As a step in defining the molecular environment for development of the mammalian cerebral cortex, we have used immunohistochemistry to analyze the distribution and remodeling of three major extracellular matrix (ECM) components, fibronectin, chondroitin sulfate proteoglycan (CSPG), and tenascin, during embryonic and early postnatal stages in the mouse. Fibronectin and CSPG are distributed throughout the proliferative zone that initially comprises the thin wall of the telencephalic vesicle, but their distribution changes as newly generated cells form the preplate just beneath the pia. Immunolabeling for CSPG becomes most prominent in the preplate, and fibronectin becomes restricted to that layer. Just after this change occurs, processes of preplate neurons, visualized with antibodies to neurofilaments, become evident within the matrix-rich preplate zone. The association of fibronectin and CSPG with preplate cells persists as cortical plate neurons divide the preplate; both ECM components are now most prominent in the marginal zone and subplate, the layers above and below the cortical plate that are preplate derived. Within the preplate and its derivatives, immunolabeling of fibronectin is punctate and closely associated with radial glial processes, while labeling of CSPG is more intense and diffuse. Labeling of fibronectin and CSPG declines rapidly as the cortical plate begins to differentiate into cortex; labeling for tenascin first appears at this stage in the most mature layers, the marginal zone and subplate, then gradually becomes widespread throughout all of cortex and subcortical white matter. In early postnatal life, tenascin is eliminated from the hollows of the vibrissal barrels in the somatosensory region; it then declines rapidly throughout cortex. The association of both fibronectin and CSPG with preplate cells and the distribution of fibronectin along radial glia during early cortical development suggest that one or both of these transient cell types might produce specific ECM components or induce their local deposition. The spatial and temporal distribution of fibronectin and CSPG suggests a role in defining a destination for migrating neurons that form the cortical plate and in delineating the pathway for early axonal extension. In contrast, the relatively late appearance of tenascin correlates best with the formation of astrocytes and their processes rather than with the establishment of cortical layers or major axonal pathways. These events are well underway before labeling of tenascin is evident.