Progressive Era: 1891–1920

Social Reform and Regulation in the Progressive Era

Impact of Muckrakers

Muckrakers were investigative journalists who exposed the dirty underbelly of American industries and corporations, exposing a number of social ills to the American public.

The term muckraker, first coined by Theodore Roosevelt in 1906, referred to a writer or journalist who exposed the corruption of big business and the hardships it caused the general public. These writers and journalists also brought to light the terrible living and working conditions suffered by the American labor force. Ida Tarbell's exposé of Standard Oil's unethical business practices is one example of muckraking. Crystal Eastman's book Work-Accidents and the Law (1910) also opened many eyes to the lack of safety measures in high-risk jobs and the suffering inflicted on workers' families.

Muckraking did not, however, only apply to journalism and investigative writing. For example, The Jungle, a novel written and privately published in 1906 by Upton Sinclair, a supporter of workers' rights, exposed the terrible working conditions of Chicago stockyards and slaughterhouses. The Jungle also discussed the resulting public outcry that prompted the passage of the U.S. Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act later that same year. Sinclair went undercover to the stockyards in Chicago to investigate working conditions there as a journalist but ended up using what he saw in the form of a novel instead. Sinclair had intended the novel as a testament to the terrible treatment of immigrant workers in the meat industry. Instead, the knowledge that processed meats were unsafe to consume led to a public outcry: "I aimed at the public's heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach." The novel's revelations resulted in the passage of food inspection laws, rather than an improvement in conditions specifically for workers. But the requirement of cleanliness did have a secondary effect of making the job a little less unsavory for workers.

Another muckraker, Jacob Riis, revealed his investigations in the form of photography as well as writing. His 1890 book, How the Other Half Lives, contains photos of the working poor and descriptions of life in New York City's slums. Riis's work reveals the destitution and unsanitary conditions of the tenement slums. He portrayed the squalid living conditions of unskilled laborers, many of them immigrants. The descriptions and photos so horrified the public that the state of New York was pushed to legislate better living conditions in worker housing.
Jacob Riis, a muckraking photographer and journalist, wrote about and documented the lives of the working poor and the destitute in New York City at the end of the 19th century.
Credit: Riis, Jacob August/Cornell University/Digital Public Library of America

Jane Addams and Hull House

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.

Immigrants to the United States made up a significant percentage of the workforce. They were often required to speak and understand enough English to get a job. However, once immigrants became employed, they often found that misunderstanding directions could be life-threatening. Some supervisors were not interested in clarifying instructions and referred to immigrant workers with racial slurs and insults, calling them stupid for not understanding what they were supposed to do.

Women played a prominent and active role in the Progressive Era. Social workers such as Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr, who together opened Hull House, a settlement house in Chicago, provided immigrants with shelter, food, job assistance, and education. Hull House began its life as a kindergarten but expanded its services every year, even starting classes to educate adults on their civil rights and civic duties. Reform activists who opened similar settlement houses worked alongside Addams and Starr to fight for child labor laws and were instrumental in starting services for juveniles. The adult education movement also began in settlement houses.


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 Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was formed in 1874 and held its first convention in November of that year. Its main focus was to stop alcohol from destroying families and causing other social problems, such as a rise in prostitution. Women took their message on the road in "women's crusades" to get saloons to close. Carry Nation, a zealous advocate for temperance, founded a chapter of the WCTU in Kansas in 1889. Nation marched into saloons in Kansas singing and praying while wielding a hatchet to destroy bottles and bar fixtures. The WCTU worked for temperance as part of a larger mission, the protection and independence of women and the safety of children. Many of the reform efforts of the Progressive Era were supported by the WCTU. These included women's suffrage, shelters for abused women and children, equal pay rights, and many other causes encouraging women to stand up for themselves. The WCTU's first cause was temperance, but its organization and activities were the result of the need to fight for women's civil rights in general.

The Anti-Saloon League, formed in 1893 in Ohio, also spread the idea of temperance and became a national lobbying organization and political force in 1895. Its efforts, along with those of the WCTU, resulted in the passage of the 18th Amendment, prohibiting the production, sale, and consumption of alcoholic beverages. The Anti-Saloon League was instrumental in pushing for strong enforcement of the prohibition laws as well.
During Prohibition, government agents raided sites where alcohol was produced, stored, or consumed. Here agents pour confiscated liquor into the New York City sewers after a raid.
Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-123257