The term “Main Street” has had a variety of meanings over the years. For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, it referred to the name of a public thoroughfare that ran through the central retail district of a village, town, or city. This was a much-desired location for a business, primarily due to a high rate of customer traffic. The name was particularly popular in the United States, although in Canada and England similar avenues were respectively known as “Front Street” and “High Street.”
Since the 1970s, the term has largely become a cliché, at least in the United States. Many “Main Streets” no longer contain the majority of retail outlets, as these businesses have moved to outlying suburbs or are concentrated in shopping malls. Still, “Main Street” continues to hold something of a nostalgic reference. In 2009, the allusion is not so much to a business district as it is to the financial welfare of small businesses or those people in medium to low income brackets.
In the United States presidential race of 2008, there were very few candidates who did not integrate the words “Main Street” into their speeches or campaign platforms. The predominant message that the candidates attempted to illustrate was a contrast between “Wall Street” and “Main Street.” This usage was utilized in response to times of economic recession, and the intent was a comparison between wealthy securities traders and the average man on the street. Those seeking election to any public office soon noticed the oratorical tool, and almost immediately individuals running for gubernatorial or Congressional seats adopted the phrase as well.
Thus, the meaning of “Main Street” has evolved into a de facto reference to any American citizen who falls into the lower or middle-class financial categories. It is now meant to serve as a designation for small business owners or the working class, many of whom were formally known as “blue collar” workers. The term has, to a large degree, replaced earlier phrases such as “the Heartland” or “Average Joe,” which were formerly in vogue amongst politicians and policy makers.
“Main Street” connotes a strong link to the past, which has made it a powerful rhetorical slogan loaded with semantic imagery. The Walt Disney Company continues to highlight “Main Street USA” themes at Disneyland in Anaheim, CA., Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fl., and at both Disneyland Paris and Hong Kong. The “Main Street” areas of these entertainment centers sport the appearance of a small town in the early 20th century.