In January of 1903, McClure's Magazine ran an article addressing the existance of three other articles in the same magazine. These articles were Tweed Days in St. Louis, The History of the Standard Oil Company, and The Shame of Minneapolis. McClure's pointed out that these three articles, though technically unrelated, were actually about the same thing: Corruption.

The American Public was enraptured. They had a cause. Upton Sinclair published The Jungle about the meat-packing industry. Theodore Roosevelt coined the unflattering term "muckraking" to describe what we would now call, "investigative reporting."

Suddenly, looking beneath the surface and thinking critically became profitable. Everyone started doing it. It was a fad, but it was a powerful one. The muckraking journalists were just the visible tip of the iceberg that was the American social movement known as progressivism. Nothing was safe; Business, Industry, Politics, and Society as a whole were scrutinized.

What, exactly, was all the fuss about? Well, there were things wrong in the era before progressivism. There are commonly know as the causes of progressivism. There were a lot of causes, let's try to start with an outline.

This is, of course, an incomplete list. There are too many causes to ever list or even understand, but that is definately a start. Now, let's expand.


The production of Automobiles began in the first years of the twentieth century. Ransom E. Olds was the first to use assembly-line-like techniques in production. Before Olds business had even gotten off the ground Henry Ford was beginning to form Ford Motor Company, which would revolutionize the automobile. Ford had begun as a farmer, but hated it with a passion. He obtained employment at at the Edison Company of Detroit and worked on combustion engine desiges in his spare time. Ford started out designing luxury and race cars, setting the landspeed record to 90 mph in 1904. Ford blundered with the basic tenets of supply and demand for a few years, but in 1907 he got the hang of it, learning that a small profit and a vast quantity was far more lucrative than vice versa. To make the automobile accessible, Ford copied meat-packers' technique of slinging carcasses along tracks and invented the assembly line. What does this have to do with progressivism? I'm getting to it.

Ford didn't just invent the assembly line. He had invented mass production, which is far more sinister, and far more useful. The focus in the new industry was on the product. This doesn't seem very remarkable in the present day, but up until that point the focus was on the workers. The idea was to have competent and skilled workers who would then make the best product possible. After the development of mass production the idea was to make as many products of passing quality as possible within the allotted workday. Employees were no longer craftsman or artisans; they were machine tenders. The concept of professional managers came into being, and the image of the sweatshop was born. The ideology behind the phrase "Human Resources" came into being. Developments of new tools were promoted with the hope of producing in any given factory condition "one single precise motion each second, 3,600 in one hour, and all exactly the same." This is a quote from The Principles of Scientific Management (1911).

So was labor getting impersonal? Yes, it was. But that wasn't half the problem. Jobs had become impersonal and tasks became incessant and mundane. What's more than that is that jobs became dangerous. The assembly line stops for no one, and it couldn't even if it wanted to. We will now regress to Upton Sinclair and The Jungle. Meat saws sliced through the fingers and hands of factory workers. Some industrial mills would approach fifty employee deaths per year. In some places fire escapes were locked to prevent workers from stealing, to prevent Union officials from contacting workers, and even to prevent workers from "Escaping." Child labor was just as dangerous as anyone else's labor. Children would work excrutiating hours in mineshafts breathing toxic fumes hunched over coal-cars extracting pieces of sharp slate. At this time almost any company would have a recognizable annual death-rate.


By 1904 Reckefeller's Standard Oil owned approxamately eighty-five percent of the Oil Industry. One one-hundredth of all firms were producing half of all goods. The companies worked together to fix prices and prevent competition between them. These firms prevented small buisnesses from starting up by cornering the market, getting a stranglehold on raw materials, and, as a last resort, reducing prices below cost and simply starving out the smaller businesses. A debate arose concerning whether these firms were responsible for the losses of individual economic freedoms, or if they were a part of a thriving economy. It must not be overlooked that many of these firms were personally responsible for the labor conditions of the era.

Agrarian Issues

With a dramatic migration of individuals from rural areas to the cities, farmers who remained were suddenly in possession of a commodity that was in shorter supply. The prices of crops rose, but so did the value of land. The major factor is that more and more farming was done by tenant farmers, who might be described as falling somewhere between slave and free. In general, however, things were looking good for farmers.


The nation was segregated. Black schools, black rail cars, whites only restaurants, motels and hospitals dotted the nation. Lynchings were common, and Blacks were paid less than a third as well as Whites for the same work. W. E. B. Du Bois, a sociologist, held a conference near Niagara Falls, New York, and decided that Booker T. Washington's ideas about gradually assimilating were unacceptable. Du Bois demanded equal civil, social, and legal rights for Blacks and Whites alike as citizens of the United States of America. Du Bois would be comparable to Malcolm X while Booker T. is more like Martin Luther King Jr. and neither extreme is able to succeed without the other in place.

The Arts

America was changing. No one could stop it. One effect of the assembly line, mass productions, and Industrialization was that people were left with more free time. The music industry was born when the Phonograph and Record became standard fixtures in middle-class homes. A boost in the music industry brought a new fascination with dance. The fox-trot, bunny-hop, and turkey-trot arrived right along with ragtime and dancefloors. Of course, the puritanical order of White Protestants pervaded all. Dancers were not allowed to dance too close in public. A limit of nine inches or so was enforced. Vaudville, The Blues, and Jazz came into existance. New York swarmed with artists, writers, and poets. Interpretive dance was born, realism emerged in paintings. Picasso and Van Gogh created their masterpieces during this era. Modernists, and postimpressionists worked to revolutionize art. Social change was pushing ahead full force, and things were going to change.

Primary Source: "America Past and Present" by Divine

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