The Progressive Era (generally, the first two decades of the twentieth century) was a period of change that began in America's urban areas. The federal government passed laws regarding labor, women's rights, railroads, the food industry, politics, education, and housing. The Progressive Era was different from the previous years mostly because of a change in the attitude toward social class. In the Gilded Age (approximately 1878–99), the upper class generally believed that their wealth was God-given, and that those who lived in poverty did so because they were immoral.
With the dawn of the Progressive Era came a subtle and gradual shift in attitude. As the number of Americans living in poverty increased and their circumstances became more visible in public society, some of the more powerful members of society began to realize that with their good fortunes came an obligation to help those in need. Steel magnate Andrew Carnegie (1835–1919) primarily fostered this belief, calling his philosophy the “Gospel of Wealth.” Carnegie believed that simply giving money to the poor did nothing more than continue the cycle of poverty, and that, instead, assistance should help the poor help themselves, with community-based services, training, and libraries. Philanthropy (charitable donations, community service, and volunteerism) encouraged a sense of reform that affected nearly every social aspect of the United States.
Hallmarks of the Progressive Era
No facet of American life was untouched by reform. Some changes came faster than others, some were intentional, and others happened as a result of outside influence and circumstances.
Class distinction Class distinction (the division between lower, middle, and upper classes) was clear at the turn of the century. The lowest class included a large proportion of nonwhite citizens, both immigrant and U.S.-born. Immigrants were criticized for their inability to speak English and for their cultural rituals, habits, and customs, which Americans considered odd. Whites were judged by their ethnic backgrounds. Besides ethnicity, religion affected a person's status level. Jews and Catholics were usually among the lowest-paid Americans, and so they also often were relegated to the lowest class.
Native-born white Americans whose parents or ancestors came from western and central Europe made up the growing middle class. This class included artists, skilled workers, craftsmen, farmers, small shopkeepers and business owners, lawyers, teachers, and doctors. The middle class lived in row houses (small houses built in rows) throughout urban areas, in small homes in the suburbs, and on the more prosperous farms in the country.
Upper-class Americans had inherited their wealth or built their wealth during the Gilded Age in industry and big business. Most of the upper class were Protestant (Christian, but not Catholic). In general, the upper class or their families had come from France, Germany, Britain, or Holland. The wealthy lived in mansions in the cities and suburbs.
Less than 2 percent of the American population was wealthy, but it owned 60 percent of all the wealth in the country. The poor totaled 65 percent of the population and owned about 5 percent of the wealth. The middle class comprised 33 percent of the American population and made up 35 percent of the total wealth.
Family As more women began working in the newly industrialized nation, family size shrank. This reduction was due also to improvements in medicine and living conditions, which allowed people to live longer: Advancements in medicine meant children were surviving illnesses that once killed them, so women no longer opted to have as many children to ensure the survival of some. In 1800, the average American family had seven or eight children; in 1900, that number decreased to three or four; by 1920, the average family had two or three children.
Educational reform was another factor in the decision to have fewer children. Whereas children once had provided some of the family income, they now were required by law to attend school. A child attending school still had to be fed and clothed, but no longer contributed money for the family. By controlling the number of children they had, families could improve their standard of living.
With the Progressive Era came a shift in how society viewed women. Wives had traditionally been considered the property of their husbands. During the Gilded Age, women were expected to live a life largely revolved around others: to be quiet, obedient to men, and dutiful to their children and husband. But women's lives changed dramatically during the Progressive Era. They were seen as worthy of formal education and encouraged to have careers, to marry later (if at all), and to seek equality with men.
The issue of equal rights and opportunities for women gained momentum starting in the Progressive Era. Early feminists believed in every woman's right to self-expression and self-fulfillment.
Women formed trade unions and other organizations to protect themselves and further their rights. After decades of protests, speeches, and other political activities, suffragists (those in favor of giving women the right to vote) tasted victory when the Nineteenth Amendment was passed on August 26, 1920, giving all adult American women the right to vote. (SeeWomen's Suffrage Movement .)
Cities were the symbol of modernization in the Progressive Era. Chicago, New York City, Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Cleveland doubled in size, and by 1920, 51 percent of the U.S. population lived in urban areas. Immigration was the main reason for the urban population explosion in the United States, but industrialism was another. Workers wanted to live close to their jobs.
In cities, tenement housing was the first style of apartment buildings. By 1903, New York City's eighty-two thousand tenements housed nearly three million people, all from society's lower class. Tenements built before 1867 did not have toilets, showers, or running water. Common toilets (used by all tenants) were situated between buildings. Garbage—picked up irregularly—was disposed of in large boxes kept in front of the buildings. Many tenements had no heat; those that did posed a serious health threat because they emitted fumes and smoke from the coal-burning heaters due to improper ventilation.
Housing reforms began in 1867 and continued throughout the Progressive Era. These reforms required revised and larger floor plans for less crowding and improved ventilation, better sanitation with indoor toilets and outdoor garbage areas, and better lighting.
Labor During the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era, America's working class found itself at the mercy of big business, industry, and a government that did not want to get involved in labor disputes. Labor strikes became common occurrences throughout the nation.
Reformers of the Progressive Era were particularly concerned with child labor . Industrialism encouraged child labor because children were considered easier to manage, cheaper to hire than adults, and less likely to strike. The 1900 census reported that about 18.2 percent of the nation's tento fifteen-year-olds worked.
Most workers of this era were grossly underpaid, but children fared the worst. Many greedy business owners took advantage of children, and families were unable to shield their children from a life of hard labor because they needed every penny to survive.
Before federal legislation was passed, many states enacted their own laws to regulate labor. Most states set up a minimum age for child workers and a maximum number of hours they could work. Enforcement was difficult, however, as families often lied about their children's ages in order to ensure additional household income.
The National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) was formed in 1904 to campaign aggressively for federal child-labor law reform. The first federal child-labor law was not passed until 1916, and was effective only until 1918. The law prohibited the movement of goods across state lines if minimum-age laws had been violated. In 1938, the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed. For the first time, federal law regulated minimum ages of employment and work hours for children.
Education Reform depended on knowledge, and most reformers agreed that knowledge was best gained through formal education. Nevertheless, the people who needed education the most—women, children, immigrants, and the poor—were the least likely to obtain it. School attendance was not legally required at the beginning of the twentieth century. Child laborers and their families placed a higher value on earning money than they did on learning to read and write. But as the number of school-aged children increased by 49 percent in the early twentieth century, the number of high schools doubled and the number of seventeen-year-old graduates tripled to 16 percent between 1900 and 1920.
Reform equals progress?
Hardly any aspect of American society was untouched by reform during the Progressive Era. Although each victory improved the quality of life, poverty and oppression remained widespread. Because Americans continued to hold fast to the belief that those who worked hard would thrive, there was little public assistance for those in need, and what little state and local government spending there was went mostly to institutions such as shelters for the poor.
Millions of the urban poor barely survived on irregular employment. Labor unions, which generally organized and assisted skilled workers, were not available for semiskilled or unskilled workers. Many poor Americans were physically or mentally disabled, widowed with children, or elderly. Reforms did little for this segment of America's population. In the rural South, poverty was equally or more intense, as the African American population remained largely unaffected by reform laws.