Introduction to the Progressive Era

Click to see interiors of tenement buildings.
Tenement Building in New York City, Library of Congress,

The Progressive Era was a time period in American history lasting from the 1890s through the 1920s. At the turn of the century, America was experiencing rapid urbanization and industrialization. Waves of immigrants were arriving, many from southeastern Europe. As a result of these processes, countless city dwellers were crowded into tenement slums, with high rates of disease and infant mortality. In urban areas, party bosses controlled power through political machines. In addition, corporations were consolidating into “trusts” and a few companies controlled the majority of the nation’s finances.

Ida Tarbell,
Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-117944
Click for a larger image.
Front page of expose of the Standard Oil Company, written by Ida Tarbell,
Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-51280

These problems were increasingly exposed by “muckraking” journalists, who wrote articles about political corruption, harsh factory conditions, and unhealthy tenement slums. In 1904, female journalist Ida Tarbell exposed the unfair business practices of the Standard Oil Company. As a result of her expose, the government prosecuted the company under anti-trust legislation.

As people became aware of these problems, large numbers, particularly from the middle-class, worked to reform the nation, at the local, state, and federal levels. Reformers sought to improve living and working conditions for working-class Americans. They sought to eliminate waste and corruption in municipal governments. They sought to break up trusts and regulate private industry. They sought to improve public health, education, and sanitation. Many sought to conserve the environment.

Theodore Roosevelt makes a speech in New Jersey during 1912, the year he ran for president on the Progressive Party ticket,
Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-90405

A huge number of people were involved in progressive reforms. All three presidents during this time period, including Theodore Roosevelt, Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson, implemented some progressive reforms. After leaving office, Republican Roosevelt created a third political party, the Progressive Party, to challenge his successor, Taft.

Reformers were successful in implementing reform legislation at all levels of government. At the federal level, progressives were successful in passing the Sixteenth Amendment (1913), which allowed for an income tax, the Seventeenth Amendment (1913), which allowed citizens to elect Senators directly, the Eighteenth Amendment (1919), which prohibited the sale of alcohol, and the Nineteenth Amendment (1920), which enfranchised women. Many historians argue that reformers from the Progressive Era laid the groundwork for Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” programs of the 1930s.




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