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Work and Home Improvements of the Progressive Era

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  • 0:05 Progressive Views
  • 1:55 Workplace Improvements
  • 4:19 Home Improvements
  • 6:58 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Laurel Click

Laurel has taught social studies courses at the high school level and has a master's degree in history.

During the Progressive Era, from around 1900-1917, reformers made efforts to improve living conditions in society. Lean how Progressive reformers worked to alleviate difficulties facing Americans in the workplace and at home.

Progressive Views

From around 1900-1917, Progressive reformers applied a systematic approach to problems facing Americans in the workplace and at home. One approach arose from pragmatism, a philosophy popular in the early twentieth century. Followers of pragmatism, pragmatists, as they became known, stressed that the value of an idea was based on its usefulness as determined through practice and experimentation. William James, author of Pragmatism (1907), stressed that truth comes from the ability to solve problems. Many Progressive reformers adhered to pragmatist ideas, believing social problems could be fixed through intelligent and purposeful action.

Another pragmatist best known for his work in education was John Dewey, author of Democracy and Education (1916). Dewey promoted the idea that social reform begins at school. Schooling was emphasized as a way to modernize and to assimilate immigrants. Compulsory attendance laws were enacted in many states and college attendance increased.

The efficiency movement focused on eliminating waste and developing best practices. A prominent leader of the efficiency movement was Frederick W. Taylor, author of Principles of Scientific Management (1911). Taylor was an industrial engineer, who applied scientific management principles to plant organization and efficiency standards in work environments. The results were greater worker productivity and lower production costs. A key example of the efficiency movement is the large scale use of the assembly line by Henry Ford of the automobile industry.

Middle class professions became better organized and created standards of practice within their disciplines. Professional associations excluded untrained and incompetent people from their organizations by setting admission requirements and examinations. Examples include the American Medical Association, the American Bar Association, and the National Education Association.

Workplace Improvements

Have you ever found yourself questioning the safety of the working conditions at your job? Imagine if you were paid hourly but were required to stay late to do extra work without extra pay. Or what if you got hurt on the job, but you were required to pay your own medical bills? None of this sounds fair, yet these were the conditions many workers dealt with during the early twentieth century. Let's now look at some of the workplace improvements during the Progressive Era.

Women benefited from the ruling in the Supreme Court case Muller v. Oregon (1908). The court upheld an Oregon state law that restricted working hours for women laundry workers to a 10-hour day. The court made the decision based on evidence showing long hours were harmful to women and their families.

When the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire (1911) broke out in New York City, 146 women died because emergency exits had been locked, and the women had become trapped. Some jumped to their death while others died in the fire. Across the country, at the local and state levels, factory inspection laws were implemented, protecting workers from fire hazards and dangerous working conditions. Health and safety standards improved sanitation, lighting, and workplace safety.

Labor unions grew considerably during the early twentieth century, particularly the American Federation of Labor. The Women's Trade Union League, formed in 1903, paired middle class female reformers with immigrant laborers to improve factory and working conditions. The International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union grew stronger after the Triangle Shirtwaist incident.

Victims and families of work-related injuries and deaths were rarely compensated. In an effort to ease the financial hardships caused by on-the-job industrial accidents, workmen's compensation laws were enacted to protect workers and their families in all industrialized states between 1910 and 1917. Some of the first welfare benefits were also enacted for dependent children, widows, and the elderly during this time.

In 1900, close to two million children between the ages of ten and fifteen worked for pennies an hour. Children as young as six and seven worked on farms, in mines, and in factories. Progressives fought hard to stop child labor, and by 1914, nearly every state had enacted child labor laws, setting a minimum age for employment and prohibiting children from working in dangerous conditions.

Home Improvements

The Progressives also focused on the well-being of their communities and home life.

Middle class women helped immigrant families adjust to American culture. By 1910, 400 settlement houses were in operation, and many were modeled after the work of Jane Addams' Hull House in Chicago. Immigrants were instructed in English on how to properly care for their families, and their children were given safe places to play. Another influential reformer, Margaret Sanger, started her career as a public health nurse and opened the first birth control clinic in Brooklyn, New York in 1916. Her work was based on the large number of immigrant women who approached her to learn how to prevent unwanted pregnancies.

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