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Home > The Courses > Course Home Pages > State of the Field in U.S. History: The Progressive Era

State of the Field in U.S. History: The Progressive Era

by John Whiteclay Chambers II

The Progressive Era in the United States continues its protean history as scholars produce exciting new social and cultural findings to augment the traditional political and economic focus on the decades around the turn of the twentieth century. New research has expanded beyond the previous organizing concept of progressivism and its core constituency, the middle class,1 to offer a more complex picture of American society. Many of the findings can be integrated into survey-level courses in high school or college in a manner that expands rather than replaces the accounts of the period presented in most textbooks and required on standardized texts.

A new emphasis on human agency, particularly everyday forms of action and resistance, demonstrates more clearly than before how men and women, individually and collectively, sought to maintain control of their lives amidst the powerful and sometimes repressive changes around them. Much new work has been done on women of color. To expand their autonomy, Atlanta's female black domestic servants and washerwomen, for example, drew strength from secular and religious working-class organizations and personally and collectively joined in on-the-job activism.2 Farther north, young southern black women migrants, who at the turn of the century became live-in domestic servants in Washington, D.C., resisted the total control of their lives reminiscent of slavery. From 1900 to 1920, these young black women transformed domestic service in the nation's capital by insisting on and obtaining changes, such as the right to live in their own rather than their employer's house, to wear their own clothing rather than uniforms, and to have time off on Sundays.3 In the cigar-making center of Tampa, Florida, working women -- particularly African Americans and Cuban and Italian immigrants -- forged and reformulated their activist identities as the city's triracial networks alternately challenged and reinscribed the South's biracial social and political order.4

Recent work on prominent reformers includes new biographies of national figures such as Ida Wells-Barnett, Jane Addams, Florence Kelly, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Theodore Roosevelt.5 Broader social studies more generally enable us to reconceptualize the role of women. Through churches, clubs, settlement houses, and neighborhood unions, they helped drive reform and also improve housing, health, and education.6The role of ethnic groups has also been explored further in numerous works such as those on Mexican Americans in Los Angeles, East European Jewish immigrants in New York City, and the multiethnic political culture in Boston.7

Investigation of the social construction of gender called for in Joan Wallach Scott's pivotal article8 has opened new areas of research but also provided new insights into traditional topics, such as domestic party politics9 and imperialism. In an influential study entitled Manliness and Civilization, Gail Bederman applied gender and cultural analysis to traditional political and economic assessments and concluded that American fears of a "crisis of masculinity" also contributed to American expansionism at the turn of the century.10 Subsequent studies have applied cultural analysis, much of it gendered, to produce significant new insights into the Spanish-Cuban-American War, the Philippine-American War, and the U.S. military occupation of Haiti.11

Cultural analysis influences much current historical research, and nowhere is this more evident than in the proliferation of studies of American popular culture. It is now commonly agreed that the turn of the century was a turning point in the rise of a new consumer culture. Beginning in the 1980s, studies of mass production and the new mass market led the way,12 followed by interpretations of the cultural significance of new merchandising and advertising techniques.13 Because women were especially targeted as the new consumers, they and the mechanisms used to target them have become subjects of study, particularly magazines and advertising.14

Motion pictures, one of the greatest influences on popular culture and one of America's wealthiest industries, came of age during the Progressive Era. Using studio archives, trade publications, government records, and other sources, scholars have recently provided detailed histories of the growth of the film industry,15 exploring the relationship of films to women, racial and ethnic groups, and the working class.16 Even the difficult issue of the actual influence of motion pictures is being addressed in studies of audiences and spectatorship.17 For analyzing films as historical documents and using them in the classroom, works by John E. O'Connor and others are quite useful.18 So are the journals Historical Journal of Film, Radio, and Television (see the International Association for Media and History's Web site in "See also," below) and Film & History, and the reviews of recent historical films now included periodically in the American Historical Review and the Journal of American History.

Much more work is being done on the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century then can be described in a brief article, but there are numerous avenues to access to them. The Organization of American Historians' Magazine of History for Teachers of History features topical issues, at least two of which are directly related to this era: one on the Progressive Era (vol. 13, no. 3, Spring 1999) and one on World War I (vol. 17, no. 1, October 2002). Back issues are available through the OAH Web site (in "See also," below). In addition, the recently formed Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (SHGAPE) publishes a newsletter and a journal, the Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. Details are at the SHGAPE Web site. Popular summaries of the Progressive Era, each containing useful bibliographies, include John Milton Cooper, Jr., Pivotal Decades: The United States, 1900-1920 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1990); Steven J. Diner, A Very Different Age: Americans of the Progressive Era (New York: Hill and Wang, 1998); and John Whiteclay Chambers II, The Tyranny of Change: America in the Progressive Era, 1890-1920, 2nd ed., updated (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2000). The era even has its own reference works: John Buenker and Edward R. Kantowicz, eds., Historical Dictionary of the Progressive Era, 1890-1920 (New York: Greenwood, 1988). Currently John Buenker and Joe Buenker are co-editing a three-volume Encyclopedia of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era scheduled for publication by M. E. Sharpe in 2004.

From celebrities as varied as Jane Addams and Theodore Roosevelt, to the anonymous but fascinating working-class men and women who populated the emerging modern, urban society, the people, politics, and culture of the Progressive Era continue to fascinate us today.

John Whiteclay Chambers II is professor and former chair of the History Department at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey. He is author or editor of a dozen books, including The Tyranny of Change: America in the Progressive Era, 1890-1920, 2nd ed., updated (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2000); To Raise an Army: The Draft Comes to Modern America (New York: Free Press/Macmillan, 1987); The Eagle and the Dove: The Peace Movement and United States Foreign Policy, 1900-1922, 2nd ed. (Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 1991); and World War II, Film, and History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).




1Still seen as classic attempts to provide coherence to the disparate "Progressive Movement" are Daniel T. Rodgers, "In Search of Progressivism," Reviews in American History, 10 (1982): 113-132, and Arthur S. Link and Richard L. McCormick, Progressivism (Arlington Heights, Illinois: Harlan Davidson Inc., 1983). A more recent attempt to pull together myriad threads is William Chafe, "Women's History and Political History: Some Thoughts on Progressivism and the New Deal," in Nancy Hewitt and Suzanne Lebsock, eds., Visible Women: New Essays on American Activism (Champaign-Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993): 101-118. Alan Dawley, Changing the World: American Progressives in War and Revolution (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2003), was published just as this essay went to press.

2Tera Hunter, To 'Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women's Lives and Labors after the Civil War (Cambridge, Massachusetts.: Harvard University Press, 1997).

3Elizabeth Clark-Lewis, Living In, Living Out: African-American Domestics and the Great Migration (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994).

4Nancy A. Hewitt, Southern Discomfort: Women's Activism in Tampa, Florida, 1880s-1920s (Champaign-Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001).

5Patricia A. Schechter, Ida B. Wells-Barnett and American Reform, 1880-1930 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001); Kathryn Kish Sklar, Florence Kelley and the Nation's Work (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1995); David Levering Lewis's Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, W.E.B. Du Bois, 2 vols. (New York: Henry Holt, 1993-2000); and the contrasting interpretations of Theodore Roosevelt by H.W. Brands, T.R.: The Last Romantic (New York: Basic Books, 1997), and Sarah Lyons Watts, Rough Rider in the White House: Theodore Roosevelt and the Politics of Desire (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003).

6Robyn Muncy, Creating a Female Dominion in American Reform, 1890-1935 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991); Cynthia Neverdon-Morton, Afro-American Women of the South and the Advancement of the Race, 1895-1925 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1989); Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Righteous Discontent: The Women's Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993); and Elizabeth Hayes Turner, Women, Culture, and Community: Religion and Reform in Galveston, 1880-1920 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

7George J. Sanchez, Becoming Mexican-American: Ethnicity, Culture, and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, 1900-1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993); Daniel Soyer, Jewish Immigrant Associations and American Identity in New York, 1880-1939 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1997); Hasia R. Diner, et al., Remembering the Lower East Side: American Jewish Reflections (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000); James J. Connolly, The Triumph of Ethnic Progressivism: Urban Political Culture in Boston, 1900-1925 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1998).

8Joan Wallach Scott, "Gender: A Useful Category of Analysis," American Historical Review, vol. 91, no. 5 (December 1986). This seminal article has been widely reprinted.

9Rebecca Edwards, Angels in the Machinery: Gender in American Party Politics from the Civil War to the Progressive Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

10Gail Bederman, Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995).

11Kristin L. Hoganson, Fighting for American Manhood: How Gender Politics Provoked the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1998); Mary A. Renda, Taking Haiti: Military Occupation and the Culture of U.S. Imperialism, 1915-1940 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001). For nongendered, revisionist perspective on the War of 1898 that places the Cuban War for Independence in the context of U.S. and Cuban history to the present day, see Louis A. Perez, Jr., The War of 1898: The United States and Cuba in History and Historiography (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998).

12 David A. Houshell, From the American System to Mass Production, 1800-1932: The Development of Manufacturing Technology in the United States (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984); Susan Strasser, Satisfaction Guaranteed: The Making of the American Mass Market (New York: Pantheon Books, 1989); Philip Scranton, Endless Novelty: Specialty Production and American Industrialization, 1865-1925 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997).

13Susan Porter Benson, Counter Cultures: Saleswomen, Managers, and Customers in American Department Stores (Champagne-Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986); William Leach, Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture (New York: Pantheon Books, 1993); T. J. Jackson Lears, Fables of Abundance: A Cultural History of Advertising in America (New York: Basic Books, 1994).

14 Ellen Gruber Garvey, The Adman in the Parlor: Magazines and the Gendering of Consumer Culture, 1880s to 1910s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996); Kathy Peiss, Hope in a Jar: The Making of America's Beauty Culture (New York: Metropolitan Books, 1999).

15Robert Sklar, Movie-Made America: A Cultural History of American Movies, revised and updated (New York: Vintage Books, 1994). The History of the American Cinema series originally published in hardcover by Macmillan in 1990 was made available in paperback by the University of California Press in 1994. The first three volumes in the series are Charles Musser, The Emergence of Cinema: The American Screen to 1907; Eileen Browser, The Transformation of the Cinema, 1907-1915; and Richard Koszarski, An Evening's Entertainment: The Age of the Silent Feature Picture, 1915-1928.

16Laura Mulvey's classic essay on Hollywood's constructed "female gaze" in "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," Screen 16/3 (Autumn 1977): 6-18; Thomas Cripps, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977); Pearl Bowser and Louise Spence, Writing Himself into History: Oscar Micheaux, His Silent Films, and His Audiences (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2000), a study of the leading African-American filmmaker of his time; J. Hoberman, Bridge of Light: Yiddish Films Between Two Worlds (New York: Museum of Modern Art/Shocken Books, 1991; reprinted by Temple University Press, 1995); and Steven J. Ross, Working-Class Hollywood: Silent Film and the Shaping of Class in America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998). Hollywood's production in the First World War is examined in Leslie Midkiff DeBauche, Reel Patriotism: The Movies and World War I (Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1997).

17Miriam Hansen, Babel & Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent Film (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1991); Janet Staiger, Interpreting Films: Studies in the Historical Reception of American Cinema (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992); and for a local study, Gregory A. Waller, Main Street Amusements: Movies and Commercial Entertainment in a Southern City, 1896-1930 (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995).

18John E. O'Connor, Teaching History with Film and Television (Washington, D.C.: American Historical Association, 1987), an 86-page instructional pamphlet, extremely useful for teachers; Mark C. Carnes, ed., Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies (New York: Henry Holt, 1995), offers brief comparisons with historical reality of nearly one hundred historical films chronologically arranged; and Steven Mintz and Randy Roberts, eds., Hollywood's America: United States History Through Its Films, 3rd ed. (St. James, New York: Brandywine Press, 2001), a collection of essays and primary source documents on the U.S. film industry, its development, and its portrayal of the American past.


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