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The Muckrakers of the Progressive Era: Definition and Influence

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  • 0:05 Who Were the Muckrakers?
  • 1:26 Muckraking Targets
  • 2:32 Influential Muckrakers
  • 4:28 Impact of the Muckrakers
  • 5:33 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Laurel Click

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

A spirit of reform marked the Progressive Era from around 1900 to 1917. It was in this spirit that muckrakers, who were influential journalists, worked to reveal injustices and oversights in American society. Learn how muckrakers raised awareness of America's social, economic and political problems.

Who Were the Muckrakers?

I don't know about you, but it's hard for me to pass up a good piece of investigative journalism. This is especially true if a villain goes down or if an underdog triumphs. Sensational news stories aimed at uncovering the truth or exposing corruption grab the public's attention and often bring about change for the better.

In keeping with the mood of the Progressive Era (from around 1900-1917), the pen was used to combat social ills and evils and made calls for reform. Sensational, jaw-dropping articles were written by journalists who set out to investigate and reveal wrong-doing and to prompt American society to fix social, economic and political problems. Popular magazines, such as McClure's and Cosmopolitan, competed for readers and fueled the push for the provocative material. The bottom line for publishers was: the more shocking, the better.

Theodore 'Teddy' Roosevelt, president of the United States from 1901-1908, nicknamed these investigative journalists muckrakers. He borrowed the term from John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, in which a rake was used to dig up filth and muck. The term caught on, and many journalists were proud to be considered muckrakers. Muckrakers presented problems to the American public in such a way as to invoke moral outrage and prompt citizens to take action.

Muckraking Targets

Muckrakers targeted many turn-of-the-century injustices brought on by the large increase of immigrants, the rapid growth of the cities, unregulated big business and the influence of political machines, as well as many other social problems.

Journalists described immigrant ghettoes and the poor living conditions of tenement housing. They revealed the high number of industrial accidents and advocated for tougher health and safety standards. Muckrakers condemned exploitation of child labor and white slave traffic in women. Corruption in business, including unfair trusts, insurance fraud and dangers of patent medicines, were exposed. Muckrakers also criticized abuses of power in politics and government.

In many cases, muckraking articles took on a very serious nature. Magazine editors would often go to great lengths to check the facts as they were reported in their publications. Some muckrakers even lived in the slums they wrote about or worked in the factories they investigated. The factual nature of the muckrakers' articles leant credibility to the message the authors were sending to the American readers.

Influential Muckrakers

Let's now look at a few of the most influential muckrakers of the Progressive Era that you should remember.

In 1902, urban political machines came under fire by the muckrakers. Lincoln Steffens launched attacks against corrupt government connections with big businesses in ''The Shame of the Cities,'' a series of articles in McClure's magazine. Steffens urged the American people to save their cities from corrupt politicians and for the people to take back government for themselves. His work appeared as a book, Shame of the Cities, published in 1904.

Also appearing in McClure's, Ida Tarbell wrote an extensive, factual expose against John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil Trust in 1904. Her work against the 'Mother of all Trusts' was turned into a two-volume book, The History of the Standard Oil Company, published in 1904. She was the most influential female muckraker and was widely respected within the publishing world.

Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle, published in 1906, to expose the problems of workers in the big canning factories in Chicago. What the public remembered most about his book, however, were the deplorable, unsanitary conditions in the meat packing industry. According to Sinclair, ''A man could run his hand over these piles of meat and sweep off handfuls of dried dung of rats. These rats were nuisances, and the packers would put poisoned bread out for them, they would die, and then rats, bread and meat would go into the hoppers together.'' As Sinclair later himself said, ''I aimed for the nation's heart and hit their stomach.''

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