Muckrakers, The: Jacob Riis, Upton Sinclair, Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell
The Muckrakers: Jacob Riis, Upton Sinclair, Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell
Born May 3, 1849
Died May 26, 1914
Born September 20, 1878
Died November 25, 1968
Bound Brook, New Jersey
Born April 6, 1866
Died August 9, 1936
Born November 5, 1857
Hatch Hallow, Pennsylvania
Died January 6, 1944
"I aimed at the public's heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach."
—Upton Sinclair, on the public reaction to his 1906 novel The Jungle.
Jacob Riis, Upton Sinclair, Lincoln Steffens, and Ida Tarbell were the best-known of the so-called muckrakers, crusading journalists active from about 1890 to 1910 (and in some cases, many years longer) who helped to bring about a number of governmental reforms. Writing for newspapers (Riis) and magazines (Steffens and Tarbell), or publishing novels (Sinclair), these writers specialized in writing stories about the suffering of underpaid workers, government corruption, and shady dealings by business executives like John D. Rockefeller (1839–1937; see entry). By bringing these stories to light, the muckrakers encouraged strong corrective action to be taken by government.
Origin of the word "muckraker"
The term muckraker was first used by President Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919; see entry), and it was not one of praise or commendation (although Roosevelt was a friend of Jacob Riis's). It literally means to rake out muck (manure or filth). The muckrakers were writers who wrote about
the desperate living conditions, primarily in cities such as New York and Chicago, experienced by mostly immigrant workers during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They engaged their readers with tales of crooked politicians bribed by businessmen to look the other way when rotten beef was distributed by meatpacking plants, for example. The muckrakers helped the public understand how the mega-fortunes of their era had been gained through ruthless dealings and at the expense of thousands of competitors driven out of business and workers employed at very low wages. With the muckrackers' help, a period of uncontrolled and unchecked industrial development came to an end in the United States.
Each of the muckrakers was best-known for a particular target:
- Jacob Riis documented the desperate living conditions of people in New York City's Lower East Side slums.
- Upton Sinclair used fiction as his vehicle to attack social ills. His best-known novel, The Jungle (1906), was written to promote the cause of socialism (a political system in which the government controls the major industries) as a cure for the ills of American society. But the story, focusing on the stockyards of Chicago and contaminated beef, proved highly effective in promoting federal regulation of food processing.
- Lincoln Steffens focused on corrupt municipal (local government) officials in several major cities.
- Ida Tarbell's story of John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil Company was instrumental in building public outrage at the abuses of business owners who tried to suppress competition in an industry.
The muckrakers did not represent a single political viewpoint. Sinclair, for example, believed in socialism, the political philosophy that government should control business. Tarbell, on the other hand, famous for uncovering the abusive practices of Rockefeller, one of the biggest businessmen of the era, felt friendly towards many businessmen, and ended her career writing glowing biographies of business leaders.
But from 1890 to 1910, these writers contributed to a profound shift in American political thinking. The attitude that government had no right to interfere with business changed as these writers brought to light the inhumane conditions of women and children working in factories, or the filthy, unsanitary conditions of meatpacking plants in Chicago. Articles written by the muckrakers revealing such practices caused a public outcry for government regulation and control over business practices.
Jacob Riis and the slums of New York
Jacob Riis was born in the small town of Ribe, Denmark, in 1849. He became one of millions of Europeans who immigrated to the United States in the latter half of the nineteenth century, hoping to find a bright future and economic opportunity. Riis found a much harsher reality, and documented it with photographs and essays.
Jacob was one of fourteen children born to Niels Edward Riis and Caroline Riis. His father taught in a Latin school, which Jacob attended as a boy, occasionally helping his father prepare stories for a weekly newspaper. According to a legend told about Jacob's youth, at age thirteen he came across the home of a poor family in his hometown. So horrified was young Jacob at conditions in which the family lived, he spent his own money to buy soap and paint to clean up the house, which was infested with rats. As a teenager Riis moved to Copenhagen, the Danish capital, where he became a learning assistant (apprentice) to a carpenter. Looking for a brighter future, he decided to immigrate to America in 1870, arriving in New York when he was twenty-one.
There, the harsh reality of the New World took hold. Riis needed money to live, and so he took any job that came his way. He tried farming, coal mining, brick making, and peddling from a cart. Occasionally he had to spend the night in a noisy and dirty homeless shelter.
After four years of the rough-and-tumble life of an immigrant, Riis found an editing job at a small newspaper, the South Brooklyn News. Three years later, in 1877, he was hired as a reporter for the New York Tribune and assigned to cover the slums of the Lower East Side of Manhattan, a borough of New York City.
Riis married a childhood sweetheart from Ribe, Elizabeth Nielsen, and they had five children. Elizabeth died in 1905, and two years later he married Mary Phillips, a woman many years younger who had served as his secretary.
The Industrial Revolution, a period of fast-paced economic change that began in Great Britain in the middle of the eighteenth century, was in full swing in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, and in New York thousands of immigrants were employed in small factories, many sewing women's clothing. Workers' wages were barely enough to live, and workers were forced to live in tenements, crowded apartment buildings jammed next to each other block after block.
As a journalist, Riis wrote articles that focused on the everyday lives of New York's poorest workers. He wrote of hunger, lack of sanitation, apartments without heat in winter, dangerous firetraps, and poor treatment of the dead. His stories shed light on living conditions that wealthy New Yorkers could not have imagined.
In 1890 Riis collected some of his newspaper stories and published them in a book, How the Other Half Lives. The work resulted in Riis meeting a young Republican politician, Theodore Roosevelt, who had been a federal civil service commissioner and in 1895 became police commissioner of New York City. In that job, Roosevelt quickly developed a reputation as an honest politician who vigorously attacked the corruption and bribery that was commonplace in the slums of New York. Roosevelt and Riis became longtime friends. Roosevelt later offered Riis government positions, but the author preferred to continue his career as writer, photographer, and lecturer.
One of the unique elements of How the Other Half Lives is its photography. Riis was among the first journalists to use photos in documenting the living conditions of the poor. For this reason, he is also an important figure in the history of photojournalism.
Riis continued to publish books about slum conditions: Out of Mulberry Street (1898), The Battle with the Slum (1902), and Children of the Tenement (1903). In all these books, he focused on the living conditions of the poor but did not attack the underlying economic system of capitalism (private ownership of goods and property) as the root cause, as did some of his fellow muckrakers.
Riis did not simply write about conditions he chanced upon but actively attempted to relieve the misery he found in the slums. He exposed the fact that water supplies were contaminated, and he campaigned for the city of New York to purchase a large watershed that is used to hold some of the city's water supply today. He worked to abolish the rough and dangerous police-run homeless shelters. By exposing the lives of children working hour upon hour in factories, he pushed for stricter enforcement of child-labor laws.
Riis also fought for laws that set minimum living standards for apartments and the tearing down of dangerous, unhealthful tenements. His work led the city of New York to pass laws requiring minimum standards for dwellings.
In all these efforts, Riis revealed that the economy of the Industrial Revolution had resulted in horrific living conditions for thousands of citizens. He felt that there was no organization besides government to address these ills, and it was among Riis's accomplishments that public attitudes toward government action changed drastically. As citizens became more sympathetic to the plight of the poor, it became easier for politicians to take effective action to help them, such as mandating a minimum wage or maximum hours per day a person could be required to work.
Riis's career was cut short by illness. In 1904, he was stricken with heart disease and forced to restrict his writing and lecturing activities. On May 26, 1914, Riis died at his country home in Barre, Massachusetts.
Upton Sinclair and The Jungle
Upton Sinclair was born in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1878, the son of a distinguished Southern family that had fallen onto hard times. His father was an alcoholic who sold liquor for a living. His mother was the daughter of a prominent Baltimore family. The result was a childhood marked by contradiction—upper-middle-class culture on the one hand, poverty on the other. When he was ten, Sinclair moved to New York City with his family. Just four years later, he enrolled in the City College of New York, majoring in English literature and supporting himself by selling short stories to popular magazines and comic books.
Although he was making a good living, Sinclair grew bored with this kind of writing. In the spring of 1900, when he was twenty-one, he abandoned his thriving career and moved to a cabin in the woods of Quebec, Canada, to focus on his writing. It was in Quebec that Sinclair met his wife, Meta Fuller. Sinclair's first three books were not especially successful, however, and he, his wife, and their infant son suffered from extreme poverty.
In late 1904 a magazine editor suggested to Sinclair that he address the subject of "wage slaves," workers in modern industry, comparing their situation to the slaves in the American South before the Civil War (1861–65). Sinclair had just completed a magazine article about a failed strike in Chicago's meatpacking industry, and he decided to use this as the basis for his next novel. With a five-hundred-dollar advance, he bought a small farm in New Jersey and started to research the book. He spent seven weeks in Chicago, interviewing workers, living among them, and looking at the factories where they worked.
In 1906 Sinclair published this book, titled The Jungle. The book exposed the grossly unsanitary conditions under which meat was packaged for consumption and the desperate poverty and dire living conditions forced onto workers in the meatpacking industry. The Jungle became an immediate bestseller. The middle-class readers who bought the book demanded government action to ensure the safety of their food supply. President Theodore Roosevelt invited Sinclair to the White House, and shortly afterward pressed Congress to pass legislation for federal inspection of meat. It was an important beginning of government regulation of an industry that had previously yielded huge profits as business owners ignored costly sanitation controls.
According to one biographer, Sinclair once remarked about The Jungle: "I aimed at the public's heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach."
Sinclair continued publishing novels that focused on other social issues of the day, and he chose fiction rather than factual magazine articles as his vehicle to expose the excesses of industrialization. In 1908 he published The Metropolis, about New York's high society, and The Moneychangers, whose main character was said to resemble American financier J. P. Morgan (1837–1913; see entry). King Coal (1917), about a coal miners' strike in Colorado in 1913–14 and the brutal living conditions of coal miners was researched and presented in the same manner as The Jungle—a book in which facts were presented in the context of fiction. But none of Sinclair's subsequent novels had quite the success, or impact, of The Jungle.
Today, The Jungle is often remembered as the book that brought about government rules and inspection of packaged food, particularly meat. But for Sinclair, it was a political novel, uncovering great human suffering at the hands of unregulated capitalism (private ownership of goods and property) and focusing on socialism (government owned or regulated business) as the ideal cure for the social ills, such as abuse of workers or unsafe conditions in meatpacking plants, that he documented at the height of the American Industrial Revolution. Socialism was a cause Sinclair continued to support throughout his life, until his death in 1968.
Long after his fellow muckrakers had faded from the political and literary scene, Sinclair continued to campaign against the abuses of the Industrial Revolution. In the 1920s he turned to nonfiction to expose the shortcomings (as he saw it) of American schools. He attacked the integrity and objectivity of journalists, whom he felt were overly influenced by big business. In the late 1920s he wrote sympathetically about the case of Nicola Sacco (1891–1927) and Bartolomeo Vanzetti (1888–1927), Italian-born anarchists (those who reject all forms of government or authority) accused of murder during a robbery near Boston, Massachusetts. Many people believed the evidence against the two men was weak, and that they were really being persecuted for their political beliefs.
In the 1930s Sinclair took an even more direct role in politics. He ran for governor of California in 1933 on a platform that included combating poverty in the state by raising taxes on the film industry centered in Hollywood. The movie studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) coordinated a campaign to defeat Sinclair, who lost the election.
The last decades of Sinclair's life were spent writing more novels, all with a political tinge to them. In 1967 Sinclair was invited by President Lyndon Johnson (1908–1973) to be present at the signing of the Wholesome Meat Act, a follow-up to the original Meat Inspection and Pure Food and Drug Act that Sinclair's novel had inspired some sixty years earlier.
Upton Sinclair died the next year, on November 25, 1968, in Bound Brook, New Jersey.
Lincoln Steffens, gentleman reporter
Lincoln Steffens was one of the original muckrakers, focusing his attention on the widespread corruption of city officials who were bribed by businesspeople. But over time, Steffens became disillusioned with efforts to reform politics, and concluded that only a revolution, like the ones that took place in Mexico (1910) and Russia (1917), could succeed in defeating the natural tendencies of capitalism toward corruption.
While he became a leading advocate of radical revolutions in the name of the working class, Steffens began life in the lap of luxury. He was born on April 6, 1866, four years after his father had arrived in California by wagon train after the California gold rush had opened the state's natural resources to hordes of immigrants from the East. Steffens's father settled in Sacramento, where he made a modest fortune selling paint. Steffens grew up in one of Sacramento's most stately mansions.
As a boy, Steffens showed signs of the rebelliousness that would mark his entire life. He was a mediocre student who was sent by his parents to a military academy in San Mateo, California, to "straighten out." He enrolled in the University of California at Berkeley, graduating in 1889 with a bachelor's degree in philosophy.
Steffens then launched into a tour of Europe, dabbling in philosophy courses at German universities in Heidelberg, Munich, and Leipzig. He fell in love with Josephine Bontecou, the daughter of an American physician, while studying in Leipzig and secretly married her in Germany in 1891. The couple moved around Europe for another year, studying in London, England, and Paris, France, and visiting Italy before sailing back to New York. There, the seemingly spoiled young Steffens got a surprise welcome-home present from his father: a check for one hundred dollars, along with a note informing him that he was now on his own.
Steffens became a reporter for the New York Evening Post and was assigned to cover the police department, which was in the midst of a corruption scandal. His work put him in touch with an energetic young politician named Theodore Roosevelt, who was soon to become a reform-minded New York City police commissioner (and a few years later, vice president and then president of the United States).
At the end of 1901 Steffens accepted a job offer from S. S. McClure, who had launched McClure's magazine. McClure had also hired Ida Tarbell and Ray Stannard Baker (1870–1946), and together with Steffens these writers pushed McClure's to the forefront of investigative journalism that came to be called muckraking: exposing corruption and misdeeds by politicians and businessmen throughout the United States.
While Tarbell focused on John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil Company, Steffens concentrated on the corruption of municipal officials and local business leaders. In October 1902 Steffens published an article on corruption in St. Louis, Missouri, where a crusading local prosecutor was waging a legal war on the bribery of local officials. Steffens followed this story with one on "The Shame of Minneapolis," about corruption in that city's government, which appeared in the same issue of McClure's as the first installment of Tarbell's long string of articles about Standard Oil.
Many other writers and publications followed the lead of McClure's, but Steffens's stories went beyond just uncovering examples of misdeeds and tried to understand the reasons behind the abuses. In Steffens's view, for example, it was the greed of private businessmen and their desire for special privileges that led them to bribe hapless municipal officials. Steffens's collection of stories about municipal corruption was published in book form as The Shame of the Cities in 1904; it became a best-seller.
In 1906 Steffens and several other members of McClure's editorial staff who had wearied of the publisher's controlling management of the magazine bought the American Magazine. They quickly transformed it into a leading investigative journal, but Steffens left a year later to pursue a freelance career.
In 1911 Steffens's personal life experienced a series of shocks: his wife died, followed shortly thereafter by the death of his mother-in-law, who had lived with him and her daughter. Then both of Steffens's parents died in short succession.
Three years later, Steffens discovered what he thought was a new solution to society's problems: a revolutionary strongman. Steffens's inspiration arose in Mexico, where a revolution, led by Pancho Villa (1878–1923) and Venustiano Carranza (1859–1920), had begun. Steffens went to Mexico to cover the revolution and became persuaded that a strong leader was the path to meaningful reform.
In the spring of 1917 Steffens went to Russia, which experienced two revolutions that year, one in February and a second, the Bolshevik, or Communist, Revolution in November. The revolutions arose in the wake of desperate poverty, indifference on the part of the ruling czar (king), and Russia's long involvement in World War I (1914–18). Steffens interviewed the leaders of the Russian Communists and wrote a sympathetic introduction to a book by Leon Trotsky (1879–1940), one of the revolution's main leaders, in early 1919. It was after an interview with Vladimir Lenin (1870–1924), leader of the new Russian Communist state, that Steffens declared in a letter to a friend: "I have seen the future, and it works." It was a comment widely and often quoted, and one that put Steffens in the communist camp for many years afterward.
Steffens remarried in 1919 and settled in Europe, earning a living by working as a freelance journalist. He traveled to Italy and briefly had praise for the Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini (1883–1945). But by and large, Steffens had faded from public view.
In 1927 he returned to the United States and lived in Carmel, California. His autobiography was published in 1931, helping to revive his reputation during the deep economic depression that gripped the United States at the time. The book became a best-seller. Suddenly, Steffens was in the spotlight again, writing articles and giving lectures. As the depression continued to bring hardship in the United States, he again advocated the Soviet Union as a model society, where the government had taken over factories and assumed responsibility for citizens' welfare, at least in Steffen's view. Only a few years later did it became known that the Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin (1879–1953), was a brutal dictator who sent millions of citizens to labor camps in Siberia.
Steffens suffered a heart attack in late 1933, and was mostly confined to bed until his death, at home in Carmel, California, on August 9, 1936.
Ida Tarbell and the Standard Oil Company
Ida Tarbell was born in 1857, in a log farm house in Hatch Hollow, Pennsylvania. Two years later in nearby Titusville, Pennsylvania, the world's first oil well was drilled, making northwestern Pennsylvania the center of the country's petroleum industry.
Her father, Franklin Tarbell, had been a farmer and carpenter and turned to manufacturing wooden storage barrels and tanks for the rapidly growing oil industry. It was a successful business, and in time, he joined many others in drilling for oil—an activity that eventually brought him up against the business practices of John D. Rockefeller, who was building the Standard Oil Company. Franklin Tarbell was run out of business by Rockefeller, a fact that played a significant role years later when Franklin's oldest child, Ida, was an established journalist in New York.
Ida was a good student, encouraged by her parents. After graduating high school in Titusville, she enrolled in Allegheny College, a coeducational college sponsored by the Methodist Church in Meadville, Pennsylvania. She was the only woman in the class of 1880. After two years of teaching, Ida instead decided to focus on writing. She returned to Meadville and got an editing job with a monthly magazine called the Chautauquan, which was dedicated to self-improvement. The magazine was a success, and so was Ida Tarbell. She worked there for eight years and was promoted to the position of managing editor.
In 1891, when she was thirty-four, Tarbell decided it was time to break out of her comfortable life in western Pennsylvania. She gathered her savings and left for Paris, France, determined to expand her horizons. She lived in the Latin Quarter, an area where many artists lived, and studied at the Sorbonne (University of Paris) and College of Paris. To make a living, she researched people famous in French history and sold articles about them to American magazines. In 1892 she sold an article on Louis Pasteur (1822–1895), the famous French biologist, to McClure's magazine. It was the beginning of a long association with McClure's that would establish her reputation.
In 1894 Tarbell returned to the United States and became a staff writer for McClure's. A series of her articles about President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) was later collected as a book, The Life of Abraham Lincoln, winning high praise at the time it was published in 1900.
As the new century dawned, the editor of McClure's changed its format to put more emphasis on current events and social issues. It was an era when the most successful capitalists, such as John D. Rockefeller and J. P. Morgan, were putting together enormous business enterprises. These trusts (called monopolies today) were powerful enough to drive their competitors out of business. Companies were regularly engaged in bitter, often violent, battles with labor unions trying to organize workers in order to win higher wages and improved working conditions. McClure's soon became the most important muckraking publication, focusing on exposing corporate corruption, thievery, and abuses.
Starting in 1902, Tarbell began contributing a series of articles about Rockefeller that eventually stretched over nineteen installments. The pieces were later collected into a two-volume book, The History of the Standard Oil Company. By examining thousands of public documents and newspaper articles, Tarbell gradually exposed how Rockefeller had manipulated the oil business into a monopoly called Standard Oil. Tarbell was a skillful writer, capable of tracking the complex story of Rockefeller's dealings in a way that conveyed both the history and a sense of outrage over his unethical business tactics.
The series helped build public sentiment against the company and made it easier for the federal government to sue Standard Oil in federal court for violating the 1890 Sherman Antitrust Act. This act outlawed the practice of a company purchasing other companies for the purpose of eliminating competition in an industry. The suit wound its way through the courts and finally resulted in a Supreme Court decision in 1911. The court ordered that Rockefeller's giant company be broken up into separate, independent—and competing—companies.
In 1906 Tarbell and several of her fellow muckraking journalists left McClure's in a group protest over the controlling behavior of its editor and owner. Together, they bought another publication, American Magazine, to which Tarbell contributed for another nine years.
Unlike some of her fellow muckrakers, Tarbell continued to believe in the private ownership and control of business. She was enthusiastic about the biggest manufacturer of automobiles, Henry Ford (1863–1947; see entry) and his labor policies, which had included raising workers's wages to $5.00 a day in 1914. She later wrote two books full of praise for two businessmen prominent in her time, steel magnate Elbert H. Gary (1846–1927) and Owen D. Young (1874–1962).
Surprisingly to some, for a woman who devoted herself to a career instead of marriage, Tarbell was not a feminist, or even a suffragist (a supporter of women's right to vote, associated with the campaign to pass the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920). In The Business of Being a Woman (1912), she advocated that women should remain at home as mothers, where they could influence their children.
Tarbell retired to her farm in Connecticut, where she died of pneumonia on January 6, 1944.
For More Information
Bloodworth, William A. Upton Sinclair. Boston, MA: Twayne Publishers, 1977.
Brady, Kathleen. Ida Tarbell: Portrait of a Muckraker. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1989.
Camhi, Jane Jerome. Women against Women: American Anti-Suffragism,1880–1920. Brooklyn, NY: Carlson Publications, 1994.
Harris, Leon A. Upton Sinclair, American Rebel. New York: Crowell, 1975.
Horton, Russell M. Lincoln Steffens. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1974.
Kaplan, Justin. Lincoln Steffens: A Biography. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1974.
Kochersberger, Robert C., ed. More Than a Muckraker: Ida Tarbell's Lifetime in Journalism. Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1994.
Lane, James B. Jacob A. Riis and the American City. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1974.
Meyer, Edith Patterson. "Not Charity, but Justice": The Story of Jacob A.Riis. New York: Vanguard Press, 1974.
Sinclair, Upton. Autobiography. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1962.
Sinclair, Upton. Boston: A Documentary Novel of the Sacco-Vanzetti Case. Cambridge, MA: R. Bentley, 1978.
Sinclair, Upton. The Jungle. New York: Signet Classics, 2001.
Steffens, Lincoln. The Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1968.
Stinson, Robert. Lincoln Steffens. New York: F. Ungar Publishing, 1979.
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Tarbell, Ida M. The Business of Being a Woman. New York: Macmillan, 1912.
Goldberg, Vicki. "Looking at the Poor in a Gilded Frame: A Series of Recent Photography Shows Suggest Real Concern about Poverty—and a Wish to Deal with It at Arm's Length." New York Times, April 9, 1995, p. H1.
Mitchell, Greg. "How Media Politics Was Born: To Keep Upton Sinclair from Becoming Governor of California in 1934, His Opponents Invented a Whole New Kind of Campaign." American Heritage, September–October 1988, p. 34.
Reitman, Janet. "The Muckraker vs. the Millionaire." Scholastic Update, November 2, 1998, p. 14.
Stein, Harry H. "Apprenticing Reporters: Lincoln Steffens on 'The EveningPost.'" Historian, Winter 1996, p. 367.
Treckel, Paula A. "Lady Muckraker." American History, June 2001, p. 38.
Wilson, Christopher. "The Making of a Best Seller, 1906." New York TimesBook Review, December 22, 1985, p. 1.
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