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Lecture: Progressivism



Ansel Adams: Snake River photo

Collage of logos from GE, Pepsi, GM, Ford, Corn Flakes, Campbell's Soup, and photo fo earthquake, above list of events from this era
Timeline © Copyright 2008 Eric Davis http://hopes-and-dreams.net

Jacob Riis

Jacob Riis was a Scandinavian immigrant who arrived in 1870 at the age of 21. He struggled after he arrived despite a skill in carpentry, taking odd jobs and, at one point, starving and contemplating suicide. He eventually got a job with a news bureau, and began the road to becoming a reporter. By 1877 he was a police beat reporter for the New York Tribune, writing exposés about urban poverty. "Sweatshop Photo"

Experiencing frustration that conditions were not improving despite public sympathy, Riis turned to documenting conditions using photography. He felt that photos could provide irrefutable proof of appalling conditions, proof that politicians could not ignore or chalk up to dramatic story-telling. Many of his photos appeared in How the Other Half Lives, Riis' full-length book, available on-line.

Historians James Davidson and Mark Lytle, in their book "After the Fact: The Art of Historical Detection" point out that Riis' focus on unposed, real-life photos belies their use as interpretive images. They use the example of a family photo album: does your photo album represent your entire life, or only those portions you chose to record? Riis' photos are not objective. In some cases, he did arrange his subjects, and in every case he chose what elements to photograph. The angles of his photos tend to be low, so that the photographer would not appear to be literally or figuratively "above" his subjects. Riis was a Progressive, trying to make a point.

Social Progressivism

At the turn of the century, the middle class was different in its cultural values than it is today. So many of the creature comforts that define the middle class, so many of its items of "conspicuous consumption" were still new, and not yet taken for granted. Automobiles, the telephone, the telegraph, the camera, the phonograph: all were still wonders, incredible pieces of technology. Other technologies permitted a higher standard of living than anywhere in the world. During the early 20th century, refrigeration and canning made it possible to preserve fruit and meat for use in any season. Ready-to-wear clothing was available from mail-order catalogs, pasteurized milk was delivered to cities, flush toilets and porcelain bathtubs were available for interior bathrooms, radiators could be used to heat a room, and home electricity was becoming more common.

The songs of the day reflected some of the lifestyle changes brought on by this technology.

Hello, Ma Baby Hello Ma Baby sheet music

I've got a little baby, but she's out of sight,
I talk to her across the telephone;
I've never seen ma honey but she's mine all right,
So take my tip and leave this gal alone.
Ev'ry single morning you will hear me yell
"Hey, central, fix me up along the line!"
She connects me with ma honey, then I ring the bell,
And this is what I say to baby mine.

Hello, ma baby, Hello, ma honey,
Hello, ma ragtime gal,
Send me a kiss by wire,
Baby my heart's on fire!
If you refuse me, Honey, you'll lose me,
Then you'll be left alone; Oh, baby, telephone
and tell me I'm your own.

Second verse (not sung here):
This morning through the 'phone she said her name was Bess,
And now I kind of know where I am at;
I'm satisfied because I've got my babe's address,
Here pasted in the lining of my hat.
I am might scared 'cause if the wires get crossed
'Twill separate me from ma baby mine,
Then some other man will win her and my game is lost,
And so each day I shout along the line....

"Addams and Kids at Hull House"In this environment, it was possible to see that others did not have what you had, to note the distinctions among classes and feel that these distinctions were wrong. Perhaps this is why your sources note the prominence of women, who had the closest contact at home with many of these items, and for whom these items represented status and success. Perhaps as more women became personally and politically active, they became more aware of the "have nots", and wanted to help. In some ways, Social Progressivism is related Social Darwinism, putting forward the view that one should help the poor because they cannot help themselves. In another way, Social Progressivism is just the continuation of defining the role of government in the lives of American citizens.

As with Social Darwinism, Social Progressivism could be scientifically justified. Social science (especially sociology) was being invented as a discipline. Applying scientific principles to human society became the means of documenting the need for reform, and creating rational reform. Data could be collected about any element in society, then collected and rational conclusions made. It was possible to understand the problems of society and solve them, it was believed, using scientific study.

Progressivism impacted other areas of culture as well, in particular the style of the home. A shift from Victorian values of conspicuous consumption to an emphasis on a simpler, more self-sufficient lifestyle is evident in domestic architecture.

Document: Gustav Stickley: The Craftsman Home (1909)

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click for slideshow

Lisa's slideshow is also linked here if it isn't showing in the rectangle directly above.

Production and Work

"Assembly Line" One of the most fascinating changes, and one responsible for the numerous wonders of the home, was the change toward the assembly line for production. The concept of interchangeable parts was not new; Eli Whitney was working on it during the early 19th century. But the idea that a worker could be still, while the product moved on a conveyor belt, brought revolutionary change.

Prior to assembly lines, the product remained still as workers worked on it. Cars were thus assembled on the factory floor, with specialty workers going around to each car, adding this or that. Alternatively, one car could be built at a time, from the ground up. But an assembly line put the vehicle in motion as it was being assembled, and broke up the process of work. An auto worker who had previously worked on a team assembling a motor now simply twisted a few bolts into an engine passing him by on an overhead track or conveyer belt.

The new focus on social science impacted production too. Studies in human efficiency made it possible for factory owners to ensure maximum production on the assembly line. Frederick Taylor, an engineer at Bethlehem Steel, became an expert in these studies. His work on "time-motion" studies was influential. An example would be that worker twisting bolts into the automobile engine. If the worker had to walk ten steps to where the bolts were kept, then walk back to the assembly line, then stoop to attach the bolts, valuable time and energy was being wasted. The work space would be rearranged so that the box of bolts was closer, and the vehicle raised at that point so the worker could stand, not stoop. Improvements all along the line could speed up production enormously.

The problem was that time-motion studies, and their results, made the worker like a part of a machine. There was no individualism or skill involved in an assembly line worker's job, and their very physical motion became part of mechanization. There was little satisfaction is seeing a completed car, and being able to say, "I put three bolts in the undercarriage of that". This devaluation of labor was one reason (along with dangerous conditions and 59 hour weeks at $2 a day) that unions became so popular during this time. Another reason was the injustice of harsh treatment against striking workers.

Woody Guthrie was a folk singer who documented the labor movement in songs.

"Folk Music"

This excerpt from "Ludlow Massacre", recorded in the 1940s, documents this event.One of my students sent me the full lyrics:

It was early springtime when the strike was on,
They drove us miners out of doors,
Out from the houses that the Company owned,
We moved into tents up at old Ludlow.
I was worried bad about my children,
Soldiers guarding the railroad bridge,
Every once in a while a bullet would fly,
Kick up gravel under my feet.
We were so afraid you would kill our children,
We dug us a cave that was seven foot deep,
Carried our young ones and pregnant women
Down inside the cave to sleep.

That very night your soldiers waited,
Until all us miners were asleep,
You snuck around our little tent town,
Soaked our tents with your kerosene.

You struck a match and in the blaze that started,
You pulled the triggers of your gatling guns,
I made a run for the children but the fire wall
stopped me.
Thirteen children died from your guns.

I carried my blanket to a wire fence corner,
Watched the fire till the blaze died down,
I helped some people drag their belongings,
While your bullets killed us all around.

I never will forget the look on the faces
Of the men and women that awful day,
When we stood around to preach their funerals,
And lay the corpses of the dead away.
We told the Colorado Governor to call the President,
Tell him to call off his National Guard,
But the National Guard belonged to the Governor,
So he didn't try so very hard.

Our women from Trinidad they hauled some potatoes,
Up to Walsenburg in a little cart,
They sold their potatoes and brought some guns back,
And they put a gun in every hand.

The state soldiers jumped us in a wire fence corners,
They did not know we had these guns,
And the Red-neck Miners mowed down these troopers,
You should have seen those poor boys run.

We took some cement and walled that cave up,
Where you killed these thirteen children inside,
I said, "God bless the Mine Workers' Union,"
And then I hung my head and cried.

Socialism also became popular.

The obvious cause of the devaluation of labor was the capitalist system, which glorified efficiency and competition at the expense of human dignity. The solution, said the socialists, was for workers to own the means of production. Originally, this idea had been presented by 19th century European socialists, then Karl Marx (who predicted that workers would overthrow the class system because they were being exploited), and ultimately some progressives and IWW organizers. More about them later.

Document: Upton Sinclair: The Jungle (1906)

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Birth Control

Certainly Progressivism provided a real-world role, outside the home, for middle class women. For many, it gave their lives purpose beyond that of raising a family. Like the missionary activity during the Empire period, social work provided an opportunity for females, particularly those who did not wish to marry, to serve society in a meaningful way.

Like the new social scientists, many Progressive women sought scientific explanations for social problems. When it came to the conditions of the working poor, one obvious problem was the size of the families. Unlike in farming communities, where every child born is needed for labor, many children become a burden in an urban setting. They become more mouths to feed and clothe and house, while the adults earn the same amount in wages and live in the same square footage. The middle class had already learned that controlling family size increased family wealth. Despite laws against disseminating birth control information, middle class women had enough education and enough educated relatives all speaking the same language, to understand the basics.

Document: Advertisement: Pessary/Sheath (1891)

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Besides, in Victorian families, sex was considered a necessity for the creation of children. It was assumed that men would grow up with some sexual experience, often at a house of prostitution as a guest of a male relative. The purpose of this experience was to teach men enough so that they did not hurt, disgust or abuse their wives once they were married. Women, however, were raised with very little knowledge about their own bodies. Many thought they were dying when they got their first menstrual period. Gynecological examinations were considered immodest, to be undergone only if one was in terrible pain and unable to function normally. Most middle class women first experienced sex on their wedding night, an event they were prepared for by a brief discussion with a female relative: "Couple in Embrace"

Dear, men are very different from women. They have an animalistic side of them that is unrefined, and requires a sexual outlet. When you and your husband are in bed together, the important thing is to lie quietly. No matter how much it hurts, don't let on that you are dismayed or in pain. You will need to tolerate his baser lusts, because that is the way you will fulfill your destiny, which is to be a mother. If he's a good husband, he won't trouble you with his desires more than a couple of times a month. Good luck, dear.
Needless to say, many middle class women had been trained not to enjoy sex, and many middle class men had been trained not to bother their wives with their sexual desires (which is why prostitution was a booming business at the time). This did, however, provide an automatic kind of birth control.

The poor, especially the immigrant poor, had no such prudish concepts about sex and no such knowledge about birth control. Margaret Sanger, a middle class Progressive nurse who had daily contact with the poor, wanted to educate them about birth control. But obscenity laws prevented it. It is impossible to teach someone about birth control without discussing the use of certain bodily parts involved in conceiving children, and to publish the names of those parts was considered obscene. Sanger persisted, sometimes landing in jail, but succeeding in opening the first birth control clinics. As you read the document, think to yourself:

Document: Margaret Sanger: The Case for Birth Control (1917) audio

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Sanger was not alone; she was joined by other Progressive women. One of these was Lithuanian immigrant and anarchist Emma Goldman, of whom you will learn more soon. Another was Mary Ware Dennett, who founded the Voluntary Parenthood League in 1919 (the first full biography of her was written in 1996; this review of a recent book also has a description of her work, and this site has her book "The Sex Side of Life" itself).

Influences of the Progressive Era

There are many relics of Progressivism today, including the public school nurse and the school lunch programs you may have experienced as a child. Many social services, public playgrounds, and parks are the result of municipal progressivism.

But the most important Progressive means for influencing change has been two political tools: initiative and referendum. We have both tools now in California, where either people who sign a petition (initiative) or the legislature puts issues on the ballot for us to vote on (referendum). Not every state has this form of direct democracy. Initiative and referendum are icons of early 20th century Progressivism in Western states. See the map at the Initiative and Referendum Institute's website.

Much of our approach to educating children was affected by Progressive reforms in education, particularly those of John Dewey. Dewey, a philosopher on many subjects, broke away from classical education to emphasize schooling that would apply to the real world and involve experimentation and daily life instead of abstract learning. One reason why first grade math teaches addition by visualizing three apples plus two pears, for example, is because of Dewey. However, I feel that the Progressive movement in education did do some damage in its agenda to create a melting pot of Americans. By "Americanizing" immigrant children from Europe and Asia, it provided a way for them to belong and to develop as part of American society. But it also caused a generation gap and conflicts with parents, many of whom still spoke the language and practiced traditions from "the old country". Their Americanized children began to look down on the older generation and lose respect as they spoke English and played baseball. This was particularly wounding for families that had worked so hard to give their children a better life, and loved this country dearly.

"Family at Supper"Similarly, some Progressive legislation designed to protect women did tremendous good, but also served to restrict the female roles. One example is the Muller v Oregon Supreme Court case of 1908, which limited maximum working hours for female wage-earners because they are physically inferior due to their maternal role. Enforcing reduced hours is clearly a good thing, but how can a woman who's carried and birthed a child be physically incapable? These issues will come up again, when some women will oppose the Equal Rights Amendment because it would remove protective legislation.

Also during this era, the Industrial Workers of the World became an important force in labor. Founded in 1905 in Chicago (remember Chicago for the Haymarket Riots and the Pullman Strike?), it emerged in opposition to the American Federation of Labor. The AFL, which had been founded in 1886 by a group splintering off from the Knights of Labor, was what we might call a moderate union. It was very large because it was essentially composed of many local unions, and Samuel Gompers, its leader, focused on wages and working conditions. They supported Democratic candidates, and began the association between labor and the Democratic party. But the IWW (known as the Wobblies) was international and focused on industry instead of crafts and local groups. Wobblies saw nothing in common between industrial workers and capitalist employers, and tended to be Marxist intheir outlook. They were subject to government crackdowns on their meetings and activities, especially when they came out against participation in World War I.

W.E.B. DuBoisI have already noted that, concerning AfricanAmerican rights, W.E.B. DuBois was in opposition to Booker T. Washington, who promoted social and economic rights over political equality. DuBois was Harvard educated with a degree in History, and promoted the development of a black political elite who could fight for representation and rights in the political arena. He was deeply suspicious of capitalism as a cause of racism, and was against the colonization of Africa by European powers, and saw a direct connection to the fates of Africans around the world. In 1906 he and fellow scholars founded the Niagara Movement to fight against ideas of black inferiority, opposing segregation and interference with voting rights. They also supported female suffrage and equal opportunity in all aspects of civil life. The idea that "Persistent manly agitation is the way to liberty" will emerge again in the 1960s with Malcolm X.

Document: W.E.B. DuBois: The Talented Tenth (1903)

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In terms of the environment, progressive thinking (I don't use the capital "P" here because it often wasn't political) began to solidify. President Theodore Roosevelt has been lauded for creating national parks and establishing conservation. But don't get too carried away with Theodore Roosevelt's efforts at conservation. Early 20th century conservation was for the purpose of use; in other words, stop overhunting so there will be more to hunt later on. Roosevelt himself was a big game hunter, and on one trip to Africa the British government had kindly suspended the game limits for him. He killed so many animals that they had to stop him and reassert the limits. So keep perspective. The issue at this time is appropriate use by future generations, not the preservation of natural areas without human interference. Thanks to naturalist John Muir (see his document - he also co=founded the Sierra Club) Congress passed the National Park Bill in 1899, which created both Yosemite and Sequoia national parks. Muir was a preservationist, not just a conservationist - he wanted wilderness areas left untouched.

Document: John Muir: A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf (1916)

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Special Feature: American Women Before the 20th Century

Alternate link to video: A Very Brief History of American Women Before 1919


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