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Twentieth Century: Society in the United States

Industrial growth and progressive reform in America in the 20th century

  • Grades: 6–8, 9–12

The 20th century was a time of enormous changes in American life. The beginning of the 21st century seems a suitable time to look back over the past 100 years and see how the United States has developed, for better and worse, during that period of its history.

In the early decades of the 20th century the American people benefited from industrial growth while also experiencing its adverse effects. Cheap labor and assembly-line manufacturing made mass production possible. Railroad networks carried the mass-produced goods, many of them the result of new technologies, around the country. Montgomery Ward, J.C. Penney, and other retailers expanded their operations and laid the foundation for the consumer-driven society that evolved later in the century. Materially, city dwellers' standards of living improved steadily, not only in food, shelter, housing, and other material goods, but also in health care and education. Inexpensive books, magazines, newspapers, and improved public libraries, funded in part through the benevolence of Andrew Carnegie, contributed to their intellectual lives. Sexual fulfillment in marital relationships continued to gain importance, and family life increasingly reflected the ideals of companionship. Silent films and amateur and professional sports helped fill leisure time. The Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, founded in 1908 and 1910, provided recreational and educational opportunities for children.

Determined to make the most of the nation's abundant natural, human, and financial resources, the government supported industrial growth by enacting protective tariffs, welcoming throngs of immigrants, providing railroad subsidies, maintaining a patent system, and looking the other way when abuses occurred. Advocates of Social Darwinism's "survival of the fittest" principles and believers in the doctrine of laissez-faire encouraged a climate resistant to government intervention on behalf of disadvantaged workers and victims of racial, ethnic, or gender discrimination.

Adverse Effects of Industrial Growth

Changes in the workplace reached across social strata. For those in the working class, the effects of industrial growth were often adverse. Labor unions enjoyed little public support, lacked legal status, suffered from internal differences, were weakened by periodic economic depressions, and lacked the power to counter employers' use of such anti-union tactics as hiring strikebreakers, known as scabs.

Crowding of industrial workers and their families in tenement districts worked against the kind of neighborliness that characterized life in small towns. The saloon was the social club for many immigrants. It provided cheap or free lunches, warmth, banking and notary services, gambling, party rooms, and political headquarters. Premature death disrupted many families. At the turn of the century, life expectancy at birth for white males was 46.6 years; for black males, 32.5 years; for white females, 48.7 years; and for black females, 33.5 years. (In 1995 the figures for the comparable groups were 73.4, 65.2, 79.6, and 73.9.) The maternal mortality rate in 1915 was 61 per 1,000 live births (compared to 8 in 1990); the infant mortality rate stood at 100 per 1,000 live births (compared to 7.6 in 1990), and was twice as high for blacks. Divorce also caused disruptions. The number of divorces was 15 times higher in 1920 than in 1870; by the mid-1920s, one in seven marriages ended in divorce. Moral problems evident in the corruption of urban political machines, high juvenile delinquency and crime rates (the homicide rate had quadrupled in New York in the last two decades of the 19th century), and widespread prostitution were coupled with health problems: diseases and epidemics resulting in part from water and sewage disposal deficiencies.

Journalists known as muckrakers took aim at social ills. Lincoln Steffens, for example, described "the shame of the cities," and Upton Sinclair exposed appalling conditions in meatpacking plants. Pragmatic activists worked to improve social conditions. For example, Jane Addams's Hull House, founded in Chicago in 1889, led others to establish settlement houses where immigrants learned to adjust to their new experiences. Walter Rauschenbusch led a Social Gospel movement that called for churches to promote social justice. Margaret Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in Brooklyn in 1916. Four years later the Youngs Rubber Company introduced Trojan brand condoms.

Progressive Reforms

Believing in "the promise of American life" (the title of a 1909 book by Herbert Croly), reformers in what is known as the Progressive Era advocated laws designed to fulfill that promise. The results of their efforts included the Pure Food and Drug Act and Meat Inspection Act (1906), intended to protect consumers against tainted or unsafe products; the Federal Reserve Act (1913), to bring order to the banking industry; the establishment of the Federal Trade Commission (1913), to investigate and prosecute corporations for unfair trade practices; and the Clayton Anti-Trust Act (1914), to curb the power of trusts. To make government more responsive and accountable, reformers promoted practices known as referendum and initiative, as well as direct primaries, the secret ballot, and direct election of senators, the last accomplished by the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (1913). The 19th Amendment (1920), guaranteeing women's right to vote, was a significant milestone in the campaign for women's rights that had begun in the middle of the previous century. The Progressive movement did little else for women, however, and even less for African Americans. Jim Crow laws enacted in Southern states between 1890 and 1910 sanctioned racial discrimination and curtailed blacks' right to vote. Segregation by race was defended as being "in the interest of the Negro." Booker T. Washington, the most famous African American, seemed to agree by advocating policies of accommodation. W. E. B. Du Bois, author of The Souls of Black Folk (1903), challenged him and provided leadership in founding the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (1909).

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    American History
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