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Progressive Era: 1891–1920



The Progressive Era (1891–1920) marked a widespread response to a range of social and economic problems that accompanied industrialization in the 19th century. Along with industry came health problems, injuries, and deaths due to terrible working conditions and long hours. Children lacked education because they were forced to work instead of attending school, and the numbers of the working poor rose due to low wages. Farmers were also subjected to low prices and unsafe working conditions and, through farmers' alliances, developed the Populist Party. The Populists' preferred candidate, Democrat William Jennings Bryan, lost to Republican William McKinley in 1896, but the working person's determination to be heard was evident in the rise of the labor movement. Muckraking journalists exposed the dark side of industry to the American public, and their work spurred on leaders such as Samuel Gompers to establish labor unions and force employers to improve working conditions and wages. Social reforms and new labor laws were passed, and support for a new wave of immigrants came in the form of settlement houses that offered shelter, jobs, and education. Reformers determined to prohibit alcohol encouraged Congress to pass the 18th Amendment. Women, a large part of the workforce, fought for their voices to be heard. The women's suffrage movement culminated in the passage of the 19th Amendment, granting voting rights to women. As much progress as was made during this period, racial inequality was still rampant across the United States. It would take another few decades for this to be addressed.

At A Glance

  • Progressivism and its accompanying education, social, and labor reforms developed as a response to social and economic problems that stemmed from the 19th century's rapid industrialization.
  • In the 1880s, farmers' alliances, which supported farmers' economic rights, developed into the Populist Party.
  • In the 1896 presidential election, the Populists supported the Free Silver movement and Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan, who was defeated by Republican candidate William McKinley.
  • Before unions fought for labor reform, laborers (including children) worked long hours for extremely low wages in unsanitary and unsafe conditions, with no support for those injured on the job.
  • Samuel Gompers helped establish the American Federation of Labor, one of the most prominent labor unions for native-born white Americans, while unions such as the Knights of Labor and the Industrial Workers of the World welcomed new immigrants and African Americans.
  • Conflicts between laborers and business owners often led to violent confrontations, as in the case of the Homestead Strike.
  • Numerous reform measures and labor laws were passed to improve working conditions, including restrictions on child labor and working hours.
  • The Standard Oil Company was a monopoly controlling all aspects of the oil industry, and the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 was used to break apart John D. Rockefeller's oil empire into smaller entities.
  • Muckrakers were investigative journalists who exposed the dirty underbelly of American industries and corporations, exposing a number of social ills to the American public.
  • Jane Addams and other like-minded reformers established settlement houses such as Hull House to help assimilate immigrant populations and provide them with housing, jobs, and education.
  • The prohibition of alcohol established by the 18th Amendment was a result of the efforts of the Women's Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League.
  • The women's suffrage movement began in the late 18th century but grew in strength and popularity following the Civil War as women like Susan B. Anthony and Alice Paul fought for women's voting rights.
  • The 19th Amendment was adopted in 1920 and extended universal voting rights to women.