Introduction to the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era

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Introduction to the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era

The Gilded Age and the Progressive Era in the United States spanned the years from the end of Reconstruction through the 1920s. Many historians overlap the end of the Gilded Age (1870–1900) with the beginning of the Progressive Era (1890–1929).

The Gilded Age was an age of movement. Populations changed, people moved, and trade increased. Migration to the American west, a dramatic increase in immigration to the United States from foreign shores, and the peak of European colonialism in Asia and Africa were aided by the proliferation of railroads, steamers, telegraphs, and the telephone. The Gilded Age was the era of the corporation, the heyday of the "Robber Barons" and "Captains of Industry."

While the Gilded Age brought outstanding prosperity to some, it was also deeply tarnished beneath its gold veneer. The poor became poorer, the tenement slums grew, and new immigrants endured increasing economic and social hardships. Some of the most successful corporate endeavors became monopolies. Consumer prices rose; corruption and industrial labor abuses increased.

The Progressives sought to solve many of the social injustices of the Gilded Age. Where the Gilded Age was highly individualistic, progressive reformers thought that governments had a responsibility to promote socially beneficial programs. Progressives who advocated the government regulation of industry asserted that economic and social policy could not easily be separated. The Progressive movement sought answers to social problems through scientific and methological study. The professions of medicine, social work, and law flourished. Progressive professionals sought to use their disciplines to increase public health and safety, reform prisons and tenement housing, and outlaw child labor.

This chapter includes some of the greatest progressive victories of the era. Temperance supporters championed prohibition as the means to reduce public and domestic violence, strengthen families, and increase worker productivity. The ratification of the 18th Amendment in 1920 began prohibition in the United States, though whether it fulfilled the promises of its progressive champions is debatable.

The Progressive era was the zenith of the muckrakers—journalists, photographers, writers, and film makers whose work exposed social problems. Muckrakers exposed corruption in political parties, governments, labor unions, and corporations (especially oil and railroads). They advanced Progressive causes of public health and worker safety, campaigned against child labor, and pushed for reforms in prisons and slums. Included in this chapter are the famous muck-raker works of Upton Sinclair and Jacob Riis. Sinclair's novelThe Jungleexposed unsanitary conditions in the American meatpacking industry; Riis, a photographer and social reformer, captured the conditions of New York tenement life inHow the Other Half Lives.

Finally, not all social policy during the Progressive era advanced human rights. Even the progressive and populist movements debated the role of women and minorities in politics and society, though both were more likely to advocate equality. Women won the right to vote in all elections in 1919, but the political and social opportunities of minorities were circumscribed by segregation. This chapter would be incomplete without an excerpt from the 1896 Supreme Court decisionPlessy v. Ferguson, which upheld segregation laws.

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Introduction to the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era

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Introduction to the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era