Podcast # 46: The Progressive Era, Muckrakers and Settlement Houses

The Progressive Era takes place from roughly 1890-1920. This is a big chunk of time in American History where see unprecedented growth and changes to American society. It’s also important for me to mention that without WWI, Women’s suffrage and Prohibition might not have been passed when they were. It is during this time period where we see a variety of reforms or changes being made at the local, state and federal levels of government. Progressives came from a variety of backgrounds and socioeconomic classes within society. They tended to have different areas within society that they hoped to change. What they did have in common was the belief that society needed to be changed. During the Progressive Era we also see a number of Amendments added to the Constitution. The 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th Amendments are all Progressive Era Amendments. The Progressive era was not a unified movement. You have a number of social problems within society that are being brought to light through the work of what was referred to as Muckrakers. Muckrakers were journalists, writers and reporters who exposed problems within society.

Jacob Riis is probably one of the most famous muckrakers. His book, “How the other Half Lives” became a national best-selling book. He understood the plight of the poor immigrant because he was one. He was a Danish immigrant and came to the United States when he was 21 years old. He was homeless and without a job. He spent his first few years without a home and working odd jobs. He eventually got a steady job as a reporter. As a reporter he worked and documented life in some of the poorest neighborhoods in NYC. NYC was the most densely populated city in the United States. His work as a police reporter allowed him the opportunity to become friends with Teddy Roosevelt who at that time was President of the NYC Police Board.

Such lodging-houses have caused more destitution, more beggary and crime than any other agency I know of.”

Usually the ten- and seven-cent lodgings are different grades of the same abomination. Some sort of an apology for a bed, with mattress and blanket, represents the aristocratic purchase of the tramp who, by a lucky stroke of beggary, has exchanged the chance of an empty box or ash-barrel for shelter on the quality floor of one of these “hotels.”

Jacob Riis new from personal experience how awful these lodging houses were. It was after he was robbed and his dog was killed in one of them that he became a social activist. The worst conditions were in the Police Lodging Houses. Riis took then Commissioner Roosevelt on a tour of the Lodging houses and Roosevelt had them closed down. In our podcast on Theodore Roosevelt, I discussed how Roosevelt would go on tours of police beats, often times with Jacob Riis who knew the neighborhoods well and Roosevelt was able to clean up the NYC Police force.

Jacob Riis’ book started out at as an 1889 18-page newspaper article for Scribner’s Magazine and in 1890, the book was published. It is one of the earliest examples of photojournalism.

In his book Jacob Riis wrote:

“Long ago it was said that "one half of the world does not know how the other half lives." That was true then. It did not know because it did not care. The half that was on top cared little for the struggles, and less for the fate of those who were underneath, so long as it was able to hold them there and keep its own seat. There came a time when the discomfort and consequent upheavals so violent, that it was no longer an easy thing to do, and then the upper half fell to inquiring what was the matter. Information on the subject has been accumulating rapidly since, and the whole world has had its hands full answering for its old ignorance.” – Jacob Riis “How The Other Half Lives”

He used flash photography which was still in its early stages and rather dangerous, he was almost blinded once and the explosions needed were a fire hazard.

Riis wrote about and showed through photographs just how bad conditions were in tenements, in factories – casting a spotlight on child labor. He showed images of “rag pickers” who sifted through mountains of garbage at the dump looking for rags that could be resold. Many of the people also lived and slept near those mountains of garbage, many of them children. The book is not without its critics, Riis uses common racial slurs and serotypes for the time period. The work got people talking and helped to spur reforms. Riis, Lillian Wald who we will hear about heard about in a minute, and other reformers advocated for new housing designs, dwelling spaces needed ventilation and windows. The Tenement House Commission and the Tenement House Dept. which were created as a result, described tenements as infant slaughter houses. Infant mortality rates were so high – it is believed 1 in 5 infants died. Diseases spread rapidly and often caused epidemics of cholera, typhoid and other horrible diseases. Reformers advocated for open air parks, playgrounds to be built so that the general public had access to clean and open air spaces.

Lincoln Steffens is another muckraking journalist who is less known than Riis.

He wrote the book, Shame of the cities in 1902 where he exposed the corruption in city governments. He traveled to a number of different cities, Minneapolis, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Chicago and New York and in each place, uncovered a variety of examples of corruption within these local city governments and their agencies. He talked about the need for the average person to take notice of what is happening around them. That ignorance does not allow one to be innocent. Yes, political machines and wealthy business men looking to control the strings are to blame but so too is the average person who allows this corruption to continue – whether knowingly or unknowingly.

Ida Tarbell is another heavy hitter in the Progressive Era. She was a journalist most known for helping to bring down Standard Oil, John Rockefeller’s Monopoly. Her father was in the oil business and like many other smaller oil companies, was ruined by Standard Oil’s tactics. Her articles were originally printed in McClure’s Magazine, which was a popular magazine of the time period which focused on a variety of political topics. She was known for taking what was typically a complex topic for the average reader to understand and explain it in a way that made it digestible. She was an excellent writer, she wrote on a variety of topics not just Progressive Issues, major biographies on Napoleon Bonaparte and Abraham Lincoln just to give you an example. Her series of 19 different articles on Standard Oil were well researched and included interviews with top figures. She was successful in exposing their corrupt business tactics and in 1911, Standard Oil was broken apart. In her articles which were later published as a book, Ida Tarbell stated “Rockefeller and his associates did not build the Standard Oil Co. in the board rooms of Wall Street banks. They fought their way to control by rebate and drawback, bribe and blackmail, espionage and price cutting, by ruthless efficiency of organization.”

Any discussion of the Progressive Era would be incomplete without talking about Settlement Houses. Settlement Houses were key players in the Progressive Era and often served as the driving force behind many changes within society. Settlement houses would immerse themselves in the city in which they were located. They lived there, they got to know the people and they were able to see the areas that were of the utmost need of attention or change in the neighborhoods. Then they got to work on fixing the issues at hand.

Henry Street Settlement, was originally known as Nurse’s Settlement and was established by a Nurse named Lilian Ward in NYC. She came from a fairly well to do family and was educated at Women’s medical college. She moved into a tenement apartment with the goal of helping the people of the Lower East Side of Manhattan. It was through her experience of volunteering to teach a course to the local poor about home health care that she saw first-hand the great need providing health care services to the city’s neediest citizens. The poor were often overlooked and neglected when it came to medical care. If you couldn’t afford to pay the doctor, the doctor left. I would be remiss if I didn’t take this opportunity to talk about the importance of volunteerism. Going out into the world and giving of your time and your talents to help others is not only a benefit to the people you help but to yourself. Some of the greatest life lessons I have learned, came from when I was volunteering and meeting and speaking with people I might have otherwise never have met. It was also through volunteerism that I realized my passion for teaching. Consider giving of your time to a local charity, a neighborhood organization a food bank or soup kitchen. Time is the most precious thing we can give to someone else, because we give it without knowing how much of it we have. Not to get on my soap box, but it’s the truth. Volunteer, give of your time, invest in the community in which you live. See the changes that are needed and do what you can, however small or insignificant it may seem, just might make a world of different to someone else of your community.

On Today’s podcast we are joined by Katie Vogel, the historian at Henry Street Settlement. Hi Katie, thank you for taking the time to join us today!

Why did Lilian Wald create the Henry Street Settlement and what areas within society did she hope to improve?

I’m always surprised at how little people know about Lilian Wald because she made such a difference to NYC. In fact, most fellow New Yorkers I know unless you live in the neighborhood of Henry Street Settlement, haven’t heard of it!

How did the Settlement House improve the living conditions of the poor in NYC?

So interesting, I didn’t know this about Lilian Wald.

The work begun by Lillian Wald lives on today through the more than 50 programs offered by Henry Street Settlement. Could you discuss some of the programs and how people can best help support the mission of your organization?

Work begun in the last century is still very much needed today. The programs provided by organizations like Henry Street are a lifeline for thousands of New Yorkers. New York wasn’t the only city with Settlement Houses, they were in most major cities.

It is impossible and certainly incomplete to discuss the role of settlement houses on the Progressive Era and not talk about Jane Addams and Hull House in Chicago. Jane Addams was the daughter of a wealthy businessman and state senator. She lived what some would call a privileged life. Her visit to a London settlement house, inspired her to build one in Chicago, Illinois. In 1889, she co-founded Hull House along with Ellen Gates Starr. Like many others, Jane Addams was college educated and as a woman, was unable to get a job in a field she was certainly qualified for. Doors were closed to women. Middle to upper middle class educated women could and did take their talents and use them to improve a variety of social problems within society. Jane Addams said “There is nothing after disease, indigence and guilt, so fatal to life itself as the want of a proper outlet for active faculties.” Settlement work provided women with an opportunity to use their skills. At Hull House, they taught a variety of classes in literature, art, music, English classes and technical skills. They provided day care for children. Hull House was home to a number of Progressive Era leaders. Florence Kelley worked to bring an end to child labor and the poor working conditions that existed in factories. A more appropriate term would be to refer to them as sweatshops. Her detailed reports of life for child laborers exposed the cruel, dangerous and unhealthy conditions the children of Illinois were living and working in. You have young children because they were small, operating or fixing heavy machinery. You have children losing limbs, their eyesight. You have children who are malnourished. During this time period, its estimated that over 40% of children in the United States were dying before their 5th birthday because on unsanitary living conditions, lack of food or lack of healthy food. Her work inspired the passing of laws which limited the work day for women to 8 hours and banned children in Illinois under the age of 14 from working. Kelley moved to NY and worked with Lillian Wald who we heard about earlier at Henry Street Settlement.

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