The Progressive Era from 1890 to the 1920s

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Updated: Mar 28, 2022
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From 1890 to the 1920s the Progressive Era began to emerge as a result of the horrible working conditions in the factories during the early years of the Industrial Revolution and the Gilded Age. It was a time period when laissez-faire or a hands-off government was apparent, making government more efficient, honest, and democratic. From long work days and hours, maltreatment, low pay, child labor, an unsanitary workspace, the hazardous and dangerous machines women and children had to work with, change needed to occur, legal action needed to take place, the government and public needed to become more aware of what was really going on in these factories.

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The rapid industrial and colonized growth caused much chaos in American life. Because of the overwhelming power factory owners held over their employees, their demand for improved wages and working conditions caused many workers to strike and form labor unions. Populism or the power of the people movement, in essence, emerged out of the need to address problems from the Industrial Age.

Progressives, with the main purpose of improving different characteristics of life and addressing the problems workers had which led them to strike. A big event that occurred in one of the factories where women worked was the “Triangle Shirtwaist Fire”. These immigrant women were trapped in factory rooms and had no way of escaping the fire because the doors were locked from the outside. Some women were burned alive while others took a jump out of the window, falling to their death. With these tragic deaths, widespread attention came about regarding the dangerous sweatshop conditions and the horrible given circumstances that led to these deaths, changes were forced upon in New York State and later on as a nation as a whole. Furthermore, reform movements contributed to a great deal of success thanks to the actions of the government and significant individuals; goals were able to become achieved but to a certain extent. The progressive movement started by the growing urban middle class, worked as a whole worked to eliminate problems which were the direct result of urbanization, industrialization, immigration and political corruption. This movement addressed social reforms such as working conditions, women’s suffrage, limiting child labor, alcohol abuse, regulation of big business and reduced the power of robber barons and big business corporations because of their unfair business practices and ways. The reforms of the Progressive Era assisted in making to America a more contemporary nation, one that lived up to the deal city and would serve as an example for all. Indeed, it was the want of allowing all Americans an equal chance at success that they deserved which drove middle-class men and women who were Progressives to act. They were compelled to improve our economy, government and our method of life because those changes without a doubt be beneficial to everyone.

There were major goals set during the Progressive reform movement. Progressives were individuals who had issues with the laissez-faire economic system. They believed that there needed to be more government involvement so society’s political and social problems could be addressed and legal action could be put forth to resolve them. The problems the Progressives wanted to address included government inefficiency and corruption, problems with democracy, urbanization (pollution, disease, and education), problems with industrialization including dangerous conditions, child labor and long work hours. An example of the problems of industrialization includes “The roar of elevated trains, the wails of babies and hollering children made it difficult to rest.” (Doc 3, Drehle). This demonstrates that businesses operated 24/7, but caused much quarrel and commotion in the night. Also, they wanted to bring attention to the safety on the tenements. From an excerpt of Jacob Riis’s “How the Other Half Lives”, there was no Monday cleaning in the tenements and the fact that those individuals had to live in a polluted environment where the skies had no visibility displays just how unsanitary these tenements were.

Additionally, Riis describes the life in the tenements as terrible and even says that the “suffering they have meaning more terrible than words can tell.” This particular quote demonstrates how horrific their suffering was in these tenements, that the descriptions couldn’t even be described in words. Additionally, Riis captured two photographs depicted the living conditions and how horrific they were. People had to share the same bedroom with very limited space. (Doc 4 and 5, Riis) In fact, in one tenement apartment, there would be at least 18 individuals rooming in that area. Riis also mentions that the halls were pitch black, sinks in the hallways were toxic and deadly because of the poison which was filled inside, as well as children suffered from diseases like the measles. (Doc 2, Riis) Furthermore, limiting labor, especially child labor became a major goal of reformers. By the year of 1900, of all American workers, 18% were under the age of 16. (Doc 4, Riis) The underlying cause of why mothers, young children and fathers obtained jobs was because of their poverty situation. Additionally, young children often found themselves handling dangerous equipment and machinery, working in unsafe work facilities.

Action was taken by reformers and individuals who sought to bring about change and achieve their goals to resolve these issues. An investigative journalist and muckraker John Spargo exposed the harsh reality of child labor in his book, “The Bitter Cry of the Children (1906)”. His book included terrifying images of the realities of two million child laborers, real-life personal accounts on stories from the factories as well as the negative physical effects child labor caused for children. (Doc 2a, Riis) Additionally, in wishes of ending the horrors of child labor the National Child Labor Committee was formed were groups of investigators collected evidence of the harsh conditions the children had to work in. Photographer Lewis Hine was one of the investigators who was a part of the committee. (Doc 4, Hine) In addition, to address the growing number of young children working the Keating-Owens Act was passed placed age restrictions on certain jobs children could work for.

However, these restrictions were deemed unlawful by the Supreme Court and weren’t long lasting. It wasn’t until the 1930s, the time period of the Great Depression attitudes on child labor altered. (Doc 10, Moreover, social reformer, Jane Addams began a settlement house movement that many would spread nationwide designed to aid the poor in urban areas by living in close vicinity to them and serving them face-to-face. She addressed malnutrition, low wages, poor sanitation, and working conditions as well in the Hull House, a settlement house. (Doc 8, Background on Hull House) Furthermore, Addams would communicate her efforts when she supervised “the burning of mountains of alley refuse, the hundred-foot-high flames drawing crowds of curious onlookers.” Her efforts forced the city to take measures and precautions to better sanitary conditions in some immigrant areas. She used propaganda to draw immigrants to the Hull House encouraging them to engage in activities by writing that the air is warm, skies are clear (with no polluted air), and by welcoming individuals of all ages ranging from young to old. (Doc 10, Hull House cartoons)

The Progressive Era had its successes and its failures and some of their issues and problems weren’t completely solved. An example of a success is addressing the political corruption of big business practices and reforming the government. The Progressives were successful in reducing political corruption such as Ida Tarbell who exposed corrupt business practices. Another Progressive, Lincoln Steffens further exposed the corrupt government business and helped to build support towards reform. Furthermore, the government enacted rules and guidelines factories had to abide by in order to prevent and lessen fire hazards. They advocated for the registration of all factories with the Department of Labor, making it mandatory to have a food license, food employees would be medically examined, and there would be medical supervisions in risky trades. The Commission also suggested to diminish the fire hazards was to increase the number of stairwells, more installation of firewalls, and etc as a means of making it easier and more efficient to escape dangerous scenarios.

Moreover, the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act was passed in efforts to establish a system based on merit rather than political alliances, providing employees by competitive exams, which eliminated the spoils system that had occurred for many years which was an unjust idea. Also, women gained the right to vote. Now sex wasn’t a factor which affected the right of citizens to vote. ( Doc 9, Nineteenth Amendment) The Progressive Era was also a success in that the 16th, 17th, 18th, and 19th amendments were ratified by all states which significantly reshaped the American way of life by increasing democratic influence and prohibiting the sale and production of alcohol. ( The muckrakers were able to expose the horrors of corruption and brought awareness to the conditions in the factories while reformers worked to improve these conditions. However, the Keating-Owens Act which set restrictions on child labor didn’t last long until the political perspectives on child labor altered during the Great Depression. (Doc 10. Additionally, women gaining the right to vote didn’t take care of all problems prior to gaining this right. Women still lacked equal opportunities in comparison to occupations that were available to men especially jobs involving the law. (Doc 11, History Today) Although a variety of social advancements were made as well as cases, the Progressive Era should have put more effort to coordinate reformers on a wide variety of issues.

In summation, the Progressive Era brought reform to big business, child labor, industrialization, and enhanced the democratic power of its citizens, this era failed to include the African American minority who were often discriminated against and were limited to the benefits the whites experienced during this era.

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The Progressive Era From 1890 to the 1920s. (2021, Feb 26). Retrieved from