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America's History in the Making

The Progressives

Unit Overview

A Visit from the Old Mistress. 1876. dup of 2151

During the late 1800s and early 1900s, the United States experienced a fundamental change in the way workers earned a living and in the way people and institutions interacted. Relationships changed between government and industry, industry and workers, government and its citizens, and even between family members.

Many Americans left farming and moved to cities to take jobs in factories and offices. While the workers often lived in wretched conditions, increasing numbers of people with discretionary income formed a new urban middle class. Part of the attraction of city life was an alluring consumer culture. For many, the attraction of consumer goods such as fashion, furniture, and houses became the major incentive to "get ahead." For young adults, another attraction of big cities was that they no longer lived with their parents; thus, courtship patterns changed from chaperoned visits to dating.

Activist citizens began movements to improve urban conditions because the infrastructure could not accommodate this growing and impoverished working class. Reformers worked for public education, better work conditions, labor rights, women's rights, the safety of the nation's food supply, and the conservation of natural resources.

Reform movements were so diverse that they sometimes conflicted. For example, some advocates protested censorship; others pressed for more censorship in the name of morality. Some reform movements sought to expand democracy, while others sought to rein it in. Some supported greater political rights for African Americans, and others sought to limit voting rights for immigrants and African Americans.

Historians have applied the term "Progressive" both to the period from roughly 1890 to 1914 and the reform movements that emerged during these years. Within these Progressive movements were some that might be considered conservative today, such as the movement to restrict voting rights. The term "progressive" in lower-case usually means tending toward more democracy and is a relative and historically changing term. To minimize confusion, we will use the term "reform movements" and the people who promoted them as "reformers."

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