Progressive Era: 1891–1920

Roots and Goals of Progressivism

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.

The Progressive Era (1891–1920) involved a series of responses to a range of social and economic problems born out of U.S. industrialization in the 19th century. Industrialization allowed for more products to be made faster than ever before, but it came with tragic consequences. Workers were often put in dangerous positions in railways, coal mines, and steel mills, where death and mutilation were common occurrences. The working conditions in factories were not much better, with unsanitary and unsafe conditions leading to illness and injury for many workers. Employers did not support their employees or their families if a worker was injured on the job. Low wages forced entire families to work, including children, and long hours forced children to stay out of school. The workweek lasted six days, minimum, and workers were far more likely to make dangerous mistakes when they were tired. Cities became overcrowded, slum housing for workers was unsanitary and unpleasant, and political power for big businesses increased, making it all but impossible for the common person to thrive.

In rural areas, conditions were much the same. Farming after the American Civil War (1861–65) was difficult, especially in the South. The Granger movement of the late 1860s, a movement uniting American farmers to share agricultural knowledge and fight against the grain transport monopoly and its exorbitant prices, allowed farmers to share practices and resources. This collective action also allowed them to fight to keep the railroads and grain storage facilities from raising prices on grain transport and storage to an unacceptable level. The Granger movement gradually gave farmers the impetus to create their own political organizations, the precursors to farmers' alliances. The antimonopoly sentiment among farmers also began to build in urban areas, where workers were taken advantage of by their employers trying to keep a tight grip on their economic and political power. People began to suspect the democracy they so valued was in danger of being taken away. The country was ripe for reform on many levels. Progressivism, a political movement that arose in the first two decades of the 20th century to focus on social and economic reforms, resulted in new laws and regulations that addressed problems brought on by industrial growth. Progressivism followed a period of too much progress too fast—progress that benefited those who were already well-seated but harmed those who were near, at, or below the poverty line.
The National Grange, which began as one small group in 1867, had chapters all over the United States. Its 1875 poster was inspired by the Granger movement motto, "I Pay for All."
Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-DIG-pga-00025