The Progressive Era
By John E. Hansan, Ph.D.
Introduction: Progressivism is a term commonly applied to a variety of responses to the economic and social problems that arose as a result of urbanization and the rapid industrialization introduced to America in the 19th Century. Progressivism began as a social movement to cope with a variety of social needs and eventually evolved into a reform movement and greater political action. The early progressives rejected Social Darwinism. In other words, they were people who believed that the problems society faced (poverty, poor health, violence, greed, racism, class warfare) could best be addressed by providing good education, a safer environment, an efficient workplace and honest government. Progressives lived mainly in the cities, were college educated, and believed that government could be a tool for change.
Notable social reformers of the era included: Jane Addams, Lillian Wald, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Carrie Nation, Margaret Sanger, Harriet Tubman, Alice Paul and Lucy Burns (please see the “people” section of the website to learn more about these individuals!) Influential journalists and writers who helped carry the message of social reform included Jacob Riis, Ida Tarbel, Upton Sinclair and Thomas Nast. Political reformers of the time included: Theodore Roosevelt, Eugene V. Debs, William E.B. Dubois and Booker T. Washington. Altogether, these reformers were powerful voices for progressivism. They concentrated on exposing the evils of corporate greed, combating fear of immigrants, and urging Americans to think hard about what democracy meant.
On a national level, progressivism gained a strong voice in the White House when Theodore Roosevelt became president in 1901. He believed that strong corporations were good for America, but he also believed that corporate behavior must be watched to ensure that corporate greed did not get out of hand. The progressive era effectively ended with World War I when the horrors of war exposed people’s cruelty and many Americans associated President Woodrow Wilson’s use of progressive language (“the war to make the world safe for democracy”) with the war.
The publication of Upton Sinclair’s book,The Jungle, exposed unsanitary conditions in the meatpacking industry, generating widespread public support for federal inspection of meatpacking plants. The Department of Agriculture disclosed the dangers of chemical additives in canned foods. A muckraking journalist named Samuel Hopkins uncovered misleading and fraudulent claims in non-prescription drugs.
To deal with these problems the federal government enacted:
The Meat Inspection Act (1906), mandating government enforcement of sanitary and health standards in meatpacking plants;
The Pure Food and Drug Act (1906), prohibiting false advertising and harmful additives in food
Progressives often portrayed their battles as simply the latest example of an older struggle between “the people” and business interests and proponents of democracy against the defenders of special privilege.
Background: In the late 1800s, millions of Americans migrated west or to urban centers. Hundreds of thousands of African Americans migrated to northern cities. Always a nation of immigrants, the United States also experienced unprecedented immigration in this period. These foreign newcomers flooded into cities and rural communities. They struggled to adapt to a new country while preserving their own distinct cultures, languages, and belief systems. Rapid advances in technology and industrialization changed the way in which Americans lived and worked. Mass manufacturing made available cloth and ready-made clothing to consumers. Electric lighting and running water became more common, especially in urban areas.
To support themselves and their families, thousands of men, women and children worked long hours in unsafe factories to meet the insatiable American appetite for cheap, mass-produced goods. For example, from 1880 to 1900 the number of employed women went from 2.6 to 8.6 million. In 1880 4% of clerical workers were women; by 1920 the figure was 50%, but women could not get management positions. Although middle class married women were able to stay at home, among the poor, women—and children—had to work. A state of quasi-slavery existed where parents bound children to work, but child labor would not be squarely addressed until the Progressive Era. Unions were generally hostile to women; men believed women shouldn’t work for wages because they undercut wage levels. Some separate women’s unions did exist, and they sought special legislation for female workers. For example, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union led a massive strike against New York City sweatshops. Union leaders came from the middle class and were not militant, but insistent. In the 19th century no special concern existed over children or women doing hard work—they had always worked within the family on farms or in family businesses. By 1890 18% of the labor force consisted of children between the ages of ten and fifteen.
Industrial safety was a large issue: factory work was very dangerous, and it was difficult if not impossible to hold factory owners responsible for deaths and injuries. Around 1900 25-35,000 deaths and 1 million injuries per year occurred on industrial jobs. Many of the deaths occurred on railroad jobs, which were especially dangerous. Fires, machinery accidents, train wrecks and other misfortunes were common. No federal regulation of safety and no enforcement of state or local safety regulations existed. Insurance and pensions were rare, and courts were not sympathetic to worker claims; no liability was seen if the worker was negligent, or if the employer was not. The burden of proof was on the injured party to prove he or she had not been negligent—and it is difficult to prove a negative.
Limitations on reading or speaking English was a problem for many immigrants; many workers could not read safety regulations or instructions on operating machines. Only about two percent of those injured or killed ever-recovered on claims. In confrontations of the late 19th century, workers were generally losers. In addition, immigrants and blacks were often targets of resentment because they were used as strikebreakers, or “scabs.” In general the union movement was secondary to the general struggle for jobs—it was a buyers’ market. The age of industrialization was also the age of exploitation—of people, land, and resources—and while many benefited from the results, many also suffered. As industrialization and urbanization changed the face of America forever, those who took the time to look backward were astounded at how far the nation had come in just a few decades.
The social and economic stresses that accompanied rapid industrialization took its toll on Americans in this period. In 1890, Jacob Riis published his illustrated book “How the Other Half Lives.” The contents shocked viewers with his photographs of the living conditions among the urban poor. Lincoln Steffens’ exposé on the political corruption in the nations’ cities scandalized the country. Meanwhile, rural farmers struggled to keep their farms in the face of increased competition, costly machinery, and falling prices. The failure of post-Civil War Reconstruction to secure the rights and liberties of African Americans bore bitter fruit, especially in the southern states.
The reformers of the Progressive Era advocated the Efficiency Movement whose adherents argued that all aspects of the economy, society and government were riddled with waste and inefficiency. For them, everything would be better if experts identified the problems and fixed them.. Progressivism meant expertise, and the use of science, engineering, technology and the new social sciences to identify the nation’s problems, and identify ways to eliminate waste and inefficiency and to promote modernization.. Progressives assumed that anything old was encrusted with inefficient and useless practices. A scientific study of the problem would enable experts to discover the “one best solution.” Progressives strongly opposed waste and corruption, and tended to assume that opponents were motivated by ignorance or corruption. They sought change in all policies at all levels of society, economy and government. Initially the movement was successful at local level, and then it progressed to state and gradually national.
The Progressive Era (1900—1920)
It was during this brief interlude that America was completing its rapid shift from an agrarian to an urban society. This caused major anxiety among the country’s predominantly Yankee, Protestant middle class because it introduced “disturbing” changes in their society. Large corporations and “trusts,” representing materialism and greed, were controlling more and more of the country’s finances. Immigrants from southeastern Europe — “dark-skinned” Italians and peasant Jews from Russia — were flocking to major industrial centers, competing for low wages and settling in the ethnic enclaves of tenement slums. Party bosses manipulated the political ignorance and desperation of the newcomers to advance their own party machines. To the native middle-class, these ills of society seemed to be escalating out of control. In the name of democratic ideals and social justice, progressives made themselves the arbiters of a “new” America in which the ideals of the founding fathers could find a place within the nation’s changing landscape.
The progressives came from a long tradition of middle-class elites possessing a strong sense of social duty to the poor. The social hierarchy wherein blue-blooded, native stock was at the top and the poor along with the “darker-skinned” were at the bottom, was accepted by the elite. But inherent in their role as privileged members of society was a certain degree of responsibility for the less fortunate. Growing up in this social class, Eleanor Roosevelt
remarked, “In that society you were kind to the poor, you did not neglect your philanthropic duties, you assisted the hospitals and did something for the needy.” The Progressive Era is unique in that this impulse spread to foster an all-encompassing mood and effort for reform. From farmers to politicians, the need for change and for direct responsibility for the country’s ills became paramount and spread from social service to journalism. During his presidency, Theodore Roosevelt commented on the need: “No hard-and-fast rule can be laid down as to the way in which such work reform must be done; but most certainly every man, whatever his position, should strive to do it in some way and to some degree.”
Applying this sense of duty to all ills of society, middle-class reformers attempted to restore democracy by limiting big business, “Americanizing” the immigrants, and curbing the political machines. Theodore Roosevelt, wanting to ensure free competition, was particularly instrumental in curtailing monopolistic business practices during his time in the White House. He extended the powers of the executive branch and the powers of the government within the economy, departing from the laissez-faire attitude of previous administrations. By supporting labor in the settlement of the Anthracite Coal Strike in 1902, Roosevelt became the first president to assign the government such a direct role and duty to the people.
The immigrant “problem” was handled for the most part by white, middle-class young women. Many of these female reformers had been educated in the new women’s colleges that had sprung up in the late nineteenth century. Possessing an education yet barred from most professional careers, these women took to “association building” as a means to be active in public life. Among these associations were the Women’s Trade Union League, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the National Consumers’ League, the American Red Cross, Associated Jewish Charities, Legal Aid, Juvenile Protective Association and a vast system of “Americanizing” centers known as settlement houses. These organizations were meant to “purify” the public sphere of men in which vice and corruption were bred. The WTUL and the NCL sought to cleanse the largely male-owned garment factories in which female workers were harshly exploited. The Temperance Union sought to eliminate the dominantly male immigrant worker’s drinking habits and with them, saloons and prostitution. With settlement houses, women such as Jane Addams and Lillian Wald set out to uplift the immigrant masses and to teach them “proper” ways of life and moral values. These houses, of which there were 400 in America by 1910, instructed immigrants on everything from proper dancing forms (intentionally steering them away from more popular and sexually suggestive dances like the “cakewalk”) to proper housekeeping and civic reforms. Settlement house work influenced woman and child labor laws, welfare benefits, and factory inspection legislation.
By helping the immigrants, female reformers hoped to curb the influence of the political bosses in the urban slums. Ironically, however, their efforts only added to the bosses’ popularity. Many immigrants saw the reformers as meddlesome outsiders with little regard or respect for their ways of life. Such nuances as temperance and woman suffrage meant far less to them than issues of subsistence: securing a vendor’s license for their pushcart or obtaining false birth certificates so that their children could contribute to the family income. The political boss could provide these services while the reformer only hampered them.
Also working to expunge the ills of society were progressive, “muckraking” journalists. Jacob Riis exposed the poor living conditions of the tenement slums in “How the Other Half Lives” (1890) and inspired significant tenement reforms. In 1904, Robert Hunter published “Poverty.” In his book, Hunter attempted: (i) “to define and measure poverty”; (ii) “to describe some of its evils”; (iii) “to point out certain remedial actions”; and (iv) “to show that the evils of poverty are procreative”. Hunter argued in his book that there were over 10 million people living in poverty in America. Also in 1904 Lincoln Steffens, who specialized in investigating government and political corruption, published a collection of his articles in “The Shame of the Cities,” revealing the political corruption he uncovered in the party machines of Chicago and New York. Most shocking to contemporary readers was Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906) in which he traced an immigrant family’s exploitation and downward spiral in Chicago’s meat packing industry. The novel resulted in the Pure Food and Drug and the Meat Inspection Acts in 1906, the first legislation of its kind.
At the outset of the First World War, the progressive spirit turned from domestic issues to international concerns. Extending their democratic sensibilities and sense of moral duty to the situation in Europe, the pro-war progressives approached the conflict with the same moralizing impulse. Under Woodrow Wilson’s leadership, America entered WWI in order to extend democracy and spread its ideals beyond its own borders. When this could not be achieved — the death of the League of Nations and Wilson’s failing health being significant setbacks — the reforming spirit significantly lessened. The nation was tired of war and it lacked the widespread desire for change to carry on the moralizing crusade.
The window of time that the Progressive Era inhabits is a brief one, but not at all insignificant. Its reforms introduced a new role for government. In dealing with the problems of urbanization and industrialization, the country’s democratic institutions had to address problems on a very local level. This precedent would provide the backbone for the New Deal and would inspire the reforming spirit of the nation’s leaders during the Great Depression.
Meanwhile, the Progressive Era was also underway in domestic politics. City governments were transformed, becoming relatively honest and efficient; social workers labored to improve slum housing, health, and education; and in many states reform movements democratized, purified, and humanized government. Under Roosevelt the national government strengthened or created regulatory agencies that exerted increasing influence over business enterprise: the Hepburn Act (1906) reinforced the Interstate Commerce Commission; the Forest Service, under Gifford Pinchot from 1898 to 1910, guided lumbering companies in the conservation of–and more rational and efficient exploitation of–woodland resources; the Pure Food and Drug Act (1906) attempted to protect consumers from fraudulent labeling and adulteration of products. Beginning in 1902, Roosevelt also used the Justice Department and lawsuits (or the threat of them) to mount a revived assault on monopoly under the Sherman Anti-Trust Law. William Howard Taft, his successor as president (1909-13), drew back in his policies, continuing only the antitrust campaign. He approved passage of the Sixteenth Amendment (the income tax amendment, 1913), however; in time it would transform the federal government by giving it access to enormous revenues.