Progressivism Sweeps the Nation

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Progressivism Sweeps the Nation

Throughout the first decade of the twentieth century, 40 percent of all wage earners in America lived in poverty. This meant they did not make the minimum amount of $600 that was necessary to pay bills, buy food, and have anything left over. In the 1904 book Poverty, sociologist Robert Hunter (1874–1942) provided evidence that six million people—one-fifth of all Americans in the industrial states—lived in intense poverty.

Judging by these statistics, Americans in the twentieth century were not doing any better than they were in the nineteenth century, when 90 percent of society was earning an average annual income of $380. Yet the wealthy of the late nineteenth century were wealthy beyond imagining. One New York socialite threw a birthday party for her dog. The canine wore a $15,000 diamond collar to its party.

The Progressive Era (generally the first two decades of the twentieth century) was a period of reform (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 a departure from the previous years primarily 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 (in violation of what was accepted as proper behavior). This philosophy was called Social Darwinism. 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 good fortune came an obligation to help those in need. This belief was fostered primarily by steel magnate Andrew Carnegie (1835–1919), who wrote and published his philosophy, which he called "The Gospel of Wealth." In addition to believing that wealth included responsibility for those without, Carnegie believed simply giving money to the poor did nothing more than continue the cycle of poverty. He felt, instead, that assistance should be given in ways that would help the poor help themselves, such as in establishing community-based services, training, and libraries. Philanthropy (charitable donations, community service, and volunteerism to promote human well being) fostered a general sense of reform that had an impact on nearly every social aspect of America. In his report on poverty, Hunter challenged the theory behind the Gospel of Wealth by arguing that poverty was the result of the failure of America's economic system to meet the needs of all individuals.

Class distinction

Class distinction (differences between lower, middle, and upper classes) was clear at the turn of the century. The lower class included a large portion of nonwhite citizens, both immigrant and native-born (those born in America). Many Americans considered this population inferior based on the color of their skin. Immigrants were criticized for their inability to speak English as well as for their cultural rituals, habits, and customs, which were unfamiliar to and considered odd by Americans. Regardless of cultural background, the income of the lower class reflected its status. Whites were judged by their ethnic background. 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.


conspicuous consumption:
The buying of expensive and unnecessary items as a way of displaying one's wealth.
Gilded Age:
The period in history following the Civil War and Reconstruction (roughly the final twenty-three years of the nineteenth century), characterized by a ruthless pursuit of profit, an exterior of showiness and grandeur, and immeasurable political corruption.
labor strike:
A refusal of workers to work until management agrees to improvements in working conditions, wages, and/or benefits.
Progressive Era:
A period inAmerican history (approximately the first twenty years of the twentieth century) marked by reform and the development of a national cultural identity.
Change intended to improve a situation.
settlement house:
A center that provides community services to the poor and underprivileged in urban areas.
The right to vote.

The poor lived miserably. They did not have enough to eat, and what they did have was not the best quality. Poor children suffered from rickets, a sometimes-inherited disease caused by a deficiency of vitamin D. Without vitamin D, calcium is not absorbed, and bones are too soft to support the weight of a human body.

Directly related to the level of poverty was the quality of health care. At the beginning of the Progressive Era, the life expectancy of an African American man was about thirty-three years, compared to about forty-six years for a white man.

The growing middle class was made up of native-born white Americans, those whose parents came from families of western and central Europe. This class included artists and skilled workers, craftsmen, farmers, small shopkeepers and business owners, lawyers, teachers, and doctors. New members of the middle class were people employed in offices and city businesses, a group that became known as white-collar workers. The middle class lived in row houses (small houses built in rows) throughout urban areas, in single-family homes in the suburbs, and on the more prosperous farms in the country.

Upper-class Americans came from families that had inherited their wealth or were those fortunate few who built their wealth during the Gilded Age in industry and big business. Some of the more recognizable names among the wealthy were the Rockefellers, the Vanderbilts, the Morgans, and the Fords.

Most of the upper class were Protestant (Christian, but not Catholic), though there were a few Catholics and Jews among the population. In general, the upper class or their families came from France, Germany, Britain, or Holland. The wealthy lived in mansions in the cities and suburbs and vacationed at their summer homes along the East Coast.

The wealth of the upper class was hard to believe. Although less than 2 percent of the American population was wealthy, it made up 60 percent of all the wealth in the country. The poor and very poor totaled 65 percent of the population and made up about 5 percent of the wealth. The middle class, which comprised 33 percent of the American population, made up 35 percent of the total wealth.

Occasionally, people were able to improve their social status, but this was true almost exclusively for whites. For example, among the Italian and East European Jewish population in Manhattan, New York, 32 percent moved from lower-class (blue-collar) jobs to middle-class (white-collar) jobs between 1905 and 1915.

Despite some exceptions, poverty remained a major problem in early Progressive America. Even though some of the wealthy bowed to public pressures (for example, religious organizations that encouraged its wealthier members to donate money and/or resources; journalists who published newspaper articles that revealed the questionable ethics of some of the wealthier industrial institutions that made their profits off the underpaid labor of the poor) to donate money to charitable organizations and causes, there were simply too many people living in poverty. Donations and other charitable works could never be enough to significantly or permanently reduce the degree of poverty in an America that was just beginning to build a middle class. Even with men like Carnegie and the increase in charitable organizations, old attitudes about money and obligation were not going to drastically change overnight. The general attitude among not only the wealthy but also a sizeable portion of the working class remained that each individual was responsible for his or her situation without regard to economic or social environment. This belief made America the last advanced industrial nation (country in which society is based on industry rather than agriculture) to offer its citizens some form of social (government-funded) welfare. Even when such a system was offered in the 1930s, progress was slow.

Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Controversy

Social activist Margaret Sanger (1879–1966) dedicated her life to improving the quality of life for women and children. As a young woman, the New York native Sanger became interested in women's rights. She graduated from the Hudson River Institute with a teaching degree but soon turned her attention to nursing.

After completing a nursing program at White Plains Hospital in New York in 1900, Sanger began working in some of the worst slums of New York City. Her job involved delivering babies and nursing weak mothers back to health. Many of these women's ailments were caused by having too many children. Others nearly bled to death when they tried to perform their own abortions (procedures in which a fetus is terminated and removed from the mother's womb). They would beg Sanger to help them find a way to keep from getting pregnant.

One young mother who had consulted Sanger for help died during childbirth. Sanger promised herself she would find a way for women to take control of their lives and thereby improve not only their own quality of life, but that of their children as well.

Sanger traveled to Europe to learn about family-planning techniques and returned to New York in 1914 with information for her patients. She anticipated great opposition to her plans to teach about birth control. Her strategy was to educate the public, form an organization to help raise awareness and money, and then work for reform in federal legislation. She founded Woman Rebel, a magazine for mothers and young women that included birth control information. The first issue was published in March 1914, and it immediately caused a stir.

The Comstock Law of 1873 had restricted the sending of birth control information through the mail. Sanger's magazine was therefore considered obscene, and the U.S. Postal Service banned several issues. Sanger was charged with nine counts of breaking obscenity laws, which carried a maximum prison sentence of forty-five years. Sanger fled to London, where she lived without her husband and children for two years.

In 1915, charges against Sanger were dropped and she returned to New York, where she resumed her battle for birth control rights. She founded the National Birth Control League (now known as Planned Parenthood Federation of America) and began lecturing and raising money. When it became clear she would have to challenge obscenity laws directly, Sanger opened the first U.S. birth control clinic in 1916.

The clinic, located in a poor section of Brooklyn, was popular, but police raided and closed it within weeks of its opening. Sanger and two other nurses were arrested. Sanger refused to close her clinic, so she was sentenced to thirty days in a workhouse. Upon her release, she continued her mission and opened another clinic.

Sanger began publishing The Birth Control Review in 1921 and received more than one million letters from mothers across the country in the first five years alone. These letters detailed horrific accounts of dying children, and women bleeding to death. Many described lives of intense poverty as they had one child after another because they were not allowed to legally plan the size of their families. Sanger compiled five hundred of these letters into a book called Mothers in Bondage. The 1928 book was influential, but Sanger's fight was far from over. She spent the first half of the 1930s seeking reforms on a federal level.

The Supreme Court overturned the Comstock Law in 1936. Shortly after that, the American Medical Association announced that doctors had the right to distribute birth control information and devices to their patients. The fifty-seven-year-old Sanger had achieved victory.

Changing families,
changing roles

As more women left the home and headed to work in the newly industrialized nation, family size was shrinking. This reduction was due not only to reforms for women such as the right to education as well as to hold jobs outside the home, but 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 did not feel compelled to give birth to as many children to ensure the survival of some. Statistics bear that out: In 1800, the average American family had seven or eight children; in 1900, that number decreased to three or four; by 1920, the average mother gave birth to two or three children.

Educational reform was another factor in the decision to have fewer children. Whereas children once 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 using birth control (see box), families could improve their standard of living (see box). As birth control became a controversial issue, another, more morally questionable issue arose, that of eugenics (see box).

Divorce was another factor that affected families. Wives had traditionally been considered the property of their husbands. With the Progressive Era came a shift in how society viewed women. No longer generally thought of as "the second sex," women were seeking and receiving equality both in and outside of marriage.

Eugenics: Reform Gone Wrong

Eugenics is the theory of improving hereditary qualities such as physical strength and intellectual capacity by socially controlling human reproduction. The term comes from the Greek roots for "good" and "generation," and was first considered a true science around 1883.

Advocates (those in favor) of eugenics believed that in order to develop a superior human race, people with defects or imperfections should be forbidden to reproduce, or at the very least, separated from the rest of humanity. People who would qualify as those with serious imperfections included the mentally ill, the physically disabled, addicted people (alcoholics, opium addicts), epileptic people (those subject to physical seizures due to a medical condition), and even the very poor. African Americans were also victims of eugenics, as they were perceived as a race to be inferior to whites.

Eugenics was an extension of the philosophy known as Social Darwinism. Supporters of Social Darwinism held that the superior and worthy members of the human race prosper, while the less fortunate live lives of lower quality because of their immorality and laziness. Although many Americans recognized the ethical problems of eugenics, it was advocated by enough prominent scientists and biologists that the idea of eugenics gained popularity.

By the 1920s, eugenics was influencing all sectors of American society. State fairs and exhibitions held "Better Baby" competitions in which prizes were awarded for the finest human stock. Contestants were judged on the perfection of their genetic traits, such as the symmetry of their physical features. Judges also looked for dangerous conditions such as mental retardation and alcoholism. The American Eugenics Society was founded in 1923 and included twenty-nine chapters throughout the nation. The 1924 Immigration Act limited immigrants of "inferior stock" from entering the country. President Calvin Coolidge (1872–1933; served 1923–29), who signed the bill into law, publicly declared that America should be kept American.

The medical community had difficulty keeping up with research to back the claims of the eugenics movement. Where the law allowed, people considered inferior were unknowingly sterilized so that they could not reproduce. Indiana was the first state to pass a sterilization law (1907), and at least thirty other states soon followed. More than three thousand people had been sterilized without their knowledge by the mid-1920s. These victims included orphans, the poor, the homeless, the chronically ill, and even those who scored poorly on IQ (intelligence quotient) tests. The sterilization law had another disturbing aspect: It extended to the offspring of these so-called inferior people. This means that sons and daughters of parents suffering from any of the perceived deficits could also be—and often were—forced into sterilization.

Eugenics lost its popularity in America in the 1930s, primarily because enough scientists and researchers began publicly questioning the ability to measure the value of certain traits. Eugenics as a science was doubted, but forced sterilizations continued into the 1970s.

It has been speculated through the years that birth control advocate Margaret Sanger was in favor of eugenics because birth control influences breeding. The reformer has been misquoted in order to support the claim of her eugenics philosophy. In fact, Sanger publicly denounced the racial exploitation of eugenics principles and made clear her stance that a woman should have full control over her reproductive rights. Forced sterilization and imprisonment were in direct opposition to her beliefs.

This shift in attitude naturally extended to the law. By 1909, civil marriage vows no longer demanded that women promise to obey their husbands. Divorce regulations became more female friendly. By 1900, one in every twelve marriages ended in divorce (compared with one in every twenty-one in 1880). By 1916, that statistic rose to one in every nine. (By 2006, it was one in every two.)

More traditional citizens, often led by clergy, saw the soaring divorce rate as a threat to social order and tried to restrict divorce legislation. Faced with a public majority who wanted increased freedoms and the opportunity for more equal marriages, the movement to restrict legislation failed.

Farewell to Victorianism

American society during the Gilded Age was based on what is known as Victorian ideals. Such standards had their roots in England at a time when the country was ruled by Queen Victoria (1837–1901; reigned 1837–1901). In England, this was referred to as the Victorian Era. Victorianism focused on morality and all things proper. Under Victorianism, the ideal woman was quiet, obedient to men, dutiful to her children and husband, and perfectly content to live a life that largely revolved around others. She was skilled in the art of sewing, and her clothing revealed not so much as an ankle. She did not drink liquor or laugh loudly, and she never disagreed with a man's point of view. A Victorian woman was the keeper of morality. Victorian children dressed in uniforms and played quietly. They did not speak unless spoken to, and they had very few rights. Only men seemed to be allowed any sort of independent life. They had their pursuits outside of the home, which might include a career and hunting. Men relied on women to uphold moral goodness and virtue, but they themselves were not held to the same standards.

Changes in marital law influenced Victorian ideals, but the main challenge to Victorianism came from the youth. Along with the extension of required education to the higher grades came coeducation, in which boys and girls were taught together. Public high schools had nearly equal populations of males and females. By 1910, about 40 percent of all college students were women. That was double the number of college women in 1870. Some of the more traditional colleges and universities—about 20 percent—refused to go coed.

Reforms for women

Women's lives were affected more than anyone else's in the Progressive Era. In addition to being seen as worthy of formal education, they were encouraged to have careers, marry later (if at all), and seek equality with men.

For the first time, sexuality became a social concern. Females were more visible in public, and opportunities that did not exist before to meet males became an everyday occurrence. No longer did young men and women socialize only at adult-supervised church gatherings and neighborhood picnics. They now met at dance halls, theaters, and amusement parks. Couples could choose from a number of activities, including bicycle riding, roller skating, and buggy rides.

Fashions changed in the Progressive Era, too. The Gibson Girl (see Chapter 9) no longer represented the ideal woman. The modern middle-class woman wore facial makeup (previously only worn by lower-class women) and skirts that no longer touched the ground. The new fashions allowed not only greater freedom of movement, but more exposure of skin.

New stereotypes replace the old

Victorian women were believed to be the keeper of moral values, not only within the family but in society as a whole. As the Progressive Era evolved, all Victorian ideals were shattered. Taking their place were the stereotypes of the virgin (the "good" girl) and the vixen (the "bad" girl).

The good girl dressed properly and remained pure. She might be seen in public with the opposite sex, but she was the picture of good manners and purity. The bad girl adopted the latest fashion trends, smoked and drank with the boys, and turned flirting into a social art.

As motion pictures became a popular pastime in the mid-1910s, two actresses became symbolic of the virgin and the vixen. Mary Pickford (1893–1979) became "America's sweetheart" as she portrayed the child-woman. She was sweet and innocent, with long hair and wide eyes. At the other end of the spectrum was Theda Bara (1885–1955), whose dark, exotic looks landed her film roles as the sexual, dangerous temptress. Until censorship was imposed in the 1920s, films celebrated women's newfound sexual freedom.

The birth of feminism

Women of the Progressive Era were in a conflicting position. Two major philosophies regarding women characterized the first two decades of the century. The first was inherited from the prior century and revolved around the idea that women must work together as a group if they are to survive in a man's world. This concept recognized the biological differences and experiences between men and women and maintained the moral superiority of the female sex.

The second philosophy placed less emphasis on gender differences and focused on equal rights and opportunities for women. This concept gained momentum throughout the twentieth century. Those who favored this feminist point of view focused not on solidarity, or power and unity as a group, but on the individuality and unique abilities of each woman. These early feminists believed in every woman's right to self-expression and self-fulfillment.

Each philosophy had its uses. Those who believed in the power of solidarity worked to improve conditions for women in dangerous, low-paying jobs. Working-class women fought for reforms in the workplace, and their efforts led to state laws forbidding long hours and dangerous work conditions. They did not rest until a law was passed to guarantee a minimum wage. Some activists took their effort further and encouraged women to join labor unions.

Despite their progress in getting recognition as valuable members of society, women continued to be victimized in the workplace. For example, women were usually restricted to the jobs that did not challenge society's traditional views of women as inferior. They were given unskilled or semiskilled positions in laundries, textile (fabric) mills, canneries, and tobacco factories. Immigrant women fared worse than their native-born peers, as the higher-paying jobs nearly always went to white, native-born females. Nonwhite workers had the lowest-paying jobs in every industry.

The Women's Trade Union League (WTUL) was founded in 1903 by several wage-earning women. The female wage-earning population and their middle- and upper-class support organized to promote labor legislation for women. The WTUL was most active in New York and Chicago, and it played a major role in the garment workers strikes of 1909–10 (see "Labor Reform" later in this chapter). The WTUL was also instrumental in providing support for the women's suffrage (right-to-vote) movement that began in the 1910s.

Votes for women

During the first decade of the twentieth century, women's reforms were largely cultural and social. By 1910, women realized that true power would come only if they were given the right to vote. Also called suffrage, the right to vote became the goal of the women's movement throughout the second decade, while other reforms were pushed to the back of the agenda.

Some states had already granted women suffrage. Wyoming was the first, in 1869, followed by Colorado, Utah, and Idaho. Attitudes toward women in these western states were more progressive, less traditional, than those in eastern states. Women in the West were valued for their contributions to a largely male population, and so it seemed only natural that they be treated equally.

The suffrage movement gained strength as young college-educated women joined the ranks of activists. They brought with them enthusiasm and the attitude that solidarity need not stand separately from women's rights. Soon, the largely white, middle-class women's movement built solid relationships with working-class white women, and the number of people the movement could reach instantly increased. These women launched door-to-door campaigns throughout poor and working-class urban regions. Some of the more courageous women spoke publicly on street corners, something America had never experienced before. Others focused their reform efforts on farming communities or professional organizations.

African American Women and Reform

African American women of the Progressive Era supported the women's reform movement, but the women's reform movement did not necessarily support African American women. Most of the organized reform associations either opposed or were divided over the issue of including and working with African American women.

As a result of the separate-but-equal (equal rights for African Americans, but separate from whites) doctrine, African American women focused their efforts on the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) and turned it into a well-organized group for the protection and advancement of African Americans. Most of these women, who were in the upper classes of society, agreed with their white counterparts' ideas: Women had their place (in the home) and were morally superior to men.

As the 1910s progressed, African American women joined African American men in forming local community institutions such as kindergartens, homes for the aged, and orphanages. They also helped build and maintain African American hospitals staffed by African Americans, a necessity since they were discriminated against in white hospitals.

One of the most influential and longest-lasting African American associations was formed in 1909. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was established by a group of about sixty activists, most of them white. Among them, however, were some of the most famous African American reformers in history, including Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1862–1931) and W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963). By 1917, the NAACP had nine thousand members, a number that grew to ninety thousand by 1919. The organization promoted equality for African Americans and quickly established itself as a resource for legal aid against discrimination. By the end of the twentieth century, the NAACP focused its efforts on educational programs for youth as well as development of better economic conditions for African Americans. Its membership going into the twenty-first century was nearly five hundred thousand.

In 1910, the state of Washington gave women the right to vote. Next came California and Oregon. Illinois was the first state east of the Mississippi River to grant suffrage (1913). By 1914, the movement included hundreds of thousands of women and their male friends, partners, and coworkers. Although some men were in favor of women's suffrage because they believed women were equal to men and thus should have the same rights, this was not true of all men. Some men recognized the value of the female vote only when suffragists pointed out that female voters would help reformers reduce political corruption because they would vote for men who were truly qualified to hold an office and not because a candidate was owed a favor or had bribed them.

Not everyone was in favor of women's rights, especially the right to vote. Those who were against suffrage included some women, who believed the right to vote would threaten the basis of American society. For these women, the proper place for females was in the home, raising children and keeping house. Liquor-store owners feared the female vote because of the temperance (moderation of liquor consumption) movement. Should voters pass a law limiting liquor consumption (which they ultimately did), business would slow down. What these businessmen could not foresee was Prohibition, when drinking and selling alcohol became illegal. Prohibition lasted throughout the 1920s and was directly responsible for an increase in organized crime and activities involving the illegal manufacturing and selling of liquor. Other people who opposed suffrage were business owners who feared the legislation of a minimum wage. These men made great profits by underpaying their employees; if women were allowed to vote, the practice of underpaying them because of their sex could be outlawed.

On August 26, 1920, the federal government finally recognized women as men's equal in suffrage, and the Nineteenth Amendment was passed. Women throughout America were granted the right to vote.

Conflict within the Movement

Although the goal of the suffrage movement was to secure the right to vote, the movement itself was not unified. Rather, it was made up of different organizations, each with its own philosophy and plan on how to achieve that goal. The movement suffered from years of internal conflict among leaders and organizations alike.

The movement consisted of two main rights organizations: the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) and the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA). The AWSA was established in 1868 and was the first organization of its kind. Its strategy was to fight for suffrage one state at a time. The NWSA was formed in 1869 by two women whose names will be forever linked to women's rights: Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815–1902) and Susan B. Anthony (1820–1906). The NWSA went after the vote on a federal level. The NWSA even proposed the argument that white women were more fit to vote than many African American men whose right to vote was guaranteed by the Fifteenth Amendment. The AWSA and NWSA, though united in a common goal, competed against one another for funding, members, and support. The other primary difference between the two associations was that the AWSA focused only on getting the vote, while the NWSA demanded many reforms.

As the movement grew, the two organizations realized that nothing would be achieved if they continued to fight each other. In 1890, they merged to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), with Stanton as president and Anthony as vice president. Although the Gilded Age would see very little progress in women's rights, the NAWSA headed the movement in the Progressive Era. By the era's end, the association had secured women the right to vote.

Urban reform

Cities were the symbol of modernization in the Progressive Era. Chicago, New York, Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Cleveland doubled in size, and by 1920, 51 percent of America's population lived in urban areas. Immigration (see Chapter 4) was the main reason for the urban population explosion in urban America, but industrialism was another. Workers did not want to live too far from their jobs, so many native-born Americans left the country to settle in cities.

Whereas cities were proof of progress for some, others considered urbanization a sign of the evil that permeated the era. For these critics, urbanization led to overcrowding, poverty, violence, crime, and immoral behavior. Economist and social critic Henry George (1839–1897) was not impressed with the crowded cities. As reported in John White clay Chambers II's book, The Tyranny of Change, George lamented, "This life of great cities is not the natural life of man. He must under such conditions deteriorate, physically, mentally, morally," he wrote in 1898. Other reformers blamed the problems of cities on an ineffective economic system and believed conditions could be improved through better planning.

As cities grew, so did the influence of government on their growth. Urban planners tried to combat overcrowding through garden cities (planned communities designed to keep green spaces) and zoning (division of cities into sections for homes, businesses, and factories). The first zoning law was passed in New York City in 1916 and gave the public control over the use of land and construction. Within ten years, more than one thousand cities across America would pass zoning laws in hopes of controlling not only how land was used, but also the height and use of buildings.

Although the passage of zoning laws signaled a major transition toward governmental intervention in the marketplace, the laws were largely negative in their results. The zoning laws did not encourage adequate housing, nor did they provide a basis for coordinating housing and city planning. The result, instead of well-planned cities, was major overcrowding and a type of residential (living) building called tenement housing.

Tenement houses

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 of them among the lowest class of society.

Tenement housing had nothing going for it except cheap rent. The buildings were erected close together so that there were no lawns. The Lower East Side of New York at the turn of the century was a typical tenement ghetto (a poor, crime-ridden section of the city). There, the basic tenement buildings were five stories high and contained twenty three-room apartments, four to a floor. Each apartment or flat contained a front room, small bedroom, and kitchen, for a total of 325 square feet. The only room to receive light or ventilation (air) was the front room. As other tenement buildings were constructed around it, however, both light and ventilation were cut off.

Tenements built before 1867 did not have toilets, showers, or even running water. Common (used by all tenants) toilets were situated in between buildings, toward the rear of the lots, and may or may not have been connected to public sewage lines. Garbage was disposed of in a large box kept in front of the buildings, but it was not picked up on a regular basis. Many tenements were without heat. The buildings that had heat posed a serious health threat. The fumes and smoke from the coal-burning heaters had nowhere to go without proper ventilation (air passages).

The first housing law, passed in 1867, required tenements to have one toilet for every twenty residents. Those toilets had to be connected to sewer lines whenever possible. The next law was passed in 1879 and required all new tenements (but not old) to be built so that every room received air. Under the old tenement floor plan, most existing inner rooms had no access to outside walls. Building engineers solved this problem by developing a type of blueprint that allowed for the air shaft to run through the building in such a way that air was provided to all rooms.

This same law required toilets in all tenements to be hooked up to sewage lines and equipped with a way to flush after use. It was not uncommon for raw sewage to be strewn throughout a tenement yard. As reported by Laurence Gerckens on, the first Report of the Tenement House Department of New York, published in 1903, indicated:

Some of the conditions which are found in these buildings surpass imagination. It does not seem possible that human beings can actually live under them and retain the least vestige [degree] of health. Many cases have been found where the plumbing fixtures have been removed and the pipes left open, permitting sewage gas to find its way into the apartments and permeate the building. … In some of these houses the water closets [toilets] have been stopped up for weeks, the bowls overflowing and the floors covered.

Despite the housing laws, tenement life remained dangerous and miserable. The most far-reaching bill was passed in 1901. The Tenement House Act not only required improvements on ventilation, toilets, and light but set standards that all but banned the construction of buildings on 25-foot-wide lots. Newly built tenements would have to be wider, with more space. The highly effective 1901 law required existing tenement buildings to upgrade to meet the new, stricter standards. With the passage of the law came the formation of the Tenement House Commission, a committee that inspected housing and ensured the laws were being followed.

Tenement landlords were furious over the passage of the 1901 act. They believed the law had come out of nowhere and that the new standards were too harsh. Their tenants, after all, were mostly poor Irish immigrants who were used to crowded living conditions. Landlords insisted their tenants did not mind living in poor conditions; to be forced to make improvements would cut down on the amount of profit made from each building. By 1902, as improvements were being made, landlords realized the imposed changes were not as drastic as they had feared.

To meet the new requirements, landlords had to update old buildings with skylights in the hallways, to provide natural light for as long as it was available. To assist residents once nighttime set in, landlords were required to make sure that a lamp burned from sunset to sunrise along first- and second-floor stairways. Inside the apartments, landlords had to cut out part of the wall that kept the inner rooms darkened twenty-four hours a day to allow for light from an outer room to enter.

The most controversial aspect of the 1901 act, because of its expense, was the requirement that all common toilets be removed. Every building now had to have one water closet for every two families. These closets had to be constructed inside the buildings whenever possible, whether in newly built tenements or those already in existence. Without exception, all toilets had to be connected to sewer lines, even if those lines had to be built. Most landlords ignored the law until they absolutely had to comply. There were reports even in 1918 of tenements with outdoor toilets still in use.

Every reform throughout the Progressive Era, whether in housing, labor, poverty, education, or women's rights, influenced other reform. For example, housing reform improved living conditions in urban areas. Even so, housing reform alone was not going to solve any major problems. Poverty, public health, and child labor were still issues. Without reform in each area, no real solutions were possible.

The establishment of
settlement houses

People involved in the settlement house movement understood how reforms worked. Settlement houses were centers that provided community services for the poor and underprivileged. The philosophy behind the movement was that reform was the responsibility not only of the government but also of the people. Progressives believed that society as a whole could improve through organization, education, and willpower.

Jacob Riis: Reporter-Turned-Reformer

Jacob Riis (1849–1914) emigrated from Denmark to America in 1870, at the age of twenty-one. He became a reporter for the New York Evening Sun and quickly became known as a pioneer of photojournalism. Riis took his own photographs to accompany the stories he wrote about situations he saw in the new country he immediately came to love.

Riis began photographing and documenting conditions in New York City's slums. He collected his work in a groundbreaking book titled How the Other Half Lives. Published in 1890, it brought Riis to the attention of an influential man who would one day be the twenty-sixth president of the United States. New York Police Board of Commissioners president Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919) and Riis became fast friends, and together they spearheaded the housing reform movement. Riis is credited with bringing to the forefront the plight of America's urban poor. His two other photojournalism books are Children of the Poor (1892) and Children of the Tenements (1903).

Riis's photojournalism efforts were part of a new type of journalism called muckraking. Muckrakers exposed scandalous and unethical practices among established institutions in America. Some of the more famous muckrakers were Ida Tarbell (1857–1954), for her series on the Standard Oil Company; Upton Sinclair (1878–1968), for exposing the dangers and poor work conditions of the meatpacking industry in Chicago; and Lincoln Steffens (1866–1936), for his investigation of the scandals among city and state politicians. Muckrakers worked side by side with reformers during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era.

The first American settlement house, University Settlement, was established on New York's Lower East Side in 1886. By 1910, more than four hundred settlement houses operated across America's urban landscape. These settlements were really experiments not in charity but in social organization. Historians consider settlement houses the first example of social services but emphasize a major difference: Social services provide specific services, whereas settlement houses aimed to improve neighborhood life as a whole. Those who ran the settlement houses did so on a voluntary basis. Women were the primary reformers in the settlement house movement, with Jane Addams (1860–1935) being the most famous (see box).

Settlement houses provided medical services and legal aid to a mostly immigrant population. The immigrants who came to America in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries knew nothing about the society into which they immersed themselves. Few could speak English, let alone read and write it. Settlement houses provided free education in which immigrants and other working-class poor could learn English as well as vocational (career) skills. They also provided kindergartens, library services, recreation clubs for boys and girls, and classes on nutrition and banking.

Jane Addams: Woman on a Mission

Jane Addams and friend and fellow labor activist Ellen Starr (1859–1940) founded Hull-House in the Chicago slums in 1889. Addams got the idea for Hull-House after visiting England and Toynbee Hall, the first settlement house in the world.

Addams was a personable woman whose intelligence and enthusiasm attracted people to her. She had no trouble finding funding or volunteers for Hull-House. When economic depression hit in 1893, Hull-House was serving two thousand people a week. That number increased as the depression made conditions worse throughout Chicago.

In addition to founding the settlement house, Addams worked tirelessly for legislation on behalf of child laborers, factory working conditions, and the juvenile justice system. She became the first vice president of the National American Women Suffrage Association (NAWSA) in 1911.

Addams received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931 for her reform efforts, and her funeral in 1935 was attended by thousands. Hull-House still stands as the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum.

Settlement houses depended on volunteers not only to staff and operate them but for funding. Reformers used newspapers and clergy to spread the word about the houses and explain the movement's mission to the public. The women activists formed relationships with business and civic leaders and then approached them for assistance in the form of either money or time and skills.

In addition to providing social services, settlement houses became central locations for workers involved in political reform as it related to labor, women, and economics. Reformers worked toward legislation to protect children from labor and immigrants from exploitation (being used for someone else's benefit).

Settlement houses still exist, although they have become more specialized. Some of their services—providing libraries and kindergartens, for example—became the responsibility of municipal and state governments.

Labor reform

The Gilded Age and the Progressive Era were periods of great unrest among American laborers and workers (see Chapter 3). 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 (a refusal of workers to work until management agrees to improvements in working conditions, wages, and/or benefits) became common occurrences throughout the nation.

Although major federal reform legislation would not be passed until the 1930s, reformers of the Progressive Era were particularly concerned with child labor. Industrialism encouraged growth in child labor because children were considered easier to manage and cheaper to hire than their adult counterparts. They were also less likely to strike, a major advantage in a time of intense conflict between management and labor.

The 1900 census (a periodic count of the nation's population and related statistics) indicated that approximately 1.75 million (about 18.2 percent) children in the nation aged ten to fifteen years old were working. Children even younger than that held jobs in mills, factories, and on the streets; they were not included in the census. If they had been, the number of child laborers in 1900 would have exceeded 2 million (about 21 percent).

Children's jobs

Children held a variety of positions in a number of industries. Beginning as early as five years of age, boys and girls worked as newsies (kids who sold newspapers on the streets), a job that kept them out past midnight and in all kinds of foul weather. According to, one ten-year-old newsie showed a reporter the marks on his arm where his father had bitten him for not selling more papers. Because of the long hours and bad weather, newsies often fell victim to pneumonia. Without proper nutrition and medicine, many died.

Because life on the streets was tough, newsies were a particularly tough bunch of children. In 1899, they proved just how tough they could be when they surprised everyone by going on strike against two newspapers: the Evening World and the Evening Journal. These papers had raised their prices from fifty to sixty cents per hundred papers during the Spanish-American War (1898). They did this because they could; the publisher knew people needed news, so they would willingly pay the increase. However, that price was not lowered after the war, and the newsies were the ones forced to pay that extra amount. To make a profit, they then had to sell more papers in order to make up for the increase. Newsies throughout New York joined the strike, which lasted about one week. In the end, a compromise was reached. The child laborers would still have to pay sixty cents per one hundred newspapers, but the publisher agreed to buy back any unsold papers. The success of the strike helped bring attention to the plight of child workers across the country.

Other young children worked in factories, running machines three times their size. They worked twelve- to fourteen-hour shifts, and the lucky ones brought food to eat in case they earned break time. Child laborers also rolled cigars, weaved baskets, picked fruit, worked with oysters and shrimp, and set bowling pins. Hours for these odd jobs were inconvenient. Some were expected to show up at work at 3:30 am and stay until 5:00 pm.

Many children also worked in fabric mills. Most were never formally hired; many would show up with an older brother or sister. Average pay for these young children was forty-eight cents each twelve-hour day.

Another common practice was for businesses to pay poor families—usually immigrants who were desperate for more money—to take work back to their tenement homes and finish it overnight. Industries in which this was usual included textiles and laundries. After reform legislation, this practice was illegal because it kept children up late into the night, which then left them too exhausted to go to school. The practice of sending work home was illegal, but that did not keep it from happening. The law against it was nearly impossible to enforce.

Long hours, little pay

Most laborers and workers throughout the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era were grossly underpaid, but children fared the worst. The philosophy of the time embraced the idea that children should work because it developed a work ethic and strong spirit at a young age. Many greedy business and shop owners took advantage of children and depended on the difference in age and size to work in their favor. Parents were not able to shield their children from the horrors of a life of hard labor; families needed every penny to survive.

Pay rates for children varied, but they were all appallingly low. According to child-labor activist and photographer Lewis Hine (1874–1940; see box), one boy working in a North Carolina mill made sixty cents a day for a twelve-hour shift. That would translate into about $10.69 a day in modern money. One Georgia family—consisting of the mother, four daughters, and one son—worked in a mill in 1909 and earned $9. Since the husband had died, the mother was responsible for providing for her family. That nine dollars had to support her and nine children. That amount translates into about $166.38 a week in modern currency.

Six-year-old Laura Petty was a berry picker in 1909. She earned two cents a box, but because she was so small, she only filled two boxes a day. Boys aged seven to twelve who cut fish in a Maine cannery in 1911 earned seventy-five cents to one dollar a day, even though they worked from 7:00 am until midnight. Even in the twenty-first century, that amount translates to just $13.37 to $17.83 a day for a seventeen-hour shift.

Breaker Boys

Child labor in any form was a horrifying ordeal, but children working the anthracite (hard) coal mines suffered under particularly grim conditions. Mining families were traditionally large, with many children. Boys as young as eight or nine would lie about their age to the mine boss in hopes of getting a job in the breaker. A breaker is a huge factory where coal is processed. The nickname given to these young boys, of which there were approximately sixteen thousand in Pennsylvania alone in 1902, was Breaker Boys.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

Working conditions in the Progressive Era were poor regardless of where the factory was and what it produced. Accidents were common. The worst situations became known as sweatshops (manufacturing workplaces that exploit their workers and operate under inhumane working conditions). One tragedy in particular—the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire—came to symbolize the struggle of labor against sweatshop management in early twentieth-century America.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Company building in New York City was the site of what many historians consider the worst industrial disaster of its era since the Industrial Revolution began. On March 25, 1911, fire broke out in the top three stories of the ten-story building. By the time the flames were extinguished, 146 of the 500 employees were dead, many of them immigrant girls around the age of fifteen.

The building was typical of most others in New York at the time—overcrowded and without a sufficient number of emergency exits. There was one fire escape for the entire building, which itself was fireproof and showed little exterior damage after the fire.

When the fire broke out around 4:40 PM, employees of other businesses in the building had already gone home. Had the fire begun ten minutes later, the Triangle Shirtwaist Company women also would have been gone, as indicated by the remnants of coats and cold-weather accessories found on the corpses.

When it became clear there was no way out of the flames because most of the doors were locked (as part of management's effort to keep employees from taking breaks or stealing), employees began jumping out of windows. Witnesses reported that many of them were already on fire, their hair and clothing in flames. With the exception of about a half a dozen people, those who jumped met their death by plunging through broken glass or crushing themselves on the sidewalks below. Firemen had to focus all their efforts on extinguishing the blaze, and bodies were left lying for hours in heaps on the ground where they had fallen.

According to a New York Times article published the day after the fire, one witness gave this account: "I only saw one man jump. All the rest were girls. They stood on the windowsills tearing their hair out in the handfuls and then they jumped. One girl held back after all the rest and clung to the window casing until the flames from the window below crept up to her and set her clothing on fire. Then she jumped far over the net and was killed instantly, like all the rest."

No one ever determined how the fire started. The building had gone through four recent fires before the one on March 25 and had been reported to the Building Department as unsafe. And yet it remained open for business. The final fire spread more rapidly than most because of the garments inside, which were made of flammable material. Furthermore, sewing machines were crammed together so closely that there were no paths to the doorways.

An investigation into the fire resulted in the two owners of the building being found innocent of any wrongdoing, despite the fact that they were aware of the fire hazards associated with their building. Families of the victims felt justice had not been served. Twenty-three families filed suits against the owners. In 1913, the owners settled by paying each family $75 for the loss of their loved one.

For fifty to seventy cents per ten-hour shift (five to seven cents an hour), a Breaker Boy arose at 5:30 each morning, put on his work clothes, ate breakfast, and walked to the breaker by 7:00 am. He sat on a hard wood bench built across a long chute. Underneath the bench passed a steady stream of broken coal mixed with slate rock. The Breaker Boy's job was to pick out the slate rock and leave only the coal. To do this, the boy had to be hunched over for hours at a time. A Breaker Boy's fingers were constantly bloody because most could not afford gloves. But even gloves offered little protection from the sharp and jagged slate. If the boys fell asleep, as they often did, or were not moving as quickly as the breaker boss felt they should, he would hit them with a cane or a bullwhip.

There was a saying about coal miners: Once a man, twice a boy. Most miners began their careers as boys in the breakers. From there, they moved in to the mines and worked as men. When black lung (a medical condition caused by breathing coal dust) forced them out of the mines, they returned to the breakers, right back where they had begun. The average age of death of a miner, whether from black lung, explosion, or machine accident, in the early 1900s was 32.13 years. Their job was considered so dangerous that no insurance company would give them coverage.

Labor reform, finally

Before federal legislation was passed to regulate labor laws, many states enacted their own laws. For example, by 1914, most states required children to be at least twelve or fourteen years old, and many had already limited a child's work day to ten hours. These laws were difficult to enforce, and families encouraged their children to lie about their ages so that they could contribute to the household income.

Lewis Hine: Child-labor Activist

What journalist Jacob Riis did for housing reform, Lewis Hine did for child-labor reform. Hine was a photographer who began documenting immigrants arriving at Ellis Island in 1904. He became interested in the lives of immigrants as they struggled against all odds to build new lives for themselves and their families.

Using his camera, he documented the unsafe living and labor conditions of America's working class. With a belief that his photos could speak louder than any written documentation, Hine approached welfare agencies with them in hopes of getting help for tenants and child laborers. He became a staff photographer for the National Child Labor Committee in 1908. In this position, he traveled throughout southern and eastern America, photographing child laborers in mills, factories, fields, mines, and anywhere else he could find them. He took more than five hundred photographs between 1908 and 1912.

Often, Hine was refused entry into a factory by its owner. When that happened, he would wait outside to photograph the children taking their lunch break or arriving to and leaving work. He would interview these little laborers, who often lied about their ages because the minimum legal age for working was fourteen. When he suspected he was being lied to, he would visit the homes of the children to talk with parents and find evidence of the children's true ages as listed in passports and the family Bible. In an effort to prove how physically harmful a life of labor was for children, Hine would secretly measure children's heights against the buttons on his coat. Everything he did, he documented. His work is how historians know so much about child labor in the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era.

Hine's photos and interviews with children proved to America that child labor robbed its victims of childhood, education, and health. His efforts led directly to the establishment of child labor and safety laws for all workers.

Some states were more progressive than others. Maryland, for example, was the first state to pass (in 1902) workman's compensation laws; these laws assured workers injured on the job that they would receive some sort of income during the time they could not work. In 1904, the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) formed. The NCLC campaigned aggressively for federal child labor law reform. The first federal child labor law was not passed until 1916 and was in effect only until 1918. The law prohibited the movement of goods across state lines if minimum age laws were violated. This law, like so many others, failed because it was nearly impossible to enforce.

It was not until 1938 that the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed. For the first time, minimum ages of employment and work hours for children were regulated by federal law.

Better education for
more people

Reform depended on knowledge, and most reformers agreed that knowledge was best shared through formal education. Nevertheless, the people who needed education the most—women, children, immigrants, those who lived in poverty—were the least likely to be able to obtain it. Compulsory (mandatory) school attendance was not a law 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. It became clear in the Progressive Era that education, though important, was not a priority over putting food on the table.

As America experienced a 49 percent increase in the number of school-aged children 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.

Progressive education

John Dewey (1859–1952) was an educational reformer who believed school should reflect the real lives of society. Dewey wanted schools to take responsibility for helping immigrants assimilate (become successfully integrated) into American culture in addition to teaching academics.

Dewey's philosophy of education is known as pragmatism and focuses on students learning by doing rather than on being lectured to. In pragmatism, value is determined by practical results. If students do not remember what they learn and use it to better themselves and their quality of life, then the education they received has no value.

Pragmatism became part of a larger style of learning called progressive education. Advocates of progressive education believed that children learn best through experiences in which they have an active interest. This philosophy included the hands-on learning experiences promoted by Dewey and recognized the importance of individual learning differences. Progressive classrooms favored teachers who guided rather than taught.

Experimental schools

Progressives sought to reorganize schools and classrooms, and experimental programs were used in some of the larger cities. Dewey's Laboratory School in Chicago used a program in which younger students worked in groups on a central project related to their own interests. The Garyplan (1908–15) was used in Gary, Indiana. The plan divided the school building into classrooms and space that included laboratories, shops, an auditorium, and a playground. Two schools operated at the same time in this space so that each area of the building was in constant use. School lasted for eight hours a day, six days a week. The Gary plan was successful and adopted in various forms throughout the nation.

Other respected experimental schools were developed in Chicago, New York, and Iowa. Progressive education was widely accepted throughout the Progressive Era, though it was never without its critics. Those opposed to this new style of education did not agree with the way it ignored or did not focus on such academic disciplines as reading, writing, and arithmetic. Despite the success of progressive education, traditional educators believed a student's individual interests should not influence the content of his or her education. By the late 1950s, progressive education fell out of favor with Americans. By that time, however, it had forever changed the way school was taught.

Education for all

In addition to changing the way students were taught, reforms opened educational doors for a more diverse student body. As society's idea of what women should be evolved, more girls were seeking education at an earlier age and going on to college. Progressive reformers pushed for compulsory education laws, and by 1918, every state had its own attendance law. This does not mean the law was obeyed. Immigrants and working-class families often lied about their children's ages so that they could work instead of attend school, but the laws did help reduce child labor.

The progressive education movement focused on education for white, middle-class Americans. It did little to improve education for African Americans in general. In 1887, only two-fifths of all eligible African American students were enrolled in school. Not much had changed by 1900. Some of the northern states contributed funding for African American schools in the South, but most of the actual reform in those schools came about as a result of the fund-raising efforts of African American men and women themselves. Poor rural African American farmers mortgaged their farms and land to pay for the construction of new schools. Mothers sponsored raffles, music programs, fish-fry dinners, and other activities to raise money for their children's education.

Booker T. Washington and Tuskegee Institute

One name stands out among African American educators of the Progressive Era. Booker T. Washington (1856–1915) founded the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in Alabama in 1881. The school's beginnings were humble. The state had donated $2,000 for teachers' salaries, but nothing for land, buildings, or equipment. The first classes, which were made up of thirty students, were held in a run-down church building.

As principal, Washington had three objectives for his school. First, he would travel throughout rural areas and share with those poor farmers new and improved ways to farm the land. While there, he would help them find ways to develop their moral and spiritual life as well. To accomplish this goal, Tuskegee developed an extension program that traveled the countryside, bringing training to those who could not attend class. Smaller schools founded and taught by Tuskegee alumni (graduates) were built throughout the South.

Washington's second objective was to develop craft and occupational skills such as woodworking, machinery operation, and farming so that students would be ready to take jobs in the trades (industry and production) and agriculture. To do this, Washington allowed students to help construct the buildings needed for the Institute, and in return they received credit toward their tuition and experience in a trade. These students ate the food they grew at the school's farm and learned about modern agricultural methods.

Third, Washington wanted to make Tuskegee what he called a "civilizing agent." Education would take place not only in the classroom but in the dining hall and dormitories as well. Washington insisted on developing moral character and a sense of personal pride in his students.

In 1882, Washington moved the school to 100 acres of abandoned farmland, which he purchased with a $200 loan. Tuskegee was a great success, partly because of the quality of its education, and partly because Washington traveled the country telling anyone who would listen about his school. He was able to secure donations from some of the country's wealthiest men, includingAndrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller (1839–1937). By the time of Washington's death in 1915, the campus included 161 buildings on 268 acres and a community of almost five thousand students, staff, and faculty.

Wide reform, mixed results

Hardly any aspect of American society was untouched by reform in the Progressive Era. While each effort and 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. What little state and local government spending there was went mostly to institutions such as the almshouses (shelters for the very poor who could not survive on their own). Even in 1923, over two thousand almshouses sheltered nearly eighty-six thousand inmates.

Millions of urban poor barely continued to survive on irregular employment. Labor unions (see Chapter 3), which generally organized and assisted skilled workers, were not available for those workers considered semiskilled or unskilled. Many poor Americans were physically or mentally disabled, widowed (left without a husband) with children, or elderly. Reforms did little for this segment of America's population. In the South, poverty was equally intense, as the African American population remained largely unaffected by reform laws.

It would take a major economic depression in the 1930s for America's middle- and upper-class to understand the far-reaching effects of poverty and realize that public assistance was a necessary component of society.

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Progressivism Sweeps the Nation

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