The Progressive Era

The Progressive Era

The Progressive Era was a period of social activism and political reform in the United States that flourished from the 1890s to the 1920s.

Learning Objectives

List the primary causes championed by the Progressive movement, and some of the movement's major outcomes

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Characteristics of the Progressive Era include purification of the government, modernization, a focus on family and education, prohibition, and women's suffrage.
  • Many Progressives sought to rid the government of corruption, and muckraking became a particular type of journalism that exposed waste, corruption, and scandal on a national level.
  • Two of the most important outcomes of the Progressive Era were the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Amendments, the first of which outlawed the manufacturing, sale, or transport of alcohol, and the second of which enfranchised women with the right to vote.
  • The national political leaders of the Progressive Era included Theodore Roosevelt, Robert M. La Follette Sr., Charles Evans Hughes, and Herbert Hoover on the Republican side, and William Jennings Bryan, Woodrow Wilson, and Al Smith on the Democratic side.
  • Theodore Roosevelt is often cited as the first Progressive president, known for his trust -busting activities.
  • Progressives did little for civil rights or the plight of African Americans in the aftermath of Reconstruction, as the Supreme Court affirmed the constitutionality of many racist southern laws.

Key Terms

  • muckraker: A reform-oriented investigative journalist during the Progressive Era. The muckrakers' work called attention to the problems of the time, including poor industrial working conditions, poor urban living conditions, and unscrupulous business practices. Prominent muckrakers included novelist Upton Sinclair, photographer Jacob Riis, and journalists Ida M. Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens.
  • progressivism: The political ideology that favors rational governmental action to improve society. It arose in response to industrialism and dominated American politics for the first two decades of the twentieth century.
  • Eighteenth Amendment: This constitutional amendment established prohibition of alcohol in 1920.
  • Nineteenth Amendment: This constitutional amendment, ratified in 1920, granted women the right to vote and forbade any suffrage restrictions based on gender.

The Progressive Era was a period of widespread social activism and political reform across the United States, from the 1890s to 1920s. The main objective of the Progressive movement was eliminating corruption in government. The movement primarily targeted political machines and their bosses. By taking down these corrupt representatives in office, a further means of direct democracy would be established. They also sought regulation of monopolies ("trust-busting") and corporations through antitrust laws. These antitrust laws were seen as a way to promote equal competition for the advantage of legitimate competitors. The main statutes are the Sherman Act of 1890, the Clayton Act of 1914, and the Federal Trade Commission Act of 1914.

Many Progressives supported prohibition in the United States in order to destroy the political power of local bosses based in saloons. At the same time, women's suffrage was promoted to bring a "purer" female vote into the arena. These two issues in the movement brought about constitutional change. The Eighteenth Amendment, passed in late 1917, banned the manufacturing, sale, and transport of alcohol, while the Nineteenth Amendment, passed in 1919, gave women the right to vote.

Another theme was building an Efficiency movement in every sector that could identify old ways that needed modernizing, and that could bring to bear scientific, medical, and engineering solutions. A key part of the Efficiency movement was scientific management, or "Taylorism." Although scientific management as a distinct theory or school of thought was obsolete by the 1930s, most of its themes are still important parts of industrial engineering and management today. These include analysis, synthesis, logic, rationality, empiricism, work ethic, efficiency and elimination of waste, and standardization of best practices.

Many activists joined efforts to reform local government, public education, medicine, finance, insurance, industry, railroads, churches, and many other areas. Progressives transformed, professionalized, and made "scientific" the social sciences, especially history, economics, and political science. In academic fields, the day of the amateur author gave way to the research professor who published in the new scholarly journals and presses.

Initially the movement operated chiefly at local levels; later, it expanded to state and national levels. Progressives drew support from the middle class, and supporters included many lawyers, teachers, physicians, ministers, and business people. Some Progressives strongly supported scientific methods as applied to economics, government, industry, finance, medicine, schooling, theology, education, and even the family. They closely followed advances underway at the time in western Europe and adopted numerous policies, such as a major transformation of the banking system through the creation of the Federal Reserve System in 1913. Reformers felt that old-fashioned ways meant waste and inefficiency, and they eagerly sought out the "one best system."

Leaders in the Progressive Era

National Progressive political leaders included Theodore Roosevelt, Robert M. La Follette Sr., and Charles Evans Hughes on the Republican side, and William Jennings Bryan, Woodrow Wilson, and Al Smith on the Democratic side. Many others, from politicians to social activists, business owners to philosophers, and preachers to reporters, contributed to the Progressive movement. The following are examples of a few major figures:


Theodore Roosevelt: A portrait of President Theodore Roosevelt.

Following the assassination of President McKinley in September 1901, Theodore Roosevelt, at age 42, succeeded to the office, becoming the youngest U.S. president in history. Leading his party and country into the Progressive Era, he championed his "Square Deal" domestic policies, promising the average citizen fairness, broken trusts, railroads regulations, and pure food and drugs. Making conservation a top priority, he established a myriad of new national parks, forests, and monuments intended to preserve the nation's natural resources. In foreign policy, he focused on Central America, where he began construction of the Panama Canal. His successful efforts to end the Russo-Japanese War won him the 1906 Nobel Peace Prize.

Susan B. Anthony (February 15, 1820–March 13, 1906) was an American social reformer and feminist who played a pivotal role in the women's suffrage movement. In 1851, she met Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who became her lifelong friend and coworker in social-reform activities, primarily in the field of women's rights. In 1852, they founded the New York Women's State Temperance Society after Anthony was prevented from speaking at a temperance conference because she was a woman. In 1878, Anthony and Stanton arranged for Congress to be presented with an amendment giving women the right to vote. Popularly known as the "Anthony Amendment" and introduced by Senator Aaron A. Sargent (R-CA), it became the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920.

Upton Sinclair (September 20, 1878–November 25, 1968) was an American author who wrote nearly 100 books and other works across a number of genres. In 1906, Sinclair acquired particular fame for his classic muckraking novel, The Jungle , which exposed conditions in the U.S. meat-packing industry and caused a public uproar that contributed, in part, to the passage a few months later of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act. In 1919, he published The Brass Check, a muckraking exposé of American journalism that publicized the issue of yellow journalism and the limitations of the “free press” in the United States. Four years after the publication of The Brass Check, the first code of ethics for journalists was created. Writing during the Progressive Era, Sinclair describes the world of industrialized American from both the working man's point of view and the industrialist's. Novels such as King Coal (1917), The Coal War (published posthumously), Oil! (1927), and The Flivver King (1937) describe the working conditions of the coal, oil, and auto industries at the time.

The Varieties of Progressivism

Progressive-Era reformers sought to use the federal government to make sweeping changes in politics, education, economics, and society.

Learning Objectives

Describe the theory behind Progressivism

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Progressivism arose as a response to the vast changes brought about by modernization.
  • Progressives believed that the Constitution was a set of loose guidelines and that the scope of the federal government should extend into society to protect it from things such as trusts.
  • Despite Progressives' stances on federal aid and intervention, they sought support from local governments to lead the way in social and economic reforms.
  • Education was democratized during this era: Progressive educators, such as John Dewey, wanted every child to have an education and sought to create effective standardized tests to measure how children were learning.
  • Progressives agreed that regulating business was important, but they disagreed about whether that would be best served by breaking up monopolies or by allowing them to exist with increased regulation.

Key Terms

  • progressivism: A philosophy that asserts that advancements in science, technology, economic development, and social organization are vital to improve the human condition.


American Progressivism is defined as a broadly based reform movement that reached the height of influence in the early twentieth century and that was largely middle class and reformist in nature. Progressivism arose as a response to the vast changes brought about by modernization, such as the growth of large corporations and railroads, and fears of corruption in American politics. Emerging at the end of the nineteenth century, Progressive reformers established much of the tone of American politics throughout the first half of the century.

Politically, Progressives of this era belonged to a wide range of parties and had leaders from the Democratic and Republican parties, as well as from the Bull-Moose Republicans, Lincoln-Roosevelt League Republicans (in California), and the United States Progressive Party. Rather than affiliating with a dominant party, American Progressives shared a common goal of wielding federal power to pursue a sweeping range of social, environmental, political, and economic reforms. The pursuit of trust-busting (breaking up very large monopolies) was chief among these aims, as was garnering support for labor unions, public health programs, decreased corruption in politics, and environmental conservation.

Core Principles

Many of the core principles of the Progressive movement focused on the need for efficiency and the elimination of corruption and waste. Purification to eliminate waste and corruption was a powerful element, as was the Progressives' support of worker compensation, improved child labor laws, minimum wage legislation, limited work hours, graduated income tax, and women's suffrage. Historian William Leuchtenburg describes the Progressives thusly:

The Progressives believed in the Hamiltonian concept of positive government, of a national government directing the destinies of the nation at home and abroad. They had little but contempt for the strict construction of the Constitution by conservative judges, who would restrict the power of the national government to act against social evils and to extend the blessings of democracy to less favored lands. The real enemy was particularism, state rights, limited government.
For Progressive reformers, the Constitution represented a loose set of guidelines for political governance, rather than acting as a strict authority on the political development of the United States or on the scope of federal power. More, not less, regulation was necessary to ensure that society operated efficiently, and therefore, most Progressives believed that the federal government was the only suitable power to combat trusts, monopolies, poverty, deficits in education, and economic problems.


"The Pump": In this 1913 political cartoon, Woodrow Wilson uses tariff, currency, and antitrust laws (represented by buckets) to prime the pump (representing prosperity) and get the economy working.

City Management

Although they argued for more federal intervention in local affairs (especially in urban centers), most Progressives typically concentrated on reforming municipal and state governments to create better ways to provide services as cities grew rapidly. The result was "municipal administration," which effectively managed legal processes, market transactions, bureaucratic administration, and urban reform.

One example of Progressive reform was the rise of the city-manager system, in which salaried, professional engineers ran the day-to-day affairs of city governments under guidelines established by elected city councils. Additionally, many cities created municipal "reference bureaus" that conducted surveys of government departments looking for waste and inefficiency. After in-depth surveys, local and even state governments were reorganized to reduce the number of officials and to eliminate overlapping areas of authority among departments. City governments also were reorganized to reduce the power of local ward bosses and to increase the powers of the city council.


Early Progressive thinkers, such as John Dewey and Lester Ward, placed a universal and comprehensive system of education at the top of the Progressive agenda, reasoning that if a democracy were to be successful, the general public needed to be educated. Progressives advocated to expand and improve public and private education at all levels. Modernization of society, they believed, necessitated the compulsory education of all children, even if parents objected. Progressives turned to educational researchers to evaluate the reform agenda by measuring numerous aspects of education, which later led to standardized testing. Child-labor laws were designed to prohibit children from entering the workforce before a certain age, further compelling children into the public schools. Many educational reforms and innovations generated during this period continued to influence debates and initiatives in American education for the remainder of the twentieth century.

Economic Theory

Many Progressives hoped that by regulating large corporations, they could liberate human energies from the restrictions imposed by industrial capitalism. Yet the Progressive movement was divided over which of the following solutions should be used to regulate corporations:

Pro-labor Progressives such as Samuel Gompers argued that industrial monopolies were unnatural economic institutions that suppressed the competition necessary for progress and improvement. U.S. antitrust law is the body of laws that prohibits anti-competitive behavior (monopolies) and unfair business practices. Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft supported trust-busting. During their presidencies, the otherwise conservative Taft brought down 90 trusts in four years while Roosevelt took down 44 in 7 1/2 years in office.

Progressives such as Benjamin Parke DeWitt argued that in a modern economy, large corporations and even monopolies were both inevitable and desirable. With their massive resources and economies of scale, large corporations offered the United States advantages that smaller companies could not offer. Yet, these large corporations might abuse their great power. The federal government should allow these companies to exist but regulate them for the public interest. President Theodore Roosevelt generally supported this idea and was later to incorporate it as part of his political philosophy of "New Nationalism."

The Social Gospel

The Social Gospel movement applied Christian ethics to social problems.

Learning Objectives

Explain the concept of the Social Gospel

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Social Gospel movement applied Christian ethics to social problems.
  • Social justice issues were especially important to Social Gospel reformers.
  • Social Gospel workers were post-millennialist, believing that Christ would return to Earth after humankind had worked through its sins.
  • Many new churches were established during this period, including Christian Science and Jehovah's Witnesses.

Key Terms

  • Social Gospel: A Protestant Christian intellectual movement that was most prominent in the early twentieth century United States and Canada that applied Christian ethics to social problems.
  • Lord's Prayer: The prayer taught by Jesus Christ to his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount.

The Social Gospel movement is a Protestant Christian intellectual movement that was most prominent in the early twentieth century United States and Canada. The movement applied Christian ethics to social problems, especially issues of social justice such as excessive wealth, poverty, alcoholism, crime, racial tensions, slums, bad hygiene, child labor, inadequate labor unions, poor schools, and the danger of war. Theologically, the Social Gospellers sought to operationalize the Lord's Prayer (Matthew 6:10): "Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven." Social Gospellers typically were post-millennialist; that is, they believed that the Second Coming could not happen until humankind rid itself of social evils by human effort. Social Gospel leaders were predominantly associated with the liberal wing of the Progressive movement, and most were theologically liberal, although they were typically conservative when it came to their views on social issues.


Washington Gladden: Portrait of Social Gospeller Washington Gladden, who was an important leader of the movement.

Important Social Gospel leaders include Richard T. Ely, Josiah Strong, Washington Gladden, and Walter Rauschenbusch.

Religious Progressivism

In the United States prior to World War I, the Social Gospel was the religious wing of the Progressive movement, which had the aim of combating injustice, suffering, and poverty in society. Denver, Colorado, was a center of Social Gospel activism. Thomas Uzzell led the Methodist People's Tabernacle from 1885 to 1910. He established a free dispensary for medical emergencies, an employment bureau for job seekers, a summer camp for children, night schools for extended learning, and English language classes. From 1884 to 1894, Myron Reed of the First Congregational Church served as a spokesman for labor unions on issues such as worker's compensation. His middle-class congregation encouraged Reed to move on when he became a Socialist, and he organized a nondenominational church. The Baptist minister Jim Goodhart set up an employment bureau, and provided food and lodging for tramps and hobos at the mission he ran. He became city chaplain and director of public welfare of Denver in 1918. Besides these Protestants, Reform Jews and Catholics helped build Denver's social welfare system in the early twentieth century.

The Reverend Mark A. Matthews (1867–1940) of Seattle's First Presbyterian Church was a leading city reformer who investigated red-light districts and crime scenes, and denounced corrupt politicians, businessmen, and saloon keepers. With 10,000 members, his church was the largest Presbyterian Church in the country, and he was selected the national moderator in 1912. He build a model church, with night schools, unemployment bureaus, a kindergarten, an anti-tuberculosis clinic, and the nation's first church-owned radio station. Matthews was the most influential clergymen in the Pacific Northwest, and one of the most active Social Gospellers in America.

The South had its own version of the Social Gospel that focused especially on prohibition. Other reforms included outlawing public swearing, boxing, dogfights, and similar affronts to their moral sensibilities. By 1900, says historian Edward Ayers, the white Baptists, although they were the most conservative of all of the denominations in the South, became steadily more concerned with social issues, taking stands on, "temperance, gambling, illegal corruption, public morality, orphans, and the elderly."

The Social Gospel affected much of Protestant America. The Presbyterians described its goals in 1910 by proclaiming the following: "The great ends of the church are the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind; the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God; the maintenance of divine worship; the preservation of truth; the promotion of social righteousness; and the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world."

New Churches

In 1879, Mary Baker Eddy introduced Christian Science, which gained a national following. In 1880, the Salvation Army denomination arrived in America. Although its theology was based on ideals expressed during the Second Great Awakening, it also focused on poverty and social improvement. The Society for Ethical Culture, established in New York in 1876 by Felix Adler, attracted Reform Jewish followers. Charles Taze Russell founded the Bible Students movement, which later split into the "Jehovah's Witnesses" of today.

Social Criticism

The end of the Gilded Age witnessed rising levels of social criticism from a new kind of investigative journalist called a "muckraker."

Learning Objectives

Identify journalistic social criticism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The 1890s and early 1900s witnessed a profound social and political reaction to the Gilded Age, the period between the early 1870s and late 1890s that was characterized by excesses and corruption.
  • Muckrakers were journalists who exposed social ills and corporate and political corruption.
  • Journalists, such as Jacob Riis and Ida B. Wells, were among the first to bring attention to poor living conditions in cities, the plight of immigrants, and racial injustice.

Key Terms

  • muckraking: A journalist who investigates and publishes truthful "watchdog" reports in order to advocate for reforms.
  • progressivism: The political ideology that favors rational governmental action to improve society. It arose in response to industrialism and dominated American politics for the first two decades of the twentieth century.

The 1890s and early 1900s witnessed a profound social and political reaction to the excesses and corruption of the Gilded Age. Journalists and other writers began bringing social issues to the attention of the American public.


The cover of the January issue of McClure's magazine includes a drawing. Smoke emanates from factory buildings in the background; power lines stand in the foreground. McClure's Magazine. McClure's Magazine (January 1901) published many early muckraker articles.

The term "muckraker" was used during the Progressive Era to characterize reform -minded American journalists who largely wrote for popular magazines. The modern characterization of this type of journalism is "investigative," and investigative journalists today are often informally called "muckrakers." During the Progressive Era, these journalists relied on their own reporting and often worked to expose social ills and corporate and political corruption. Muckraking magazines—notably McClure's—took on corporate monopolies and crooked political machines while raising public awareness of chronic urban poverty, unsafe working conditions, and social issues such as child labor. The term "muckrakers" is a reference to a character in John Bunyan's classic Pilgrim's Progress, "the Man with the Muck-rake," who rejected salvation to focus on filth. The term became popular after President Theodore Roosevelt referred to the character in a 1906 speech; Roosevelt acknowledged that, "the men with the muck rakes are often indispensable to the well-being of society; but only if they know when to stop raking the muck..." The muckrakers themselves proudly adopted the label.

The muckrakers appeared at a moment when journalism was undergoing changes in style and practice. In response to the exaggerated facts and sensationalism of yellow journalism, objective journalism, as exemplified by The New York Times under Adolph Ochs after 1896, reported facts with the intention of being impartial and a newspaper of record. The growth of wire services also had contributed to the spread of the objective reporting style. Muckraking publishers, such as Samuel S. McClure, emphasized factual reporting but also aimed for a mixture of, "reliability and sparkle" to interest a mass audience. In contrast with objective reporting, muckrakers saw themselves primarily as reformers and were politically engaged. Journalists of the previous eras were not linked to a single political, populist movement, whereas the muckrakers were associated with Progressive reforms. Muckrakers continued some of the investigative exposures and sensational traditions of yellow journalism, but instead wrote to change society.

Julius Chambers

Julius Chambers of the New York Tribune is considered by many to be the original muckraker. Chambers undertook a journalistic investigation of Bloomingdale Asylum in 1872, having himself committed with the help of some of his friends and his newspaper's city editor. His intent was to obtain information about the alleged abuse of inmates. The publication of articles and accounts of the experience in the Tribune led to the release of 12 patients who were not mentally ill, to a reorganization of the staff and administration of the institution, and eventually, to a change in the lunacy laws. This later led to the publication of Chambers's book A Mad World and Its Inhabitants (1876). From this point onward, Chambers was frequently invited to speak about the rights of the mentally ill and the need for proper facilities for their accommodation, care, and treatment.

Jacob Riis

The photograph shows three poor children without shoes sleeping huddled up against each other in the street.

Children: Jacob Riis documented the hard life encountered by many immigrants and the poor in the city.

Journalists began to respond to the excesses of the Gilded Age toward the end of the period. One of the most notable was Jacob August Riis (May 3, 1849–May 26, 1914). Riis was a Danish-American social reformer, muckraker, and social documentary photographer. He is well known for using his photographic and journalistic passion to bring attention and aid to New York City's impoverished citizens; they would became the subject of most of his prolific writings and photography. His most famous work, How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York (1890) documented squalid living conditions in New York City slums in the 1880s. It served as a basis for future muckraking journalism by exposing New York City’s upper and middle classes to the slums. This work inspired many reforms of working-class housing immediately after publication, and it has continued to have a lasting impact in today's society. With the help of humanitarian Lawrence Veiller, Riis endorsed the implementation of "model tenements" in New York. While living there, Riis's personal experience with poverty led him to become a police reporter, writing about the quality of life in the slums.

Ida B. Wells

Ida Bell Wells-Barnett (July 16, 1862–March 25, 1931) was an African-American journalist, newspaper editor, and (along with her husband, newspaper owner Ferdinand L. Barnett) an early leader in the civil-rights movement. She documented lynching in the United States, exposing it as a means of controlling and/or punishing blacks who dared compete with whites. She was active in the women's rights and women's suffrage movements, establishing several notable women's organizations. Wells was a skilled, persuasive rhetorician who traveled internationally on lecture tours.

The pamphlets Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases and A Red Record documented her research on a lynching. Having examined many accounts of lynching based on the alleged, "rape of white women," Wells concluded that Southerners concocted rape as an excuse to hide their real motivation for lynchings: black economic progress, which threatened not only white Southerners' pocketbooks, but also their ideas about black inferiority. She wrote an article that suggested that despite the myth that white women were sexually at risk for attacks by black men, most liaisons between black men and white women were consensual.

Early Efforts in Urban Reform

Early efforts in urban reform were driven by poor conditions exposed by tragedies such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.

Learning Objectives

Evaluate the significance of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory burned in March 1911, resulting in a horrible loss of life.
  • The casualties of the fire were caused in large part by unsafe working conditions, and the prominence of the fire led to many reform laws.
  • The fire and its aftermath spurred the growth of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union.

Key Terms

  • The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire: The deadliest industrial disaster in New York's history, killing 146 garment workers who were locked inside the factory.
  • International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union: One of the first U.S. workers' organizations to have a primarily female membership; it was deeply involved in the aftermath of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

The photography shows firefighters attempting to put out the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. The building is covered in ash.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire: The industrial disaster was the deadliest in the history of New York City.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire on March 25, 1911, was the deadliest industrial disaster in the history of New York City and resulted in the fourth-highest loss of life from an industrial accident in U.S. history. The fire caused the deaths of 146 garment workers, who died from the fire, smoke inhalation, or falling or jumping to their deaths. Most of the victims were recent Jewish and Italian immigrant women aged 16 to 23; of the victims whose ages are known, the oldest victim was Providenza Panno at 43, and the youngest were Kate Leone and "Sara" Rosaria Maltese at 14.

Because the managers had locked the doors to the stairwells and exits—a common practice at the time to prevent pilferage and unauthorized breaks—many of the workers who could not escape the burning building jumped to the streets below from the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors. The fire led to legislation requiring improved factory safety standards and helped spur the growth of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, which fought for better working conditions for sweatshop workers.

Impact and Legacy of the Fire

The company's owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, who survived the fire by fleeing to the building's roof when the fire began, were indicted on charges of first- and second-degree manslaughter in mid-April; the pair's trial began on December 4, 1911. The jury acquitted the two men of first- and second-degree manslaughter, but they were found liable of wrongful death during a subsequent 1913 civil suit in which plaintiffs were awarded compensation in the amount of $75 per deceased victim. The insurance company paid Blanck and Harris about $60,000 more than the reported losses, or about $400 per casualty.

In New York City, a Committee on Public Safety was formed, headed by noted social worker Frances Perkins, to identify specific problems and lobby for new legislation, such as the bill to grant workers shorter hours in a work week, known as the "54-Hour Bill." The New York State Legislature then created the Factory Investigating Commission to, "investigate factory conditions in this and other cities and to report remedial measures of legislation to prevent hazard or loss of life among employees through fire, unsanitary conditions, and occupational diseases." Their findings led to 38 new laws regulating labor in New York State, and gave the commission members a reputation as leading progressive reformers working on behalf of the working class.

International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union

The International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU) was once one of the largest labor unions in the United States, one of the first U.S. unions to have a primarily female membership, and a key player in the labor history of the 1920s and 1930s.

The ILGWU experienced a sudden upsurge in membership as the result of two successful mass strikes in New York City. The first, in 1909, was known as the "Uprising of the 20,000” and lasted 14 weeks. It was largely spontaneous, sparked by a short walkout of workers of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, involving only about 20 percent of the workforce. That, however, only prompted the rest of the workers to seek help from the union. The firm locked out its employees when it learned what was happening. The news of the strike spread quickly to all of the New York garment workers. At a series of mass meetings, after the leading figures of the American labor movement spoke in general terms about the need for solidarity and preparedness, Clara Lemlich rose to speak about the conditions she and other women worked under. She demanded an end to talk and called for a strike of the entire industry. Approximately 20,000 out of the 32,000 workers in the shirtwaist trade walked out during the next two days.

The union also became more involved in electoral politics, in part as a result of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. The fire had various effects on the community. It further radicalized some; at the memorial meeting held in the Metropolitan Opera House on April 2, 1911, Rose Schneiderman addressed an audience largely made up of the well-heeled members of the Women's Trade Union League (WTUL) and said the following:

I would be a traitor to these poor burned bodies if I came here to talk good fellowship. We have tried you good people of the public and we have found you wanting. The old Inquisition had its rack and its thumbscrews and its instruments of torture with iron teeth. We know what these things are today; the iron teeth are our necessities, the thumbscrews are the high-powered and swift machinery close to which we must work, and the rack is here in the firetrap structures that will destroy us the minute they catch on fire... I can't talk fellowship to you who are gathered here. Too much blood has been spilled. I know from my experience it is up to the working people to save themselves. The only way they can save themselves is by a strong working-class movement.

The Settlement House Movement

The Settlement House movement was a reform that intended for the rich and the poor to live together in interdependent communities.

Learning Objectives

Examine the development of the Settlement House movement

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The main objective of the movement was the establishment of " settlement houses " in poor urban areas, where volunteer middle-class " settlement workers " would live.
  • Volunteer settlement workers moved into houses in hopes of sharing knowledge and culture with, and alleviating the poverty of, their lower-income neighbors.
  • By 1913, there were 413 settlements in 32 states.
  • The most famous settlement house in America was Chicago's Hull House, founded by the social reformer Jane Addams.

Key Terms

  • Settlement House: A residence established in a poor urban area during the turn of the twentieth century with the objective of promoting interdependent interactions among the rich and poor.
  • Settlement Worker: A volunteer from a middle-class background who lived in a lower-income neighborhood and who shared  knowledge and culture with the less advantaged in the hopes of alleviating poverty.
  • Hull House: A settlement house, located in the Near West Side of Chicago, Illinois, that was cofounded in 1889 by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr.

Settlement Houses

The Settlement House movement was a reformist social movement that began in the 1880s and peaked around the 1920s in England and the United States. Its objective was to get the rich and poor in society to live more closely together in an interdependent community. It established "settlement houses" in poor urban areas, where volunteer middle-class "settlement workers" would live in hopes of sharing knowledge and culture with, and alleviating the poverty, of their low-income neighbors. By 1913, there were 413 settlements in 32 states.

The movement started in London in the mid-nineteenth century. Settlement houses often offered food, shelter, and basic and higher education that was provided by virtue of charity on the part of wealthy donors, the residents of the city, and (for education) scholars who volunteered their time. Victorian England, increasingly concerned with poverty, gave rise to the movement whereby those connected to universities settled students in slum areas to live and work alongside local people.

Lenox Hill Neighborhood House, founded in 1894; Henry Street Settlement, founded in 1893; and University Settlement House, founded in 1886 (and the oldest in the United States) were important sites for social reform. United Neighborhood Houses of New York was the federation of 35 settlement houses in New York City. These and other settlement houses inspired the establishment of settlement schools to serve isolated rural communities in Appalachia. The settlement-house concept was continued by Dorothy Day's Catholic Worker hospitality houses in the 1930s.

Hull House


Hull House: Children in line on a retaining wall at Hull House, 1908.

The most famous settlement house in the United States is Chicago's Hull House, founded in 1889 by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr after they had visited Toynbee Hall in 1888. Located in the Near West Side of Chicago, Illinois, Hull House opened its doors to recently arrived European immigrants. By 1911, Hull House had grown to 13 buildings. In 1912, the Hull House complex was completed with the addition of a summer camp, the Bowen Country Club. With its innovative social, educational, and artistic programs, Hull House became the standard bearer for the movement that had grown, by 1920, to nearly 500 settlement houses nationally.

The Hull mansion and several subsequent acquisitions were continuously renovated to accommodate the changing demands of the association. The original building and one additional building, which has been moved 200 yards, survives today. Addams followed the example of Toynbee Hall, which was founded in 1885 in the East End of London as a center for social reform. She described Toynbee Hall as, "a community of university men who, while living there, held their recreational clubs and social gatherings at the settlement house... among the poor people and in the same style they would in their own circle."

Hull House became, at its inception in 1889, "a community of university women" whose main purpose was to provide social and educational opportunities for working-class people, many of whom were recent European immigrants living in the surrounding neighborhood. The "residents," as volunteers at Hull were called, held classes in literature, history, art, domestic activities (such as sewing), and many other subjects. Hull House also held concerts that were free to everyone, offered free lectures on current issues, and operated clubs for both children and adults.

Hull House conducted careful studies of the community of Near West Side, Chicago, which became known as "The Hull House Neighborhood." These studies enabled the Hull House residents to confront the establishment, and to eventually partner with them in the design and implementation of programs intended to improve opportunities for the large immigrant population.

Jane Addams

A founder of Hull House, Jane Addams (September 6, 1860–May 21, 1935), along with being a pioneer American settlement activist/reformer, was also a social worker, public philosopher, sociologist, author, and leader in women's suffrage and world peace. In the Progressive Era, when presidents such as Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson identified themselves as reformers and social activists, Addams was one of the most prominent reformers. She helped America address and focus on issues that were of concern to mothers, such as the needs of children, local public health, and world peace. She said that if women were to be responsible for cleaning up their communities and making them better places to live, they needed to be able to vote to do so effectively. Addams became a role model for middle-class women who volunteered to uplift their communities. She is increasingly being recognized as a member of the American Pragmatist school of philosophy.

Toward a Welfare State

Maternalist reforms provided assistance for mothers and children, expanding the American welfare state.

Learning Objectives

Summarize the development of the American welfare state

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Welfare programs in the United States began to grow and expand to new arenas during the early twentieth century.
  • Maternalist reforms in the United States were laws providing for state assistance for mothers with young children who did not have the financial support of a male member of the household.
  • These reforms arose from the belief that government has an obligation and an interest in protecting and improving the living standards of women and children.
  • The Children's Bureau, established by William Howard Taft, was the first national government office in the world to focus on issues concerning mothers and children.
  • The Sherwood Act awarded pensions to all veterans.

Key Terms

  • Sherwood Act: The first important U.S. pension law in the twentieth century. It awarded pensions to all veterans.
  • Children's Bureau: A federal agency within the Department of Health and Human Services, created in 1912. During the Progressive Era, it was tasked with the comprehensive observation and management of children's well-being.
  • Maternalist Reforms: A series of laws providing for state assistance for mothers with young children who did not have the financial support of a male member of the household.

History of Welfare in the United States

Colonial legislatures and later state governments adopted legislation patterned after the English "poor" laws. Aid to veterans, free grants of land, and pensions for widows and handicapped veterans, have been offered in all U.S. wars. Following World War I, provisions were made for a full-scale system of hospital and medical-care benefits for veterans. By 1929, workers' compensation laws were in effect in all but four states. These state laws made industry and businesses responsible for compensating workers or their survivors when workers were injured or killed in connection with their jobs. Retirement programs for mainly state and local governments date back to the nineteenth century and paid teachers, police officers, and firefighters. All of these social programs were far from universal and varied considerably from one state to another.

Prior to the Great Depression, the United States had social programs that mostly centered around individual efforts, family efforts, church charities, business workers compensation, life insurance, and sick leave programs, as well as on some state tax supported social programs. The misery and poverty of the Great Depression threatened to overwhelm all of these programs. The severe depression of the 1930s made federal action almost a necessity, as neither the states, local communities, and businesses and industries, nor private charities had the financial resources to cope with the growing need among the American people. Beginning in 1932, the federal government first made loans, then grants, to states to pay for direct relief and work relief. After that, special federal emergency relief such as the Civilian Conservation Corps and other public-works programs were started. In 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration proposed to Congress federal social-relief programs and a federally sponsored retirement program. Congress followed with the passage of the 37 page Social Security Act, signed into law August 14, 1935, and "effective" by 1939—just as World War II began. This program was expanded several times over the years.

Maternalist Reforms

One unique trend in the history of welfare in the United States were maternalist reforms. Beginning in the Progressive Era, experiments in public policy took the form of laws providing for state assistance for mothers with young children who did not have the financial support of a male member of the household. These laws provided financial reimbursements and set limits on the maximum working hours for women. These reforms arose from the belief that government has an obligation and interest in protecting and improving the living standards of women and children.

"Maternalism" is defined by some experts as a variety of ideologies that, "exalted women's capacities to mothers and extended to society as a whole the values of care, nurturance, and morality," and was intended to improve the quality of life of women and children. To improve the conditions of women and children, these policies attempted to reconcile the conflicting roles placed on women during this time period. As single mothers were responsible for both supporting their families and raising children, government assistance would reduce the probability that they could be charged with neglecting their "home duties."


Julia Lathrop: Portrait of Julia Lathrop, Director of the Children's Bureau, 1912–1922.

The Children's Bureau was established by President William Howard Taft in 1912. It was the first national government office in the world that focused solely on the well-being of children and their mothers. The legislation creating the agency was signed into law on April 9, 1912. Taft appointed Julia Lathrop as the first head of the bureau. Lathrop, a noted maternalist reformer, was the first woman ever to head a government agency in the United States. In 1921, Lathrop stepped down as director, and the noted child-labor reformer Grace Abbott was appointed to succeed her. The Children's Bureau played a major role in the passage and administration of the Sheppard-Towner Act, the first federal grants-in-aid act for state-level children's health programs.

The Sherwood Act of May 11, 1912, was the first important U.S. pension law in the twentieth century. It awarded pensions to all veterans. Veterans of the Mexican-American War and Union veterans of the Civil War could receive pensions automatically at age 62, regardless of disability.

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