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The Progressive Age was a period of reform in the United States from the 1890s to the 1920s. It was part of the broader Progressive Movement, which calls for new laws to improve changing social conditions. Fighting corruption, ensuring voting rights, and improving working conditions were central priorities of the Progressive Age. Many reforms of this time made their way into the U.S. Constitution and continue to shape American society today.
In the wake of the American Civil War, the U.S. economy was still privately operated to a large extent. This time period, sometimes called the Gilded Age, was characterized by high population growth, industrialization, and the creation of a national railroad and communications network. Both rich and poor flocked to urban, industrialized cities. This period also saw the rise of large petroleum and railroad corporations.
Fighting corruption was a major objective advanced during the Progressive Age. Activists and journalists sought to keep corruption out of politics by exposing corrupt city government officials. Progressives also placed faith in neutral, disinterested expert opinions to solve a variety of social problems and to create more efficient government.
Voting rights comprised another focus of the Progressive Movement. Despite the abolition of slavery in 1865, policies surrounding voting effectively hindered certain groups from exercising their right to vote. Some southern states imposed a literacy test as part of voter registration, a process that appeared to be targeted at illiterate blacks. The women’s suffrage movement succeeded in gaining full voting rights for women in 1920.
Working conditions for the laboring class were brought to attention during the Progressive Age. The Industrial Revolution served to replace many traditional jobs with machines, and this had the effect of reducing wages for the remaining assembly-line jobs. Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel The Jungle exposed the harsh living and working conditions that poor laborers faced in American meatpacking industries. A particular concern for activists was how women and children worked in factories for long hours and for low pay.
Activists during the Progressive Age sought to make reforms permanent by amending the U.S. Constitution. Amendment 16 implemented the federal income tax, which provides a large amount of tax revenue for the U.S. federal government today. The 17th amendment was aimed at fighting corruption by requiring that U.S. senators be popularly elected. The 19th amendment granted women the right to vote.
The 18th amendment banned the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcohol. This policy, called Prohibition, was one of the main campaigns of the Progressive Age; one of its aims was to resist the political power of saloons. Once implemented, it was met by a great deal of opposition and subversion. The amendment was repealed in 1933.