Understanding the Progressive Era

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It can be difficult for students to understand the relevance of the period we call The Progressive Era because society before this period was very different from the society and the conditions we know today. We often assume that certain things have always been around, like laws about child labor and fire safety standards.

If you are researching this era for a project or research paper, you should begin by thinking about the way things were before government and society changed in America.

American Society Once Very Different

Before the events of the Progressive Era occurred (1890-1920), American society was much different. The federal government had less of an impact on the lives of the citizen than we know today. For example, there are laws that regulate the quality of food that is sold to American citizens, the wage that is paid to workers, and the work conditions that are endured by American workers. Before the Progressive Era food, living conditions, and employment was different.

Characteristics of the Progressive Era

  • Children were employed in factories
  • Wages were low and unregulated (with no wage minimums)
  • Factories were crammed and unsafe
  • No standards existed for food safety
  • No safety net existed for citizens who couldn't find employment
  • Housing conditions were unregulated
  • The environment was not protected by federal regulations

The Progressive Movement refers to social and political movements that emerged in response to rapid industrialization from which caused societal ills. As cities and factories emerged and grew, quality of life declined for many American citizens.

Many people worked to change the unjust conditions that existed as a result of the industrial growth that took place during the late 19th century. These early progressives thought that education and government intervention could ease poverty and social injustice.

Key People and Events of the Progressive Era

In 1886, the American Federation of Labor is founded by Samuel Gompers. This was one of many unions that emerged toward the end of the nineteenth century in response to unfair labor practices like long hours, child labor, and dangerous working conditions.

Photojournalist Jacob Riis exposes deplorable living conditions in the slums of New York in his book How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York

Conservation of natural resources becomes a matter of public concern, as the Sierra Club was founded in 1892 by John Muir.

Women's Suffrage gains steam when Carrie Chapman Catt becomes president of the National American Women's Suffrage Association. 

Theodore Roosevelt becomes president in 1901 after the death of McKinley. Roosevelt was an advocate for "trust busting," or the breaking up of powerful monopolies that crushed competitors and controlled prices and wages.

The American Socialist Party was established in 1901. 

Coal miners strike in Pennsylvania in 1902 to protest their terrible working conditions.

In 1906, Upton Sinclair publishes "The Jungle," which portrayed the deplorable conditions inside the meatpacking industry in Chicago. This led to the establishment of food and drug regulations.

In 1911, a fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, which occupied the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors of a building in New York. Most of the employees were young women aged sixteen to twenty-three, and many on the ninth floor perished because exits and fire escapes were locked and blocked by the company officials. The company was acquitted of any wrongdoing, but the outrage and sympathy from this event prompted legislation concerning unsafe working conditions.

President Woodrow Wilson signs the Keating-Owens Act in 1916, which made it illegal to ship goods across state lines if they were produced by child labor.

In 1920, Congress passed the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote.

Research Topics for the Progressive Era 

  • What was life like for children who worked in factories? How was this different from the work of children who lived on farms?
  • How did views on immigration and race change during the Progressive Era? Did the legislation of this era effect all people, or were certain populations most affected?
  • How do you suppose the "trust busting" legislation affected business owners? Consider exploring the events of the Progressive Era from the point of view of wealthy industrialists.
  • How did living conditions change for people who moved from the country to the cities during this time period? How were people better off or worse off during the shift from country living to city living?
  • Who were the major figures in the Women's Suffrage movement? How was life impacted for these women who came forward?
  • Explore and compare life in a mill village and life in a coal camp.
  • Why did the concern for environmental issues and natural resource preservation emerge at the same time as concern and awareness for social issues like poverty? How are these topics related?
  • Writers and photojournalists were key figures in Progressive Era reforms. How does their role compare to changes that have taken place due to the emergence of social media?
  • How has the power of the federal government changed since the Progressive Era? How have the powers of individual states changed? What about the power of the individual?
  • How would you compare the changes in society during the Progressive Era to changes in society during and after the Civil War?
  • What is meant by the term progressive? Were the changes that took place during this time period actually progressive? What does the term progressive mean in the current political climate?
  • The Seventeenth Amendment, which allowed for the direct election of US Senators, was ratified in 1913 during the period known as the Progressive Era. How does this reflect the sentiments of this period?
  • There were many setbacks to the Progressive Era movements and campaigns. Who and what created these setbacks, and what were the interests of the parties involved?
  • Prohibition, the constitutional ban on the production and transportation of alcoholic beverages, also took place during the Progressive Era. How and why was alcohol the subject of concern during this period? What was the impact of Prohibition, good and bad, on society?
  • What was the role of the Supreme Court during the Progressive Era? 

Further Reading

Prohibition and Progressive Reform

The Fight for Women's Suffrage


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Fleming, Grace. "Understanding the Progressive Era." ThoughtCo, Jul. 11, 2021, thoughtco.com/understanding-the-progressive-era-4055913. Fleming, Grace. (2021, July 11). Understanding the Progressive Era. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/understanding-the-progressive-era-4055913 Fleming, Grace. "Understanding the Progressive Era." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/understanding-the-progressive-era-4055913 (accessed March 30, 2023).