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Home > AP Courses and Exams > Course Home Pages > Part II: The Progressive Era

Part II: The Progressive Era

by Jeff Bloodworth
Gannon University
Erie, Pennsylvania

II. The Progressive Era
The Progressive movement (ca. 1900-1920) responded to an increasingly urban, corporate, and industrial American society, whose outlines alarmed the middle classes. In the view of reformers, political machines, ethnic enclaves, and social disorder threatened democracy and equality. Consequently, Progressives embarked on a drive to reform American life. Child labor laws, welfare benefits, factory inspections, restrictive immigration laws, Prohibition, trust-busting, and women's suffrage are just some examples of the contradictory yet historic reforms enacted by the Progressives. Historians view the American entry into the First World War as both the high point and the beginning of the end for the movement, but many Progressive impulses survived into the New Deal era.

The History Place: Child Labor in America, 1908-1912
Children at Work, 1908-1912

What is Progressivism? The reform movement that left its mark on the first two decades of the twentieth century eludes a simple definition. As Progressivism counted in its ranks both secular and evangelical, moralistic reformers, some historians claim the term "Progressive" is meaningless.

If Progressivism confuses professional historians, how can we expect high school students to comprehend it? One way to teach Progressivism is to employ a descriptive approach. It matters less that we know a pithy definition of Progressivism than that we can explain the origins of the movement. The impetus behind the Progressive movement lay in the human costs associated with urbanization and industrialization. For instance, the use of child labor in factories, mines, and on street corners caught the attention of middle-class Americans, turning them into Progressive reformers who pushed for anti-child labor laws.

These are two small but very good Web sites that feature early twentieth century photographs of child laborers, taken by Lewis Hine. The photographer Lewis Hine was a muckraking sociologist who used photography to raise the ire of middle-class Americans to the ills of industrial society. Thus, the photographs are staged to elicit a sympathetic response. The Web sites both offer a series of photographs with captions. Both sites feature Hine's original captions, which contain heartbreaking quotes from his subjects.

As these two Web sites pack an emotional wallop, they can help students understand the mindsets of the progressive reformers and their moral outrage. The sites could also be used in discussions of the documentary style versus propaganda in images. Both sites are relatively simple to navigate and contain photographs and text. They are wholly supplemental in nature, but could help students understand Progressivism more clearly.
  The History Place: Child Labor in America, 1908-1912
  Children At Work 1908-1912

Living the Legacy: The Women's Rights Movement, 1848-1998
The quest for women's rights was part and parcel of the "age of reform." Women were integral in the Populist Party's formation, Progressive reform, and the New Deal. Thus, women's voting rights, access to jobs, and political participation were advanced by Populism, Progressivism, and the New Deal. The National Women's History Project built this Web site, which details the history of the women's rights movement from 1848 to 1998.

This site is best suited for advanced AP students with very specific questions and issues. Divided into four primary sections ("History of the Movement," "Detailed Timeline," "Today's Issues," and "History Organizations"), the Web site is chock-full of sophisticated content.

The section titled "History of the Movement" contains a concise summation of the major events in the women's rights movement. The Declaration of Sentiments, voting rights, and second wave feminism are just a few of the important topics detailed in this section. The "Detailed Timeline" link leads to an exhaustive yet short synopsis of the women's rights movement from 1701 to the present. This timeline should serve as a handy resource for students. Of particular value is the section "Today's Issues and Activists," which provides scores of links to resources related to women's issues. The final section, "History Organizations," is the least valuable of the four. However, it does provide a few useful links, such as one to the Sophia Smith Collection, a leading archive for women's history.

This Web site is for students who are familiar with women's history and are looking for very specific information. Moreover, the site has an agenda and is ideologically biased toward a liberal interpretation of women's rights. For example, the site's summation of the Equal Rights Amendment paints all anti-ERA forces as simpletons. This is a useful site but has limited utility for the AP classroom.
  Living the Legacy: The Women's Rights Movement, 1848-1998

Anti-Saloon League, 1893-1933
The Progressive movement is slippery and hard to understand in part due to its localized nature. Unlike the New Deal, which emanated from Washington, Progressivism had local and national movements that simultaneously advocated for different and sometimes opposing goals. For example, while Prohibition was a Progressive issue, not all Progressives were Prohibitionists. Thus, Catholics, such as New York Congressman Fiorello LaGuardia, and Protestant women, like Jane Addams, were both Progressives yet disagreed on Prohibition.

In teaching about the Progressive reform movement, it is important to underline its local nature, and studying Prohibition is an excellent lens through which to understand this. The Anti-Saloon League Web site compiled by the State Library of Ohio is a very useful resource for a wide range of AP history classrooms. Though Anti-Saloon Leagues were prevalent across the nation, especially in the South and the Midwest, the site chronicles the history of one chapter located in the small town of Westerville, Ohio.

The site offers six major sections ranging from a general history of the organization to an online tour of the Anti-Saloon League Museum. In addition, the Web site features a summary of the group's leadership as well as a very valuable section on printed materials. Indeed, the Anti-Saloon Leagues produced a prodigious amount of literature, which is preserved and available on the site. Students can sing Prohibition songs, view the League's propaganda, and better understand the group's motivations and aims.

Teachers can make use of the classroom activities offered on the Web site and trust that this site is easy to navigate. The site would benefit from featuring oral histories and a bit more context on the Anti-Saloon Leagues, but it is valuable nonetheless.
  Anti-Saloon League, 1893-1933

The Sophia Smith Collection
The Sophia Smith Collection is a renowned repository for primary documents relating to women's history. Though Smith College is home to the material, the Five Colleges consortium, consisting of Smith, Mount Holyoke, Amherst, and Hampshire College, along with the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, jointly contribute to the collection. Thus the nation's premier women's colleges founded the leading archive of American women's history and since the mid-1990s have made many materials available on the Web.

The collection's Web site is intended primarily for on-site researchers; however, there are a large number of primary documents available online. Since the Web site performs many functions, teachers will need to direct students to the proper Web pages so they can access online primary material. The site offers two online exhibits that are quite valuable, as well as lesson plans for teachers. The most valuable online sources are available via the site's "Links" section.

The most significant sites accessible via the "Links" section include H-Women, the Margaret Sanger Papers Project, Women and Social Movements, and the Five Colleges Digital Access Project. H-Women is an electronic discussion group for those interested in women's history. The Sanger Papers is a clearinghouse for the history of birth control, and the Women and Social Movements site boasts assorted primary documents submitted and edited by students on issues relating to women's history. The most valuable of these resources is the Five Colleges Digital Access Project, which is compiled from the Sophia Smith Collection.

The digital archive offers an array of primary sources such as family papers, student poetry, college newspaper articles, oral histories, and student research papers. There are literally thousands of pages of interesting and varied primary sources available in this digital archive. Students can read firsthand how young educated women saw themselves as Progressive reformers, reacted to the Great Depression, or understood the changing social and sexual mores of their times. This is a complicated site to navigate, but for AP students with an interest in women's history this is a very valuable resource.
  The Sophia Smith Collection

Emma Goldman
Middle-class Progressive reform was not the only answer to the problems of industrial modernity in the "age of reform." Radicals and anarchists were convinced that the economic realities were so unjust that revolutionary action was the key to a harmonious society. A section on the radical alternatives to Progressive reform will remind students that the harsh realities of industrialization and urbanization caused considerable strife even in the United States.

The Jewish Women's Archive offers a concise and informative Web site detailing the life and political career of the anarchist Emma Goldman. Early twentieth-century anarchism is a difficult political philosophy for students to grasp. Thus, a biographical approach is the soundest way to teach it to AP students. Luckily, Goldman was a colorful character and her political exploits, sexual freedom, and nascent feminism will render her fascinating to most young people.

The Web site features eighteen sections that detail Goldman's life and career, as well as artifacts and primary documents. The majority of the site's sections are relatively brief and concise summations of Goldman's activism. Other section topics include Goldman's early life, her anarchism, her sexuality, and her crusades for free speech and women's rights. During her life, Goldman's sexual mores and commitment to "free love" rendered her controversial. The "Love and Sexuality" section, which details Goldman's views and lifestyle, is by contemporary standards fairly tame stuff. However, teachers should be aware that sexuality was a major part of Goldman's politics.

The "Artifacts" section offers a number of valuable primary document including political cartoons, photographs, memos from a young J. Edgar Hoover, mug shots, and various printed materials. The Web site is easy to navigate, concise, and full of useful information. Goldman is an interesting character and this Web site is a valuable resource that details radical and revolutionary politics that caused tumult across the globe.
  Emma Goldman

Urban Experience in Chicago: Hull-House and Its Neighborhoods, 1889-1963
Jane Addams, Hull-House, and the social settlement movement are some of the most well known symbols of the Progressive movement. Indeed, young do-gooders, especially female reformers, were important in shaping both Progressivism and nascent feminism. Addams, who founded Hull-House and was a leading figure of the social settlement movement, is a prototypical Progressive reformer. Thus, when students learn about Addams they are really studying Progressivism writ large.

This Web site, constructed by researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is first rate. Offering more than 900 separate texts and hundreds of images, the site documents Jane Addams, Hull-House, and the social settlement movement. Aside from the introduction, the Web site features six major sections: "Historical Narrative," "Timeline," "Images," "Geography," "Teachers' Resources," and "Search."

The "Historical Narrative" features 12 chapters that exhaustively detail Addams's life and career, Hull-House, and the social settlement movement. Within each chapter are interpretive narratives, essays, primary documents, and images. The "Timeline" offers a chronologically and topically arranged photo biography of Addams, while the "Images" section features more photographs that students can click on for more information. The "Geography" section is less valuable; it contains the ground plans for Hull-House, revealing how it grew over the decades. The "Teachers' Resources" area offers a number of classroom activities. Lastly, the "Search" section offers students an opportunity to search the site for particular information, people, or subjects, making this resource even more useful.

This is a big Web site with fairly sophisticated content. As Jane Addams is one of the century's prototypical reformers and symbols of the Progressive age, learning about her is indispensable for students. Some AP students will need guidance, although all students should enjoy the variety of information offered by the site, especially its photographs. This site is also easy to navigate.
  Urban Experience in Chicago: Hull-House and Its Neighborhoods, 1889-1963

The Theodore Roosevelt Collection
Teachers need to introduce students to readily recognizable individuals and ideas that are touchstones for the Progressive era. Theodore Roosevelt is a classic representative of early twentieth-century America. Through studying Roosevelt, students see a nation coming to grips with industrialization, modernity, and the creation of a truly national culture. This Web site offers primary documents including Roosevelt's personal letters, his autobiography, and memorable quotations from the earthy former president.

Roosevelt was bombastic and bigger than life. Students will delight in his dynamically written autobiography and essays. Through reading these primary documents, students will understand the zeitgeist of Roosevelt's age. During this time, Americans were genuinely concerned that the end of the frontier and an increasingly urban existence would sap the energy that was necessary to sustain a vital democracy. Roosevelt, through his "bully pulpit," urged Americans to "cross the line" of the comfortable and pursue a "strenuous life." This site features Roosevelt's essays chronicling his exploits with the Rough Riders, hunting trips in the Dakota Badlands, and his "zoogeographical reconnaissance" in the Brazilian wilderness.

In addition, the site has compiled Roosevelt's letters to his children. These letters humanize the former president and offer depth to his rough-hewn identity. Students will delight in Roosevelt's anonymously written estimation of himself in his editorial titled "Theodore's Roosevelt's Influence." The site's main weakness is that it offers no photographs or oral histories of those who knew, loved and/or despised Roosevelt. This site is definitely intended for students capable of interpreting primary material. Moreover, it necessitates establishing the context for understanding Roosevelt's ideas and outsized character.
  The Theodore Roosevelt Collection

People's Century: Age of Hope
The People's Century was a series of PBS-produced documentaries detailing twentieth-century life. The series spawned a Web site dedicated to the same. The site chronicles the early twentieth century (roughly 1900-1914) and is devoted to capturing the hope and optimism of the era and the concomitant crushing sense of disillusionment that accompanied the First World War and its aftermath. Through oral history, stories submitted from viewers, and related Internet links, the Web site is an effective tool to communicate the era's zeitgeist in a very human and personal way.

The site does a nice job in capturing the era's optimism through featuring the oral histories of the epoch's aged survivors. With an average age of 102, the people interviewed in Age of Hope are the last surviving links to the era. Happily, the individuals are full of verve, nuggets of wisdom, and humanity. For example, Dorah Ramothibe, a black South African, grew up before Nelson Mandela was even born and attended early African National Congress meetings. Her oral history reveals the profound sense of optimism ordinary folks possessed and their belief that their actions could create a better world.

Oral histories are unreliable for establishing facts and accurate accounts of events. Despite this shortcoming, oral history is an effective classroom tool. Teachers should warn students that this Web site's "facts" are not necessarily reliable; rather they should listen to the oral histories with an ear toward ingesting larger emotional truths. In fact, a teacher could lead a discussion on the accuracy of eyewitness history and its usefulness. This is a Web site geared toward igniting student interest in history.
  People's Century: Age of Hope

Votes for Women: Selections from the National American Woman Suffrage
Association Collection, 1848-1921

Women's history is too often an episodic narrative relegated to the footnotes and margins. For example, most units on World War II will devote some time in detailing Rosie the Riveter's contribution toward winning the war. However, in the course of the standard history women rarely take center stage as the prime movers in shaping events. One corrective to this is a study of the decades-long suffrage movement.

The Library of Congress produced the Web site Votes for Women, which is a warehouse for documents pertaining to the women's suffrage movement. The site offers access to the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) Collection, which consists of 167 books, pamphlets, and other artifacts pertaining to the suffrage campaign. Some of the more interesting documents include an account of Susan B. Anthony's trial for illegally voting in the 1872 presidential election, the transcript of the debate on women's suffrage in the United States Senate, and letters and poems from the collection of Carrie Chapman Catt.

The site offers significant material on leading suffragettes such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Lucy Stone. The primary documents pertaining to these women allow these individuals to come alive and cease being one-dimensional figures in frumpy dresses. The site includes links to related women's history resources at the Library of Congress that are similarly outstanding and well worth visiting.

Unfortunately, this site fails to offer an oral history component wherein students could listen to Stanton or Catt describe their movement in their own words. However, the document collection is massive, which means this site is for upper-level students only.
  Votes for Women: Selections from the National American Woman Suffrage Association Collection, 1848-1921

Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wall-paper" -- The "New Woman"
This Web site traces the origins of the modern feminist movement. Using the feminist revolt against the mid-nineteenth century's "cult of domesticity" as its context, the site offers numerous primary sources and lesson ideas for the classroom. The Web site is a great resource for teachers who are looking a step-by-step lesson plan, or those simply looking for a particular primary document for the classroom.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman's seminal essay, "The Yellow Wall-paper" (1899), is the prism through which students learn about the nascent feminist movement. Therefore, students must read her essay, which is available on the site. However, after that, no two visits to the site need be similar. Indeed, there are scores of documents, photographs, essays, poems, and other primary sources available on the site, all of which underline the emergence of the twentieth century's "New Woman."

Teachers may follow the site's lesson plan, which is detailed and quite sound. The Web site's creators sought to depict the lives of middle- to upper-class women at the turn of the twentieth century. Through advice literature, essays, cartoons, and photographs, students learn about the predominant roles prescribed for women and why Gilman and others reacted to these constraints in the ways they did. Thus, the site is an excellent source for a detailed look into feminism rather than an introduction to the movement.

This site offers complex ideas presented in simple and understandable fashion, yet teachers must use caution. Mixed in with accessible primary documents are some incongruous links, such as one leading to a detailed and polemical book review (of Alan Trachtenberg's The Incorporation of America). Since the site offers so many varied links, students should be guided to the particular documents and sources that are germane and age-appropriate. This is a good site, but do not let students run loose; otherwise, confusion and frustration might ensue. With proper supervision and instruction, students will better understand a rather complex movement.
  Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wall-paper" -- The "New Woman"





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