Progressive Movement

The Progressive Era, a term used to describe the period between approximately 1890 and 1920, witnessed an explosion of reform efforts in America. A great number of people, for a variety of reasons, participated in a vast number of diverse reforms, including women's suffrage, political reform, and prohibition. Progressive reformers initiated these changes in reaction to the increased level of, and problems associated with, urbanization and industrialization in late-nineteenth-century America. Taking advantage of new technological developments in transportation, communication, and organization, industry grew tremendously and immigrants flooded into unprepared cities for new jobs. With no government oversight or regulations, numerous problems erupted: Housing became overcrowded, dilapidated, and disease-ridden; industries failed to protect their employees financially, physically, or health-wise; and pollution became rampant.

Environmental activities formed part of progressive reformers' efforts. These environmental reformers generally viewed the environmental problems of the city in two different ways. The conservation and preservation activists, led by Gifford Pinchot and John Muir, respectively, pressed for the improvement and protection of "nature" outside the city.

They worked to set aside land either as undeveloped wilderness for its aesthetic values, or to maintain resources like forests for future use by humans.

Others interested in environmental problems, however, pressed for solutions within urban areas rather than outside of them. Jacob Riis, a muckraking journalist, published photographs of slum housing and their immigrant residents. His work outraged many and produced some reforms in living conditions. Upton Sinclair, perhaps one of the most famous muckrakers of the Progressive Era, published The Jungle in 1906, a startling, thinly fictionalized exposé of the meat-packing industry. Filled with stories of vile, unsanitary, and dangerous conditions for workers, the book led to legislative action in the form of the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act. In addition, reformers strived to improve working conditions in factories, resulting in factory inspection laws and child-labor laws.

Women also played a pivotal role in the antipollution movement of the Progressive Era. Alice Hamilton increased public awareness of toxic chemicals and their health effects. The Settlement House movement, led by women like Jane Addams, worked to better city services and conditions within immigrant neighborhoods. Smoke pollution also greatly concerned women at this time. Reacting to their increased laundry load in filthy conditions, as well as concerns about their husbands' and children's health, women dramatically altered the general public's conceptions of smoke. Up to this time, many had conceived of smoke as either a disinfectant or the necessary cost of progress. Women educated their fellow citizens on the health dangers of smoke, and their activism led to smoke-pollution-control laws in every major city in the United States by 1912. Men took control of this issue within legislative circles, stressing technology as a way to reduce smoke or burn the coal more efficiently.

Although progressive reformers generally raised awareness of environmental problems and changed public perceptions of pollution, their activism, in fact, remained quite limited. Reformers of this time generally accepted the beliefs of capitalism and industry. This caused them to limit their search for solutions to technological means, such as finding cleaner methods of burning coal, rather than examining consumption patterns of energy or other products. see also Activism; Addams, Jane; Environmental Movement; Hamilton, Alice; Industry; Lead; Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA); Point Source; Politics; Settlement House Movement; Solid Waste; Water Pollution; Workers Health Bureau.


Hoy, Suellen. (1995). Chasing Dirt: The American Pursuit of Cleanliness. New York: Oxford University Press.

Melosi, Martin, ed. (1980). Pollution and Reform in American Cities, 1870-1930. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

Stradling, David. (1999). Smokestacks and Progressives: Environmentalists, Engineers, and Air Quality in America, 1881-1951. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Internet Resource

Library of Congress, Memory Gallery C. "The Progressive Era." Available from

Elizabeth D. Blum

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  • benjamin abend
    What could have been done during the progressive era to prevent pollution?
    3 months ago
  • alceo
    How does global warming connect to the progressive era?
    3 months ago
  • robinia
    How did pollution cause progressivism?
    7 hours ago

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