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The Industrial Revolution (approximately 1877–1900) in the United States created hundreds of thousands of much-needed jobs in the last half of the nineteenth century. Native-born Americans as well as the millions of immigrants who came to the United States seeking better opportunities filled those low-paying positions. Many of the jobs involved long hours and backbreaking work.

Working conditions in factories and industry were unsafe and grueling. Company owners and management were, in general, more concerned with making money than with their employees’ safety and health. To these industrialists any money spent on employees meant less money for their own pockets. The connection between happy, healthy workers and high levels of productivity was not obvious during the revolution.

Working-class urban Americans had firsthand experience working in the miserable conditions. Most of the upper class also was aware of the plight of industrial workers. After all, their families were living lives of luxury at the direct expense of the overworked employees. The rest of society was either unaware or simply did not understand the degree of suffering imposed on workers.

This state of ignorance changed when a new breed of journalists—called muckrakers—began publishing articles, novels, and exposés on the United States's hidden exploitation of its workers. Muckrakers received their name from U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919; served 1901–9), who acknowledged the writers’ important role in exposing industrial greed and exploitation.

Muckraking was the result of two related phenomena in the early twentieth century. First, journalists breaking into print at that time were formally educated, trained to write about issues with a focus on accuracy and truth. This education separated these “new” journalists from the “old” journalists, who often exaggerated facts and focused on the emotional aspects of their stories to increase their appeal to readers. Secondly, the atmosphere of the United States at the turn of the century was one of reform. Muckrakers embodied the spirit of new journalism and change. Through their writings, Americans received both an education in the working conditions of the time and its inspiration to change them.

Some famous muckrakers

One of the most popular muckrakers was Ida M. Tarbell (1857–1944), who wrote for the popular magazines of the day, including McClure's, a literary and political journal. Tarbell reached the peak of her fame when she published the results of her investigation into the Standard Oil Company in nineteen separate articles from 1902 to 1904.

John D. Rockefeller (1839–1937) built his oil empire through unethical and dishonest business practices. So big was his company that he forced all the smaller oil companies out of business. Tarbell's exposé increased public pressure to put an end to Rockefeller's behavior. Although most people already realized his lack of integrity, Tarbell was the first person to gather hard evidence that revealed his greed and corruption. By 1911, the government forced Standard Oil to break into thirty-four smaller companies, each with its own board of directors.

Upton Sinclair (1878–1968) took on the Chicago, Illinois , meat-packing industry in his groundbreaking novel The Jungle. In 1904, his newspaper editor sent him to Chicago to investigate and live among the stockyard workers. His experience gave him firsthand knowledge of the atrocious and dangerous working conditions these people faced on a daily basis.

The book was initially published, one chapter at a time, in the newspaper Appeal to Reason. Sinclair tried to get the book published, but no publisher would touch it due to its detailed, gory contents. Sinclair financed the first publishing of The Jungle himself and sold twelve thousand orders. In 1906, Doubleday, Page & Company agreed to publish the book, but it was a censored, watered-down version.

The book had a major impact on the food industry. As a direct result of Sinclair's work, the Pure Food and Drug Act was passed in 1906. This law required certain drugs to carry warning labels, and it established the Food and Drug Administration, which would test all food and drugs meant for human consumption. That same year, the Meat Inspection Act was passed. All animals set for market were required to be inspected by the Food and Drug Administration prior to slaughter and again after slaughter. Those with disease would not become food. Slaughterhouses and processing plants had to meet cleanliness standards, which would be enforced by regular inspection of facilities by certified officials.

Nellie Bly (1864–1922) was another muckraker. Born Elizabeth Jane Cochran, her name was changed early in her career, as was common for female writers. In 1887, Bly accepted an undercover assignment from her editor at the newspaper New York World. Her job was to live in an insane asylum to investigate reports of brutality and neglect. Having convinced several doctors she was insane, Bly spent ten days in the asylum before being released at the request of her editor.

She quickly published Ten Days in a Mad-House and became an overnight sensation. More importantly, her exposé brought about major reform in the care and handling of mentally ill Americans.

An adventurous and daring woman, Bly suggested to her editor that she make a trip around the world in a sort of mimicry of Jules Verne's (1828–1905) book Around the World in Eighty Days. On November 14, 1889, Bly set off on her trip, which would eventually take her nearly 25,000 miles. She made her journey in less than seventy-three days.

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