Study Guide

Muckrakers & Reformers Introduction

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Muckrakers & Reformers Introduction

The period from the last years of the Gilded Age in the 1890s and early 1900s to the late 1920s is called the "Progressive Era." 

That was because most Americans were looking at problems like women's rights, workers' rights, unsafe and unsanitary cities, obscenely rich millionaires with poorly paid servants, racial inequality, environmental destruction, and alcoholism, and were like, "This is America, yo, let's do something about it." 

Most people wanted to see progress happen, even though they didn't all agree on what it should look like.

For most of American history, folks had been avoiding some of the biggest problems in American society. You know how most houses have a broken stair or a leaking faucet somewhere? And everyone in the house comes up with ridiculous workarounds like jumping over the stair or keeping water bottles under the sink? And then everyone gets so used to it that people who want to actually fix the stairs or faucets just sound like complainers? 

Well, issues like income inequality, women's rights, alcoholism, and environmental destruction were America's broken stair issues in the early-20th century.

Because of this, early activists came off as complainers and nitpickers. A common term was "muckraking" because they were bringing ugly truths up to the surface. However, instead of shutting up, muckrakers just kept getting louder and louder. Eventually, politicians listened and became reformers who dramatically changed American society.  

However, these changes weren't always wise or generous. An ugly undercurrent of racism and classism—being prejudiced against people of a certain class—had infected the Progressive movement, and even as they advocated on behalf of the white working poor, many Progressives still wanted to attack or remove non-white people and non-white culture. 

Plus, they sometimes "advocated" for the poor in a way that sounded more like insulting the poor.

What is Muckrakers & Reformers About and Why Should I Care?

New York Times editorial decried the "Biggest Beef Recall Ever." It reported on a "nauseating video" of diseased cows in filthy conditions at a Westland/Hallmark Meat Company plant, "stumbling on their way to a California slaughterhouse." 

The Humane Society of the United States, which randomly selected the plant for videotaping, took the footage and then distributed it nationwide via news stations and the internet.

That controversial footage clearly indicated that Americans were being sold meat processed from sick animals that never, according to government food safety standards, should have become part of the food supply. In response to the resulting public outcry, the Westland/Hallmark Meat Company issued a full recall of more than 143 million pounds of beef produced over two years. This included—as the Times article noted—"37 million pounds that went to school-lunch programs."blank">The Jungle, which sparked the first national scandal over the meatpacking industry. Many of the issues first introduced during that Progressive-Era scandal remain live wires in today's political and social climate. 

  • How should the government effectively inspect the nation's food supply?
  • What should the punishment be for violating government standards?
  • How much power should food inspectors possess?
  • What kind of safety standards are acceptable or advisable for the American food industry?

Just as Upton Sinclair himself learned through bitter experience, reforms could produce results that differed considerably from the original intent of the reformer. The Humane Society sought to dramatize the plight of sick cows to win better treatment of animals, but early reaction to the scandal focused almost entirely on tightening standards over which animals should be blocked from entering the human food supply.

And no fundamental restructuring of the American beef industry today appears imminent. The economic pressures of the capitalist marketplace—the cost of land, the push to maximize output, the competition from foreign beef importers, the expense of new facilities, and the costs of removing diseased cattle from production—all work against the reformers' cause.

A century ago, Progressive reformers encountered similar setbacks. They tackled food safety along with a host of other issues: alcohol abuse, women's rights, economic concentration, corporate power, political corruption, and poverty. 

But they didn't solve them. Tellingly, every one of these issues remains problematic in our own time. How do we, as a society, address these social challenges? Can the successes and failures of the Progressive reformers of a century ago provide us with guidance, or should they serve as a cautionary tale?

Muckrakers & Reformers Resources


Alan Dawley, Changing the World: American Progressives in War and Revolution (2003)
Dawley offers a historical perspective on the Progressive Movement during World War I and its aftermath. It includes an analysis of the internal divisions among Progressives on issues such as imperialism and how best to spread American ideals. Dawley simultaneously explores reformist efforts at home and abroad.

Benjamin P. DeWitt, The Progressive Movement (1915)
This work was extremely popular in its own time, as the Progressive Era neared its final years before a post-WWI implosion. It's a biased account from a Progressive author, but nonetheless a useful one for gaining some perspective on the internal and external conflicts and controversies that surrounded the movement.

Henry Demarest Lloyd, Wealth Against Commonwealth (1894)
This book, the first of several that Chicago Tribune reporter Lloyd would write, had a significant impact on labor relations and on Lloyd's own journalistic profession. It analyzed the history of the Standard Oil Company in order to mount an attack upon all monopolies and industrialization itself.

John Moody, The Truth About the Trusts (1904)
Moody, a financial writer, worked in a Wall Street brokerage house for several years before writing this treatise on the rapid increase in business mergers during the Gilded Age.

Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives (1890)
The first book written by Riis, a Danish-American photojournalist and social reformer, this work sought to alert middle and upper-class readers to the deplorable living conditions in the slums of working-class neighborhoods.

Lincoln Steffens, The Shame of the Cities (1904)
This San Francisco-based author compiled a series of his explosive McClure's magazine articles on corrupt urban politicians in this book. Steffens, who later turned to socialism as the antidote to the nation's ills, was a prominent muckraking journalist.


Various Artists, 1915: "They'd Sooner Sleep on Thistles" (2007)
This collection from the Archeophone series features sweet love tunes like Cambell and Burr's "Close to My Heart," as well as songs like "I Didn't Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier" and "Sister Susie's Sewing Shirts for Soldiers" that hint at growing concern over America's role in the war escalating in Europe.

Various Artists, Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1891–1922 (2005)
This collection, featuring pioneering African-American recording artists and musicians (as well as Booker T. Washington's Atlanta Exposition Speech), showcases the distinctive styles of post-Civil War music and offers a powerful perspective on the early recording industry.

Various Artists, 1916: "The Country Found Them Ready" (2005)
With tracks from John McCormack, Anna Chandler, and Billy Murray, this collection of hits from 1916 provides a terrific aural landscape to contemplate the events leading up to America's entrance into World War I, a moment that marked the beginning of the end of the Progressive Era.

Various Artists, 1908: "Take Me Out with the Crowd" (2004)
Another fabulous selection from the Archeophone series, "Take Me Out with the Crowd" offers a light-hearted cross-section of tunes in honor of a time when the Chicago Cubs won the World Series, the London Olympics captivated the nation, and Henry Ford introduced the Model T.

Various Artists, Stomp and Swerve: American Music Gets Hot (2003)
This compilation offers both entertaining ditties and sobering reminders of the harsh racism that characterized early-20th-century America, such as white comic Arthur Collins' performance of "All Coons Look Alike to Me" and Polk Miller's "Watermelon Party."


Boss Tweed
This Thomas Nast cartoon, one of many which he published during the Progressive Era, depicts political machine boss William Tweed (front left) and other members of his "ring" as they point blame at one another in response to the question, "Who stole the people's money?" This was originally published in Harper's Weekly on August 19th, 1871.

Votes for Women
Inez Milholland, dressed all in white, leads a suffragette parade of some 5,000 on the day before Woodrow Wilson's inauguration.

Campaigning, Even Without the Vote
In Colorado, the National Women's Party campaigns against Woodrow Wilson and the Democrats, putting up billboards that warn, "Their party opposes national women's suffrage."

Speaking a Thousand Words
Lewis Hine actually captures his own shadow in one of his famous images of a child worker—here, a newsboy on the streets of New York in 1908.

Tight Accommodations
In Jacob Riis' 1889 photo entitled "Five Cents a Spot," the viewer can gain some sense of the horribly overcrowded conditions confronting the poor who sought shelter in rooming houses during the Gilded Age.

Carrying a Nation to Temperance
This poster advertised a lecture given by fiery temperance activist Carry A. Nation.

Movies & TV

There Will Be Blood (2007)
Daniel Day-Lewis stars in this much-talked-about film adaptation of Upton Sinclair's novel about greed and faith during the early years of American oil prospecting.

Iron Jawed Angels (2004)
This is a fictional account geared toward modern audiences, offering a 21st-century soundtrack and a certain creative license when it comes to portraying what the suffragettes' lives were like. The film is nonetheless worthwhile as a testament to the struggles that these young activists endured and the struggle they waged, despite the multiple divisions and controversies within their movement.

Bowling for Columbine (2002)
Check out the best work of controversial filmmaker Michael Moore, a modern day "muckraker" committed to exposing hard truths about American society.

New York: A Documentary Film (1999)
PBS and filmmaker Ric Burns present everything you ever thought you needed to know (plus so much more) about one of the oldest cities in America. The documentary carefully weaves specific historical events that occurred within the metropolis with larger national and global developments.

Backstairs at the White House (1979)
This TV miniseries, released in 1979, explores eight different presidential administrations, including the Taft and Wilson administrations of the Progressive Era, through the lives of White House servants, maids, cooks, and doormen.

Up in Central Park (1948)
This 1940s comedy hit features Deanna Durbin as a young woman who helps expose political corruption in New York City.


Windy City Progressivism
The Encyclopedia of Chicago provides a number of valuable references to Progressivism in the context of the Windy City, including this interactive map from Hull House of its surrounding inhabitants and their ethnicities.

Tour a Tenement
You can take a virtual tour of a New York City tenement, courtesy of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, through a downloadable Google Expeditions app.

Prohibition Amendments
We've got an entire learning guide on the 18th and 21st Amendments which instated Prohibition, and then took it back.

19th Amendment
The Avalon Project at Yale Law School offers a copy of the U.S. Constitution with dates of congressional approval and ratification for each amendment, including the 19th Amendment, another Progressive Amendment.

Probing Prohibition
Brown University hosts a digital archive on the temperance movement.

Historical Documents

The "Other" Half
The full text of How the Other Half Lives, Jacob Riis' groundbreaking 1890 exposé on American tenements, is available online for your reading pleasure.

Theodore Roosevelt's famous 1906 speech on "The Man with the Muckrake." We have an entire learning guide devoted to this one.

Drinking and Degeneracy
A 1913 temperance pamphlet attempts to draw a connection between social "degeneracy" and the prevalence of alcoholism.

Singing Out Against Alcohol
The Woman's Christian Temperance Union Band Song, composed by Minne M. Moede in 1914.

A Black Suffragette Speaks Out
Prominent Black feminist Mary Church Terrell, president of the National Association of Colored Women, reported on "the progress of colored women" at the NAWSA 50th anniversary meeting in Washington, D.C., on February 18th, 1898.

Muckrakers & Reformers Introduction Study Group

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