History of US – Chapter 2

Women, more so than men, were typically the leaders of social reform activities during the Progressive Era. Many Americans considered women to be inherently more moral than men. Also women were seen as the domestic leaders of their households. Thus, women would use their God-given moral superiority as well as their inherent abilities in domesticity to clean up, reform, and fix their cities. Women used such domestic phraseology as “municipal housekeeping” to justify their new roles in the public arena. Women simply applied their inherent abilities of caring for their families against the backdrop of sin and corruption in cities.


Women, more so than men, were typically the leaders of social reform activities during the Progressive Era. Many Americans considered women to be inherently more moral than men. Also women were seen as the domestic leaders of their households. Thus, women would use their God-given moral superiority as well as their inherent abilities in domesticity to clean up, reform, and fix their cities. Women used such domestic phraseology as “municipal housekeeping” to justify their new roles in the public arena. Women simply applied their inherent abilities of caring for their families against the backdrop of sin and corruption in cities.

A good example of municipal housekeeping was the work of the National Housewives Alliance (NHA). The NHA called upon Americans to boycott all meat until the federal government agreed to inspect and certify the safety of the American meat industry. “Eat no meat. Buy no meat. Eat fresh vegetables” read one banner in a 1906 NHA protest in Maryland. As women were the ones in each home that made and served delicious, nutritious, and safe food, then women’s involvement in cleaning up the unsanitary conditions of the meat packing industry (evidenced by the 1906 Upton Sinclair novel entitled The Jungle) seemed to be a natural extension of their womanly duties. Interestingly enough, Sinclair’s message in his novel was lost on most Americans who came away from the book believing that government needed to clean up the meat industry. Instead, Sinclair’s main point was to shed light on the plight of immigrant laborers who were frequently abused, taken advantage of, and generally treated unequally in the meat packing industry.

Overwhelmingly, the mechanism through which women sought reform was federal, state, and local legislation. Thus, one characteristic of the Progressive era was a change in American ideals on the relationship between the government and the governed. Gone were the days of the early Gilded Age in which the federal government ran rough shot, uncontested, over Americans by sending out federal troops to put an end to strikes, consistently looked the other way when corporations gobbled up competition usually through violence, or allowed medicine based on opiates to be openly distributed. In other words, the problems of the Gilded Age, in the eyes of these Progressive reformers, were too unyielding for anyone but a government to tackle.

An example of success in getting the federal government to tackle these issues by regulating the industries that had, until the early twentieth century, been self-regulating was the Pure Food and Drug Act. Initially passed to assure American consumers about the ingredients advertised in their favorite medicines, this act led American consumer groups, political activists, and federal legislators to widen the scope to include outlawing ingredients and food handling practices that the federal government deemed as unsafe for human consumption.

Of course this change in the idea of the responsibilities of the federal government might not have happened through external pressures alone. Harvey Wiley, a chemist in the Bureau of Agriculture, published reports on adulterated food and medicine. Nonetheless, Wiley’s work inside the administration of President Theodore Roosevelt was not acted upon until women’s groups and publications (such as the Ladies Home Journal and Collier’s) picked up the baton of change by reporting how narcotics are typically used as the main active ingredient in so-called natural medicinal products, such as the wildly popular Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound.

Wiley believed that some chemical preservatives were safe and even necessary to ensure a healthy food supply. Thus, in 1902 he initiated an experiment called the “Hygienic Table” in which young male volunteers would knowingly eat small amounts of preservatives to prove their safety. Dubbed the “Poison Squad” by the press, these experiments went on for five years. As a true Progressive, Wiley believed that the producers of chemically altered food must prove the safety of their products and that all products must be clearly labeled so that American consumers could make fully knowledgeable choices. Wiley’s ideas would eventually become law in the United States.

Ultimately, one of the changes to American society that resulted from the popular press’s disclosures of unsafe, unsanitary food handling practices, the struggle within and without the federal government to get the Pure Food and Drug Act passed, and the push to enhance the scope of the act in the years leading up to World War I was that Americans began to see themselves as active consumers. Prior to the Progressive Era, many Americans upheld the Jeffersonian twin tenets of self-sufficiency and personal responsibility. You grew your own food, you made your own clothes and what you could not grow and what you could not make, you simply did without. Also, Americans viewed government action as a negative thing, which meant that many Americans opposed the establishment of professional, public police forces in their cities, as those police forces were of course armed representatives of “the government.” There was no federal or state agency to ensure the safety of anything Americans consumed, put on their bodies, or used in every day life.

There were no tough, smart lawyers waiting to sue the pants of your employer when you became injured on the job or sue the drug manufacturers when your child died of consuming medicine laced with opiates. If you succeeded in life, you had yourself to thank. If you failed in life, you had yourself to blame.

However, the Progressive Era forced Americans to begin to look differently at their relationship to government, as well as their expectations from government. At stake were American ideals on liberty. No longer was it apparent that success or failure was necessarily in your own hands or of your own making. The playing field was horribly askew, and thus Americans, more than ever and in increasingly larger numbers, turned to their state and federal governments for assurances that their food and medicines were safe.

Of course, not all American politicians supported this new role for the federal government. Senator Albert Beveridge (R-IN), a supporter of the U.S. war in the Philippines on the grounds that the United States must advance all of America’s blessings to those poor, tired, huddled masses, feared that unless we helped them in their county, they would simply come to the United States seeking help. He declared the Pure Food and Drug Act to be “the most pronounced extension of federal power in every direction ever enacted.”

Success and failure are relative terms. Nonetheless, one reason why many of the Progressive ideas failed to achieve lasting results was because of the simplistic beliefs held by Progressives. For example, if women had the right to vote then they, as being more moral than men, would clean up politics. And, if they got rid of alcohol then gambling, divorce, and other social problems would necessarily disappear, as the Progressives believed that alcohol consumption was the root cause of so many problems in American society. In other words, maybe the Progressives tendency of embracing a single-villain theory was out of step with the complexities of humanity.


One of the most iconic Progressive era reforms was the temperance movement. Like so many other reforms based on Gilded Age/Victorian morality, temperance roots had been firmly planted in the Washington Societies of the early nineteenth century. What makes these Progressive reformers different from earlier progressive reformers was those who supported a ban on alcohol created and maintained an effective, national organization. “Temperance is moderation in the things that are good and total abstinence from the things that are foul,” is what Frances Williard believed.

Created, in part, by Francis Willard in 1874 who held its presidency from 1879 until her premature death in 1898, the Women Christian’s Temperance Union (WCTU) urged state and federal politicians to ban the sale of alcohol. Like many other Progressive reformers, Willard was an educated person. She was a past president of Northwestern Female College, later accepting academic administrative positions at Northwestern University. She also worked for the Chicago Daily Post.

The WCTU spurred the creation of like organizations, such as the Anti-Saloon League, as well as strong-headed individuals such as the axe-wielding Carrie Nation. Protestant ministers used their pulpits on Sundays to preach the evils of alcohol. The antebellum novel, Ten Nights in a Barroom, by Timothy Shay Arthur became a national hit in the 1880s. The book examined how alcohol affected a small town family (as well as the small town). No big surprise here: drunk family members kill each other, a little girl pleads with her father to stop drinking (which he eventually does, but only on his daughter’s death bed; she dies after getting hit in the head by a thrown glass when she entered the saloon to plead with her father to come home) and in the end the whole town votes to close the saloon and outlaw liquor forever! The book’s popularity led to a silent film in 1913, a remake in 1922, and a talkie in 1931. The 1913 version was produced in part by the WCTU and was an early example of the effects of that new medium called motion pictures.

By 1916, twenty-one states had gone dry. Three years later, Americans altered the U.S. Constitution by adding the Eighteenth Amendment, which prohibited “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof.” There were major problems with the amendment, such as: What does “intoxicating” mean? What does “liquor” mean? Who will be in charge of enforcing this amendment? And, while the WCTU fought for decades to make it illegal for Americans to consume alcohol, the Eighteenth Amendment did not make it illegal to drink—only to make it, sell it, or transport it.

Shortly after Congress adopted the Eighteenth Amendment, the ambiguity of the amendment became apparent. Thus, Congress passed the National Prohibition Act (popularly referred to as the Volstead Act after one of its supporters, Andrew Volstead). This act defined alcohol, placed jurisdiction for the enforcement of the Eighteenth Amendment squarely on the shoulders of the federal government and although it was still not against the law to consume alcohol, it was illegal to “possess” alcohol.

The fight over prohibition is a microcosm of a shift in American culture. Alcohol consumption had been viewed as more than merely socially unacceptable throughout the late nineteenth century, regardless of the fact that for Americans, alcohol was the safest beverage (unlike water or milk, no know pathogens can exist in alcohol). Native-born Americans saw alcohol has a moral evil that was becoming further entrenched in American life as a result of the American immigrant culture of those “new immigrants” (Catholics and Jews from eastern, southern, and central Europe). Likewise, alcohol was the root of all evil propelling American families on the road to financial and moral ruin.

The Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act failed to end alcoholism, the break up of families, and the disintegration of American souls. Will Rogers summed it up nicely when he said, “Why don’t they pass a constitutional amendment prohibiting anybody from learning anything? If it works as well as prohibition did, in five years Americans would be the smartest race of people on Earth.”

Prohibition of alcohol is a good example at how the Progressives were not always progressive: prohibition was an old idea and the Progressives were unable to surmise the potential effect of their actions: organized crime figures, bootleggers, and corrupt politicians fought each other for control of liquor distribution. Unscrupulous amateur brewers and distillers added methanol, ethanol, and other chemicals designed to quicken the fermentation process as well as to raise the alcohol level. Of course such chemicals were toxic and had been used as an alternative fuel sources since 1900. Prohibition wrought the same pain and suffering that the Progressive reformers were trying to remove by prohibiting the consumption of alcohol.

Labor Legislation

In 1912, Congress created the U.S. Commission on Industrial Relations (CIR) with grudgingly acceptance from President William Taft. Taft was unable to get the Democratic-controlled Congress to allow his appointments, thus the real work of the CIR did not begin in earnest until the election of President Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat. Tasked with enquiring “into the general condition of labor in the principal industries of the United States, including agriculture, and especially in those which are carried on in corporate forms . . . into the growth of associations of employers and of wage earners and the effect of such associations upon the relations between employers and employees,” and chaired by Frank Walsh, the committee held hearings for over five months. The CIR consisted of members from labor, agriculture, and industry.

Unable to speak with one voice, the commission ultimately issued three separate reports, reflecting the three divergent positions of the committee members. Nonetheless, the reports were certainly neither shocking nor did they issue anything new or unknown to American labor. For decades American workers were routinely underpaid, fined for breaking a wide assortment of rules (such as laughing while at work), and shot by private armies, state militias, or even federal troops when workers went on strike. These matters were well known to American workers and were reported in the numerous papers that resulted from the commission’s work. It would have taken the twin punch of a massive domestic economic crisis paralleled by an unprecedented international crisis to push federal decision-makers to protect American workers against abuse they had been experiencing since the creation of the first mill in the 1780s.

If any one group benefited from the Progressive era reforms, it possibly could have been children. Americans during the Gilded Age looked upon children rather differently than Americans view children today. Throughout most of U.S. history, children were simply short, young, adults. Children were an integral part of the household income regardless if the family lived on a farm or worked in a factory. In fact, in some career fields children were typically hired over adults, such as in mining, where their smaller, more nimble hands were beneficial. Children were also paid less than their adult counterparts and thus many factories tended to hire children as a way of increasing their profits.

We even look upon children differently today in regards to sex. The age of consent in many states was 12, and some even as low as 10, during the Gilded Age. Having consensual sex with a twelve-year-old today is not only socially repulsive but criminal as well.

Thus, not surprisingly, some reform revolved around the health and welfare of children. Women such as Florence Kelley (graduated from Cornell University) worked with state legislatures to enact policies that would prohibit children from working in dangerous settings, such as in mines. She helped launch the National Consumer League—an organization dedicated to socially responsible consumerism and alleviating the plight of overworked and underpaid factory workers. Yet, her first success was in regards to child labor in factories.

Due in part to her work with Addams as well as her work with the future Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis in persuading the Supreme Court to support legislation curbing the number of hours women were allowed to work outside of the home, Kelley fought to both legally define a “child” and then to prohibit children from working the same hours and under the same conditions as adults. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the Illinois state legislature passed the nation’s first child labor law prohibiting children (defined as under 14) from working in factories. Illinois’ Progressive governor, John Altgeld, appointed Kelley as the state’s first female factory inspector, ensuring that all state laws were indeed being applied in Illinois’ factories.

In the legal system, children and adults tended to be treated as equals. Children, upon being found guilty of committing crimes, would be sentenced to serve their penalties in the same institutions that housed adult criminals. Thus came the juvenile court system in which social workers, lawyers and judges would be trained in and work with only juveniles. Children got their own jails. These reforms spread from the local, to the state, and eventually to the federal government.

During the presidency of Woodrow Wilson, the role of the federal government expanded to include protecting children as evidenced by the creation of the Children’s Bureau in 1912 within the Department of Labor. Reports from the Children’s Bureau, helped push through the Keating-Owen Act in 1916. This act prohibited the interstate commerce of commercial goods made by children. The act defined a child as a person no older than thirteen. Two years later the U.S. Supreme Court struck down this early attempt to define and protect children thus ending effective legislation until the administration of Franklin Roosevelt.

Settlement House Movement

So much of the Progressive Era reform was intimately connected to the massive waves of new immigrants and thus in one way the Progressive Era may be examined through the lens of fear: Native-born Americans feared the influx of European immigrants who came to this country without any history of democratic tradition, without any history of capitalism, with religious affiliations that caused many Americans to question the loyalty of these new immigrants, and with entrenched ideas of the acceptance of alcohol at a time when many Americans began to succeed in passing laws and changing minds regarding the consumption of alcohol. According to the census of 1900, 25 percent of the people living in the United States were foreign-born (in the early twenty-first century, the percentage of foreign-born is closer to 5 percent). Thus, you might wonder just how much of this reform was truly “progressive” to help these immigrants and how much of this reform was about controlling this ever-increasing influx of tired, poor, huddled masses?

One reform that was clearly connected to the new immigrants was the Settlement House Movement. One of the latest and greatest paths of study after the Civil War was that of Social Work. As many Americans viewed women as naturally more moral than men, as many Americans believed that women’s God-given roles revolved around care-giving, and because women successfully entered the public arena in the years following the Civil War by using domestic housekeeping phraseology, it is not surprising that more women then men entered the field of Social work. Graduate students in social work at Smith College located in Northampton, Massachusetts (established in 1871) identified what they believed to be a problem in their part of the state: homelessness. In 1886 students rounded up homeless women, almost all of whom were foreign-born, and housed them in property bought by the college. They then put their social work training to the test. This fieldwork was so wildly popular that it spread from college campus to college campus and shortly was known as the College Settlement Movement.

By 1910, more than 400 of these settlement homes existed. The largest and possibly the most well known of these operations was located on Hull Street in Chicago. Created by a Progressive reformer who worked with Florence Kelley and others to enact protective legislation for children, Jane Addams developed her simple idea into a massive structure that provided training, education, and career opportunities for homeless, single-women and their children. Known as Hull House, Adams provided for the immigrant homeless of Chicago to include dressing like an American, cooking like an American, and introducing them to American past times such as the relatively new game of basketball. These women’s children also received assistance in a new kind of educational opportunity called a kindergarten. “Kindergarten,” or in English “a garden of children,” was, ironically, imported to the U.S. by German immigrants. Possibly due to Adams connections with the WCTU, women at Hull House were also instructed on the evils of alcohol.

Again, the line between assistance and social control was fine and the type of assistance that poor, immigrant women and their children received at Hull House certainly smacked of control. Hull House, ostensibly, helped immigrants in their transition from foreign ways to American ways. The Progressive reformers introduced these poor, tired, huddled masses to American democracy, American capitalism, and of course English.

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Textbook content produced by Dr. James Ross-Nazzal is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License 3.0 license.http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/

Download for free at http://cnx.org/contents/975fa4e6-56c8-42cd-a1a2-04722d7724b8@3.3.


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