louis.

    Perhaps trade, rather than immigration, was the more important factor. St. Louis was the second largest port in the U.S. after New York City by the 1850s, and was the largest city west of Pittsburgh. Presumably trade with the Northeast (including imports of “soda”) was very important.

    At any rate, I suspect that St. Louisers’ preference for “soda” has existed for quite some time. Its use within the city’s sphere of influence is clearly well-established. And while we have observed that, in recent decades, the phonology of the city’s dialect has been strongly influenced by Chicago via the I-55 corridor, this is clearly not the case for this lexical item (and new words diffuse much more easily than phonological changes). If anything, it looks like the diffusion goes slightly in the opposite direction, with “soda” pushing north up I-55 before it reaches the Chicago suburbs.

    This tells me that “soda” is an important identity marker for those in the St. Louis area. When lexical variation achieves the kind of social recognition enjoyed by the “pop/coke/soda WAR,” people are keen to ‘take sides,’ as it were, reinforcing the existing geographic distribution.

  5. It’s very interesting that you use the term “sphere of influence”, because there is a map I looked at of spheres of influence in the United States and the St. Louis sphere of influence on that map corresponds very closely to the “Midland soda region” on this map. Here is the URL for the map:

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