Who Were the Muckrakers?

Investigative Reporting in the Progressive Era

Muckrakers were investigative reporters and writers during the Progressive Era (1890–1920) who wrote about corruption and injustices in order to make changes in society. Publishing books and articles in magazines such as McClure's and Cosmopolitan, these journalists risked their lives and livelihoods to bring stories of the terrible, hidden conditions of the poor and powerless, and to highlight the corruption of politicians and wealthy businessmen.  

The term "muckraker" was coined by the progressive president Theodore Roosevelt in his 1906 speech "The Man With the Muck Rake" referring to a passage in John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress which describes a man who raked muck (soil, dirt, manure, and vegetal matter) for a living rather than raising his eyes to heaven. Even though Roosevelt was known for helping usher in numerous Progressive reforms, he saw the most zealous members of the muckraking press as going too far, especially when writing about political corruption. He wrote: 

"Now, it is very necessary that we should not flinch from seeing what is vile and debasing. There is filth on the floor, and it must be scraped up with the muck rake; and there are times and places where this service is the most needed of all the services that can be performed. But the man who never does anything else, who never thinks or speaks or writes, save of his feats with the muck rake, speedily becomes, not a help but one of the most potent forces for evil."

Despite Roosevelt's efforts, many of the crusading journalists embraced the term "muckrakers" and indeed forced the country to make changes to ease the situations they reported. Following are some of the most famous muckrakers of their day with the major works that helped exposed issues and corruption in America between 1890 and the start of World War I.

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Jacob Riis—"How the Other Half Lives"

Jacob Riis, Author of How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York
Public Domain / Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division cph 3a08818

Jacob Riis (1849–1914) published "How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York" ​in 1890. This book combined text with photos to produce a truly disturbing picture of the living conditions of the poor in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. His book led to tenements being torn down and improvements being made to the area including the building of sewers and the implementation of garbage collection.

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Ida B. Wells—"A Red Record"

Portrait of Ida B. Wells, 1920
Chicago History Museum / Getty Images

In 1895, Ida B. Wells (1862–1931) published "A Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynchings in the United States 1892–1893–1894," documenting that lynchings of African American men in the south were not the result of the rape of white women. She also wrote articles in the Memphis Free Speech and Chicago Conservator, criticizing the school system, demanding women's suffrage to include African-American women, and anti-lynching. Although she never achieved her goal of a federal anti-lynching legislation, she was a founding member of the NAACP and other activist organizations.  

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Florence Kelley—"Hull-House Maps and Papers"

Florence Kelley
Courtesy Library of Congress

Florence Kelley (1859–1932) published "Hull-House Maps and Papers" in 1895, and "Modern Industry in Relation to the Family, Health, Education, Morality" in 1914, documenting child-labor sweatshops and working conditions for children and women. Her greatest accomplishment was the 1921 "Sheppard-Towner Maternity and Infancy Protection Act," which included health care funds to reduce maternal and infant mortality. 

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Ray Stannard Baker—"The Right to Work"

Ray Stannard Baker, Author of "The Right to Work" in 1903 for McClure's Magazine.
Public Domain / Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Ray Stannard Baker (1870–1946) wrote "The Right to Work" in 1903 for McClure's Magazine. This article detailed the plight of coal miners including scabs (non-striking workers) who were often untrained yet had to work in the dangerous conditions of the mines while fending off attacks from union workers.

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Ida Tarbell—"The History of the Standard Oil Company"

Ida Tarbell, Author of The History of the Standard Oil Company
Public Domain / Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division cph 3c17944

Ida Tarbell (1857–1944) published "The History of the Standard Oil Company" in 1904 after having written it in serial form for McClure's Magazine. She spent a number of years investigating the business practices of John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil and written this exposé of the information she found. Her investigative reporting caused a furor that helped lead to the breakup of Standard Oil in 1911.

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Upton Sinclair—"The Jungle"

Upton Sinclair, Author of The Jungle and Muckraker
Public Domain/ Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Upton Sinclair (1878–1968) published his groundbreaking book ​"The Jungle" in 1904. This book gave a wholly unsavory look at the meatpacking industry in Chicago, Illinois. His book became an instant bestseller and led to the passage of the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act.

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Lincoln Steffens—"The Shame of the Cities"

Lincoln Steffens, Author of The Shame of the Cities
Public Domain / Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division ggbain 05710

Lincoln Steffens (1866–1936) published "The Shame of the Cities" in 1904. This book sought to show the corruption in local governments throughout America. It was basically a compilation of magazine articles published in McClure's Magazine in 1902 about the corruption in St. Louis, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Chicago, and New York.

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John Spargo—"The Bitter Cry of Children"

John Spargo, Author of The Bitter Cry of Children.
Public Domain / Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

John Spargo (1876–1966) wrote "The Bitter Cry of Children" ​in 1906. This book detailed the terrible conditions of child labor in America. While many were fighting against child labor in America, Spargo's book was the most widely read and most influential as it detailed the dangerous working condition of boys in coal mines.