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America's History in the Making

The Progressives

In the Video

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Historical Perspectives

Historical Perspectives

During the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, many Americans left farms, moved to cities, and experienced changes in the way they lived, earned an income, and interacted with the government. In cities, many young people lived away from their parents, drove cars, worked in offices, and had disposable income. Cities allowed women to be more independent, but this newfound independence clashed with the cultural perception that women were fragile.

A burgeoning consumer culture was part of the attraction to city life, with an increasing number of people who had discretionary income. The availability of so many cheap goods presented the opportunity to consume a greater variety of goods. Consumerism raised America's standard of living, but debt became a commonplace feature of urban society. Thousands of African Americans left the South and migrated north to cities for job opportunities. In part, chain migration of African Americans resulted in crowded black ghettos. Other newcomers, including foreign immigrants and white migrants from rural America, also often lived in miserable conditions.

During this "Progressive Era," many reform movements resulted from the influx of immigrants and migrants that overwhelmed American cities. The Progressive Period ushered the United States into an era of increased government involvement in peoples' lives, sometimes providing more democracy, sometimes less. As some reformers fought for the right of women to vote, other reformers passed laws limiting the voting rights of others.

Faces of America

Faces of America

Jane Addams, Henry Goddard, and W. E. B. DuBois struggled to improve American society and viewed government as having social responsibility; their perceptions of the government's responsibilities differed considerably, however.

Jane Addams, the daughter of a wealthy Illinois state senator, promoted an activist government to remedy the problems that caused ghetto life. Inspired by a program in England, Addams established Hull House, a settlement house in a poor immigrant neighborhood in Chicago. Unlike many reformers, Addams became convinced that the private sector could not be relied on to fix society's problems, and the only way to address many societal issues was through the taxing power of municipal, state, and federal governments.

Scientist Henry Goddard promoted the practice of Eugenics, a popular twentieth-century scientific movement that aimed at improving society through selective breeding of superior humans. Goddard's interest in human intelligence caused him to focus on those with learning disabilities, or to use the early-twentieth-century term, "feebleminded." In 1913, Goddard established an intelligence testing program on Ellis Island at the request of the United States Department of Immigration.

William Edward Burghardt DuBois became the first African American to graduate from Harvard and became a political activist during the late nineteenth century. In 1906, DuBois and a group of northern blacks organized the Niagara Movement to promote integration and challenge the views of Booker T. Washington, the recognized African American leader of the times.

Hands on History

Hands on History

What do clothes tell us about the period in which they are designed or worn?

Annamarie Von Firley, a fashion designer at ReVamp Vintage, in Los Angeles recreates vintage fashions that cover the period from c. 1910–50. Von Firley explains how clothes reflect an era and how she uses primary source materials to create her designs. Read edited Hands on History interview with Annamarie Von Firley.

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