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The early 20th century was an era of business expansion and progressive reform in the United States. The progressives, as they called themselves, worked to make American society a better and safer place in which to live.
They tried to make big business more responsible through regulations of various kinds. They worked to clean up corrupt city governments, to improve working conditions in factories, and to better living conditions for those who lived in slum areas, a large number of whom were recent immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe.
Many progressives were also concerned with the environment and conservation of resources.
This generation of Americans also hoped to make the world a more democratic place. At home, this meant expanding the right to vote to women and a number of election reforms such as the recall, referendum, and direct election of Senators.
Abroad, it meant trying to make the world safe for democracy. In 1917, the United States joined Great Britain and France–two democratic nations–in their war against autocratic Germany and Austria-Hungary.
Soon after the Great War, the majority of Americans turned away from concern about foreign affairs, adopting an attitude of live and let live.
The 1920s, also known as the “roaring twenties” and as “the new era,” were similar to the Progressive Era in that America continued its economic growth and prosperity.
The incomes of working people increased along with those of middle class and wealthier Americans. The major growth industry was automobile manufacturing. Americans fell in love with the automobile, which radically changed their way of life.
On the other hand, the 1920s saw the decline of many reform activities that had been so widespread after 1900.
Automobiles in the Progressive and New Eras
Sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd conducted a major study of American society during the 1920s. In 1929, they published their research in a book titled Middletown. “Middletown” was the name used to disguise Muncie, Indiana, the actual place where they conducted their research.
One of their findings was that the automobile had transformed the lives of people living in Middletown and, by extension, virtually everywhere else in the United States.
More specifically, the Lynds found that the automobile had such effects as the following: (1) family budgets had changed dramatically; (2) ministers complained that people drove their cars rather than going to church; (3) parents were concerned that their boys and girls were spending too much time together “motoring”; and (4) the car had revolutionized the way people spent their free time.
These primary sources also indicate the impact of the automobile on Americans’ lives. Some of those effects were seen as positive; others were much more troubling.
Cities during the Progressive Era
In the nation’s growing cities, factory output grew, small businesses flourished, and incomes rose. As the promise of jobs and higher wages attracted more and more people into the cities, the U.S. began to shift to a nation of city dwellers. By 1900, 30 million people, or 30 percent of the total population, lived in cities.
The mass migration of people into the cities enriched some people but caused severe problems for others. For the emerging middle class, benefiting from growing incomes and increases in leisure time, the expanding city offered many advantages.
Department stores, chain stores, and shopping centers emerged to meet the growing demand for material goods. Parks, amusement parks, and baseball stadiums were built to meet aesthetic and recreational needs.
Transportation systems improved, as did the general infrastructure, better meeting the increased needs of the middle and upper class city dwellers.
Thousands of poor people also lived in the cities. Lured by the promise of prosperity, many rural families and immigrants from throughout the world arrived in the cities to work in the factories. It is estimated that by 1904 one in three people living in the cities was close to starving to death.
For many of the urban poor, living in the city resulted in a decreased quality of life. With few city services to rely upon, the working class lived daily with overcrowding, inadequate water facilities, unpaved streets, and disease.
Lagging far behind the middle class, working class wages provided little more than subsistence living and few, if any, opportunities for movement out of the city slums.
Conservation in the Progressive Era
In the mid to late 19th century, natural resources were heavily exploited, especially in the West. Land speculators and developers took over large tracts of forests and grazing land. Acreage important to waterpower was seized by private concerns.
Mining companies practiced improper and wasteful mining practices. Assuming a seemingly inexhaustible supply of natural resources, Americans developed a “tradition of waste.”
Alarmed by the public’s attitude toward natural resources as well as the exploitation of natural resources for private gain, conservationists called for federal supervision of the nation’s resources and the preservation of those resources for future generations.
In President Theodore Roosevelt, the conservationists found a sympathetic ear and man of action. Conservation of the nation’s resources, putting an end to wasteful uses of raw materials, and the reclamation of large areas of neglected land have been identified as some of the major achievements of the Roosevelt era.
President Roosevelt’s concern for the environment was influenced by American naturalists, such as John Muir, and by his own political appointees, including Gifford Pinchot, Chief of Forestry.
Working in concert with many individuals and organizations, the Roosevelt administration was responsible for the following: the Newlands Act of 1902, which funded irrigation projects from the proceeds of the sale of federal lands in the West; the appointment of the Inland Waterways Commission in 1907 to study the relation of rivers, soil, forest, waterpower development, and water transportation; and the National Conservation Commission of 1909, which was charged with drawing up long-range plans for preserving national resources.
Along with a vocal group of conservationists, the Roosevelt administration created an environmental conservation movement whose words and actions continue to be heard and felt throughout the nation today.
Immigrants in the Progressive Era
Between 1900 and 1915, more than 15 million immigrants arrived in the United States. That was about equal to the number of immigrants who had arrived in the previous 40 years combined. In 1910, three-fourths of New York City’s population were either immigrants or first generation Americans (i.e. the sons and daughters of immigrants).
Not only were the numbers of immigrants swelling, the countries from which they came had changed dramatically as well. Unlike earlier immigrants, the majority of the newcomers after 1900 came from non-English speaking European countries.
The principal source of immigrants was now southern and eastern Europe, especially Italy, Poland, and Russia, countries quite different in culture and language from the United States, and many immigrants had difficulty adjusting to life here.
At the same time, the United States had difficulty absorbing the immigrants. Most of the immigrants chose to settle in American cities, where jobs were located. As a result, the cities became ever more crowded.
In addition, city services often failed to keep up with the flow of newcomers. Most of the immigrants did find jobs, although they often worked in jobs that most native-born Americans would not take. Over time, however, many immigrants succeeded in improving their condition.
Prohibition: A Case Study of Progressive Reform
The temperance movement, discouraging the use of alcoholic beverages, had been active and influential in the United States since at least the 1830s.
Since the use of alcohol was often associated with such social ills as poverty and insanity, temperance often went hand in hand with other reform movements. From the 1850s onward, the temperance movement focused much of its efforts on Irish and German immigrants.
Temperance advocates did not always emphasize prohibiting the consumption of alcohol. But by the late 19th century, they did. The prohibition movement achieved initial successes at the local and state levels.
It was most successful in rural southern and western states, and less successful in more urban states. By the early 20th century, prohibition was a national movement.
Prohibition exhibited many of the characteristics of most progressive reforms. That is, it was concerned with the moral fabric of society; it was supported primarily by the middle classes; and it was aimed at controlling the “interests” (liquor distillers) and their connections with venal and corrupt politicians in city, state, and national governments.
Still, it was not until U.S. entry into the Great War that prohibitionists were able to secure enactment of national legislation. In 1918, Congress passed the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, prohibiting the manufacture, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages. States ratified the Amendment the next year.
Herbert Hoover called prohibition a “noble experiment,” but the effort to regulate people’s behavior soon ran into trouble. Enforcement of prohibition became very difficult. Soon, such terms as “bootlegger,” “bath tub gin,” and “speakeasy” became household words.
Gangs of hoodlums became more powerful as they trafficked in alcohol. By the 1930s, a majority of Americans had tired of the noble experiment, and the 18th Amendment was repealed.
U.S. Participation in the Great War (World War I)
War broke out in Europe in the summer of 1914, with the Central Powers led by Germany and Austria-Hungary on one side and the Allied countries led by Britain, France, and Russia on the other.
At the start of the war, President Woodrow Wilson declared that the United States would be neutral. However, that neutrality was tested and fiercely debated in the U.S.
Submarine warfare in the Atlantic kept tensions high, and Germany’s sinking of the British ocean liner Lusitania on May 7, 1915, killed more than 120 U.S. citizens and provoked outrage in the U.S.
In 1917, Germany’s attacks on American ships and its attempts to meddle in U.S.-Mexican relations drew the U.S. into the war on the side of the Allies. The United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917.
Within a few months, thousands of U.S. men were being drafted into the military and sent to intensive training.
Women, even many who had never worked outside the home before, took jobs in factories producing supplies needed for the war effort, as well as serving in ambulance corps and the American Red Cross at home and abroad. Children were enlisted to sell war bonds and plant victory gardens in support of the war effort.
The United States sent more than a million troops to Europe, where they encountered a war unlike any other—one waged in trenches and in the air, and one marked by the rise of such military technologies as the tank, the field telephone, and poison gas.
At the same time, the war shaped the culture of the U.S. After an Armistice agreement ended the fighting on November 11, 1918, the postwar years saw a wave of civil rights activism for equal rights for African Americans, the passage of an amendment securing women’s right to vote, and a larger role in world affairs for the United States.
Women’s Suffrage in the Progressive Era
Immediately after the Civil War, Susan B. Anthony, a strong and outspoken advocate of women’s rights, demanded that the Fourteenth Amendment include a guarantee of the vote for women as well as for African-American males.
In 1869, Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton founded the National Woman Suffrage Association. Later that year, Lucy Stone, Julia Ward Howe, and others formed the American Woman Suffrage Association.
However, not until the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1919 did women throughout the nation gain the right to vote.
During the late 1800s and early 1900s, women and women’s organizations not only worked to gain the right to vote, they also worked for broad-based economic and political equality and for social reforms.
Between 1880 and 1910, the number of women employed in the United States increased from 2.6 million to 7.8 million. Although women began to be employed in business and industry, the majority of better paying positions continued to go to men.
At the turn of the century, 60 percent of all working women were employed as domestic servants. In the area of politics, women gained the right to control their earnings, own property, and, in the case of divorce, take custody of their children.
By 1896, women had gained the right to vote in four states (Wyoming, Colorado, Idaho, and Utah). Women and women’s organizations also worked on behalf of many social and reform issues.
By the beginning of the new century, women’s clubs in towns and cities across the nation were working to promote suffrage, better schools, the regulation of child labor, women in unions, and liquor prohibition.
Not all women believed in equality for the sexes. Women who upheld traditional gender roles argued that politics were improper for women. Some even insisted that voting might cause some women to “grow beards.”
The challenge to traditional roles represented by the struggle for political, economic, and social equality was as threatening to some women as it was to most men.
Credit: the Library of Congress (Backlink)