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As you probably have already come to understand, the Gilded Age was a time of extremes. On one hand, there were some Americans who through their creativity and hard work, and probably some luck, became rich. On the other hand, there were so many more who worked hard every day to make just enough to feed their families. Americans were farmers but were quickly moving to cities.

And in the middle of all this change, reformers worked to make the lives of those around them better. Like the muckrakers, or the Progressive Presidents, many regular Americans worked in thousands of small ways to make America a better place.

Some worked to help farmers, or workers, or children, or immigrants. Some wanted political change. Others just wanted to help those around them find jobs.

The people who worked to make these changes were known as the Progressives. What do you think? What does it mean to be progressive?


Like the factory workers of the eastern cities who organized unions in the Gilded Age, farmers in the West also decided to work together to improve their lives. In 1867, the first national organization was started. The Patrons of Husbandry, also known as the Grange, was first a group that ran social events to help farming families feel less lonely. Over time as farmers talked to each other, they realized that they often shared many of the same problems, and the Grange groups started working for political change also.

For farmers, the railroads were the number one enemy. Farmers had only one way to get the things they grew to the shoppers of the cities, the railroads, and the owners of the railroads could make the farmers pay high rates to ship their products, Grangers got several states to pass laws that set limits on how much railroads could charge. Grangers also put their money together to build grain elevators of their own, so they didn’t have to pay the railroads to store their grain.

What did all the farmers seem to have in common? The answer was simple: debt. Many farmers had borrowed money from big city banks to pay for seeds and tools. Trying to find ways to make it easier to pay back the money they owed was important to farmers and changing the way the government printed money was one solution. At that time, the government only printed money if it had gold to match each dollar. This meant that there could only be a certain number of dollars, which was good for the bankers.

The farmers wanted inflation, which is when the value of money goes down. When this happens, every dollar is worth less than before, so everything starts to cost more. Inflation actually helps debtors. If a farmer owes $3,000 and can earn $1 for every bushel of wheat sold, he needs to sell 3,000 bushels to pay off the debt. If inflation could push the price of a bushel of wheat up to $3, he needs to sell only 1,000 bushels. Of course, inflation is bad for the bankers who made the loans. To create inflation, farmers wanted the government to start printing more money. They said that the government could start printing money backed by silver as well as gold.

To convince leaders to make this change, farmers organized the Populist Party. It wasn’t just the free coinage of silver that the Populists wanted. They also wanted a graduated income tax. This is when people who make more money have to pay a larger percentage in taxes.

They wanted Constitutional reforms as well. Up until this point, Senators were still not elected by the people directly. They were chosen by state legislatures. The Populists wanted a change to the Constitution so that the people could vote directly for their Senators.

They wanted other reforms to make government work better for the people such as the initiative, where people can force the legislators in government to vote on a law. Another Populist idea was the referendum, which would let people vote on a law on election day. In this way, people could pass laws that legislators, who might be taking money for rich businessmen, would not. Finally, they wanted the power to recall people in government before their term ended. They also called for the secret ballot and a one-term limit for the president.


When it came time to elect a new president in 1896, it seemed like the Populists might be able to win. Four years before, their candidate, James Weaver had not won, but he had done well. And by 1896, Populist ideas were being talked about by people all over the country. Also, the economy was not doing well, and voters were angry.

Jacob S. Coxey, a Populist from Ohio had gone to Washington, DC with his 200 supporters, in 1894 to protest. Called Coxey’s Army, he and his followers were getting people excited about change. All that the Populists needed was a candidate who could carry their message.

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Coxey’s Army in Washington, DC

In the end, it wasn’t a Populist, but a Democrat that the Populists picked. William Jennings Bryan was a lawyer from Lincoln, Nebraska. Known as the “Great Commoner,” Bryan was a great speaker, and was remembered as a defender of the farmers.

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William Jennings Bryan speaking during the Election of 1896. He was known as a dynamic speaker.

In 1896, Bryan gave the most famous speech of his life. Asking for the government to print money based on silver, Bryan yelled, “You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold!” And at only age 36, the “Boy Orator” was picked by the Democrats as their candidate to run for president. Instead of picking their own candidate, the Populists chose Bryan also, and the Populists and the Democrats joined together.

The Republicans picked William McKinley, the governor of Ohio to be their candidate. The bankers and businessmen liked him. One rich businessman named Marc Hanna decided to make sure McKinley won the election. He, like many rich men, thought that the free coinage of silver would hurt America, or at least hurt him and other rich men.

Using his money and power, Hanna worked to make people afraid of Bryan. Hanna changed the way political campaigns worked by starting a nationwide whistle-stop effort, making twenty to thirty speeches every day from the back of a train as it stopped in each town.

In the end, McKinley beat Bryan by an electoral vote margin of 271 to 176. The popular vote was much closer. McKinley won 51% of the vote to Bryan’s 47%.

Many things helped McKinley win. He won every state in the populous and industrial Northeast. Factory workers were afraid of the free silver idea as much as their bosses. While inflation would help the farmers who were in debt, it could hurt the factory workers who would be able to buy less with the money they earned but would still have to pay rent for their apartments. In a way, the election came down to a fight between the people of the cities and the farmers and by 1896, the cities won. Bryan’s campaign was the last time a major party tried to win the White House by trying to only win the votes of farmers.

Even though the Populists’ favorite candidate didn’t win the election, their ideas lasted. The free silver idea died, but the graduated income tax, direct election of senators, initiative, referendum, recall, and the secret ballot were all later turned into law. These ideas were kept alive by the next group of reformers, the Progressives.


The Progressives were usually educated, middle-class, Protestant men and women from the cities of the Northeast. It was more of a movement than a political party, and there were Progressives in each political party. There were three progressive presidents: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson. Roosevelt and Taft were Republicans and Wilson was a Democrat. What all Progressives had in common was that they didn’t like the laissez faire, Social Darwinist ideas that had been common in the first part of the Gilded Age. Progressives thought that people and the government should work to fix problems in business and society.

What they did was amazing. Almost every part of society was changed by the Progressives. They helped workers, the poor and customers, and started the conservation movement. They worked to make alcohol illegal and to give women the right to vote. They worked to clean up corruption in government and added four amendments to the Constitution.

One big idea behind progressivism was that people stopped liking Social Darwinism. Why should people have to just put up with having a hard life? They felt that people should not have to just put up with injustices or accept that bad situations were the way things had to be, especially if they could think of ways to fix problems. Philosopher William James called this new way of thinking, pragmatism. His followers decided that social reform and government could solve problems.


In the Gilded Age, old Protestant churches were losing influence. Many immigrants were Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or Jewish. Afraid that they were going to be less important in society, some Protestants started to think about how they could make a bigger difference in their cities and show that their religion had something to offer. This grew into the Social Gospel Movement. Progressive-minded preachers began to tie the teachings of Christianity with problems outside of the churches. Good Christians, they said, worked to help the poor and needy on Earth.

Many ministers got involved in politics. Washington Gladden, the most famous of the social gospel ministers, helped the workers and unions. Ministers called for an end to child labor, and new laws to make alcohol illegal and to clean up government.

The Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) and the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) were started by Christian Progressives to help young people living in the growing cities.

Two new groups were started. Mary Baker Eddy’s Christian Science tried to show how religion and science could go together. The Salvation Army crossed the Atlantic from England and worked to help the poor. More of a service organization than a church, the Salvation Army still does good work in many American cities.

Middle class women who had time and money got most involved in progressive social reform. The Settlement House Movement is one example. Women organized and built Settlement Houses in cities so that homeless immigrants could have someplace to go. Settlement houses had family-style meals, lessons in English, and tips on how to make it in America.

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A contemporary painting of Jane Addams who founded Hull House in Chicago and launched the Settlement House Movement.

A contemporary painting of Jane Addams who founded Hull House in Chicago and launched the Settlement House Movement.

The first settlement house began in 1889 in Chicago and was called Hull House. Its leader, Jane Addams, wanted Hull House to be an example that progressives in other cities could copy. By 1900 there were about 100 settlement houses all over America. People remember Jane Addams as the founder of social work, a new profession.

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Horrific images from the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire such as this one were published around the nation and spurred workplace safety reforms.


The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire on March 25, 1911, was one of the worst disasters in American history. 146 workers died. Most of the victims were new Jewish and Italian immigrant women aged 16 to 23.

The owners of the factory were worried that the women would take extra breaks or steal fabric, so they locked the doors each morning. But when the fire started, many of the workers could not escape the burning building. Some jumped to the streets below from the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors. The fire led to new laws about workplace safety and helped start a new union for women making clothing.

In New York City, a Committee on Public Safety was started to find out why so many women had died and to try to get new laws passed to fix those problems. The famous social worker Frances Perkins was the leader of the Committee. They helped get laws passed to give workers the weekends off, require that buildings have fire escapes, and generally led to safer working conditions. Similar reforms were made into law all around the nation.


One of the most important reforms of the Progressive Era was the end of child labor. The National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) worked to get an anti-child labor law passed by Congress. The bill didn’t pass, but more and more people started to think that children should be in school instead of in factories. President William Taft helped them by creating the Children’s Bureau, a government agency that worked to end child labor.

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One of the iconic images from the Gilded Age, this photograph of a young girl working at the Lancaster Mills has come to symbolize the thousands of children who worked in factories around the turn of the century rather than attending school.

In 1916, Senator Robert L. Owen of Oklahoma and Representative Edward Keating of Colorado introduced the NCLC backed Keating-Owen Act which said that no products could be made with child labor in one state and then sold in another state. Since Congress can regulate business between states, it was a way to get most businesses that wanted to sell their products in many states to stop using children as workers. President Woodrow Wilson signed the law, but, in 1918 the Supreme Court said in the Hammer v. Dagenhart case that the law was unconstitutional. The justices said that they thought child labor was wrong but said that Congress had gone too far. The Constitution, the Court said, didn’t give Congress the power to regulate trade that much.

The NCLC then tried to pass a constitutional amendment. In 1924 Congress passed the Child Labor Amendment, but, not enough states voted to ratify it, so the Constitution still doesn’t protect against child labor.

Finally in 1938, the National Child Labor Committee helped get Congress to vote for the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) which included some protections against child labor. The act says children under age 16 cannot work, and that children under age 18 cannot work in dangerous jobs. However, the law allows children to work on farms, and to work for their families. Even today, FLSA is the main protection against child labor. Students who want to work during the school year must first get a work permit from their school. Some students think this is inconvenient, but it is an important protection against the child labor problems of the past.


The Progressives also wanted to make America’s schools better. Business owners wanted smarter, better workers, and many people thought that good, free, public schools were a key to making democracy work. After all, a government that was based on people voting would not work if most of the people were not educated and could not make good decisions on election day.

Church leaders and reformers worried about children thought that a strong education was not only good, but something children had a right to. People working to end child labor wanted laws to make school required until children were older. If a child was in school, he or she would not be in the factory.

In 1870, about half of the nation’s children did not go to any sort of school. Although many states had free public schools for children between the ages of 5 and 21, the reality was that many children worked in mines, factories, or on the farm because their families needed the money. Only six states had laws that made it illegal for children to miss school.

Massachusetts was the leader in passing new education laws. By 1890, all children in Massachusetts between the ages of 6 and 10 had to attend school at least 20 weeks per year. By the turn of the century, all the states in the North and West had passed compulsory education laws, with only the South lagging behind. There, under the laws of Jim Crow, the public schools in the South were segregated by race. However, even in the South, by 1918 laws were passed that required children to attend school.

Other ideas to improve schools became popular also. German immigrants brought the idea of kindergartens with them when they came to America, and soon many cities were adding kindergarten to their schools.

The most famous reformer of the time was John Dewey. Dewey thought that students didn’t need to memorize facts and formulas. Instead, Dewey wanted children to learn through experiments, activities and play. Dewey also said America needed what he called normal schools. These were colleges just for future teachers. By 1900, one in five public school teachers had a college degree.

More and more high schools were built at the end of the 1800s. The total number of public high schools went from 160 to 6,000, but there was still a long way to go. In 1900, only 4% of American children went to high school. For most Americans working on farms and in factories, an eighth-grade education was enough.

Colleges were changing as well. In the 1860s, states started paying for land for new universities and philanthropists, such as Stanford and Vanderbilt also paid to build new universities.

The chance for women to go to college also went up. Mt. Holyoke, Smith, Vassar, Wellesley, and Bryn Mawr Colleges were opened just for women. By 1910, 40% of America’s college students were female, even though they were not allowed to have most jobs.

African Americans also had a chance to go to college, although not with White students. Instead, colleges such as Howard, Fisk, and Atlanta University opened to teach Black students.


As we already mentioned Populist ideas about fixing the government were popular with many Americans. Progressives fought for the political reforms such as the secret ballot, initiative, referendum, and recall. Most of these reforms were passed into law by states, not by the federal government in Washington, DC. Under Governor Robert La Follette, Wisconsin became the first state to try out many of these new ideas, so other states could see an example to copy.

The Populist ideas of an income tax and direct election of senators became the 16th Amendment and 17th Amendment to the United States Constitution during this time.

Reformers went further by trying to get rid of corruption in cities by changing the way city governments worked. The city commission and the city manager systems made it so elected leaders voted to spend money, but it was a professional manager who decided who to hire. These reforms took power away from political machines like New York’s Tammany Hall.


Progressives also started to think about America’s natural resources. In 1892 John Muir started the Sierra Club to try to protect some of the country’s most beautiful places. At first, few people would listen to him. Then Theodore Roosevelt became president and things changed.

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President Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir at Yosemite National Park in California. The two leaders had a shared interest in
conservation and became friends.

Roosevelt loved being outside. He hunted, hiked, and camped whenever he could. He thought that living in nature was good for the body and soul. As president he worked hard to protect America’s natural resources.

The first law he supported was the Newlands Reclamation Act of 1902. This law used tax money to help people become farmers on lands that did not have enough water. If they were willing to stay and work the land, the government would help them build irrigation systems to provide the water they needed.

John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt got along well and became friends. In 1903, Roosevelt went camping with Muir. The two agreed that some places were so beautiful that they should never be turned into farms or cities. Roosevelt used his power as president to protect millions of acres of land and by 1916, there were sixteen national parks in America. Today, Teddy Roosevelt is remembered as the first conservation president.

The Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, groups first started in England, became popular in America. Adults joined conservation and wildlife clubs.


When the United States joined the First World War, people stopped thinking about reform and progressive ideas weren’t as popular as before. They didn’t fix every problem in America, but during the Progressive Era leaders started to make people think that it was the job of the government to help make life better for the people.

The Progressives worked on so many different things that sometimes it can be hard to really say who they were. Based on what the Progressives of history did, what do you think? What does it mean to be progressive?



BIG IDEA: Populists and Progressives tried to reform society around the turn of the last century. They focused on fair business practices, education, political reform, the income tax, aid to the poor, workplace safety, food safety, women’s rights and conservation.

Farmers in the West were upset with the railroad in the late 1800s. They needed railroads to carry their crops to the East where they could be sold to hungry people in growing cities. However, railroads were the only way to move these products, and they were charging enormous rates, so the farmers wanted government to take over the railroads and lower prices. The farmFarmers in the West were upset with the railroad in the late 1800s.  They needed railroads to carry their crops to the East where they could be sold to hungry people in growing cities.  However, railroads were the only way to move these products, and they were charging enormous rates, so the farmers wanted government to take over the railroads and lower prices.  The farmers also wanted inflation which would make it easier for them to repay loans.  Thus, they wanted the government to start minting silver money.  These two key political goals led to the creation of the Populist Party.  A group of farmers led by Jacob Coxey even marched to Washington, DC to demand change.  William Jennings Bryan championed these ideas.  Although he never won the presidency, Bryan’s Cross of Gold Speech captured the Populists’ grievances.  Government regulation of the railroads and free coinage of silver didn’t become law, and eventually, the Democratic Party took on these issues and absorbed the Populist voters.  

Other reformers around 1900 were more pragmatic. They looked for small changes they could achieve. These were the Progressives.

Some political reforms did become law. Initiatives, referendums and recalls became law, making it easier for the people to get rid of corrupt politicians and pass laws that politicians might be unwilling to vote for on their own. City commissioners became common as a way to stop political machines. The 17th Amendment provided for the direct election of senators. Before this, the state legislatures had elected senators.

Americans passed the 16th Amendment to made an income tax legal.  The graduated income tax required the wealthy to pay a higher percentage of their income than the poor.

Some progressives were inspired by religion. The Social Gospel Movement encouraged people to serve others the way they believed Jesus would have done. They created the YMCA and YWCA. They built settlement houses to help the waves of new immigrants. They opened the Salvation Army to serve the poor. This era of service-minded Christianity is sometimes called the Third Great Awakening.

Other Progressives tried to improve working conditions. The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire showed just how bad working conditions were. These reformers were especially concerned with children who had to work instead of attending school. Although the Keating-Owen Act that was passed at the time was later declared unconstitutional, the Fair Labor Standards Act still stands as protection against exploitation of children as workers.

Progressives worked to improve public education and the first free, public high schools were built.

The first environmentalists emerged. President Theodore Roosevelt helped launch the National Park Service as a means of protecting America’s natural wonders. The Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts were founded, as was the Sierra Club.



Patrons of Husbandry/Grange: Organization of farmers in the late 1800s who, suffering from high shipping costs and debt, advocated for government regulation or railroad rates and the free coinage of silver.

Populist Party: Political party formed in the late 1800s out of the Grange Movement. They advocated for the free coinage of silver, a graduated income tax and government regulation of business. Their leader was William Jennings Bryan. Eventually their members mostly joined the Democratic Party.

Jacob Coxey: The leader of a group of Populist farmers who marched to Washington, DC in 1894 demanding reform.

Coxey’s Army: A group of Populist farmers who marked to Washington, DC in 1894 demanding reform.

William Jennings Bryan: Populist, Progressive, and later democratic leader who championed the rights of farmers. His “Cross of Gold” speech catapulted him to national fame. He ran four times for president but never won.

William McKinley: Republican President first elected in 1896. He defeated William Jennings Bryan. Reelected in 1900, he led the nation through the Spanish-American War, but was assassinated.

Progressives: Groups of people at the turn of the century interested in making change in society, business and government. They were often urban, northeastern, educated, middle class, and protestant.

Progressive Party: A minor political party formed in 1912 to champion progressive issues.

Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA): Organization founded by members of the Social Gospel Movement to give young men a place to improve physical fitness and moral character.

Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA): Organization founded by members of the Social Gospel Movement to give young women a place to improve physical fitness and moral character.

Christian Science: Religious group founded at the turn of the century which tried to find a balance between traditional Christian teaching and new discoveries in science and technology.

Salvation Army: British service organization that was transplanted to America as part of the Social Gospel Movement. They serve the needy by providing shelters for the homeless and soup kitchens.

Jane Addams: Founder of the Settlement House movement.

John Dewey: Advocate for education reform at the turn of the century. He championed the development of normal schools, which were colleges that prepared future teachers.

Robert La Follette: Progressive governor of Wisconsin. He led the way in promoting many reforms in state government.

John Muir: Environmentalist at the turn of the century who became friends with President Theodore Roosevelt and founded the Sierra Club.

Sierra Club: Environmental organization formed in 1892 by John Muir.

Boy Scouts: Organization for boys founded in Britain and brought to America at the turn of the century to promote citizenship and stewardship of the environment.

Girl Scouts: Organization for girls founded in Britain and brought to America at the turn of the century to promote citizenship and stewardship of the environment.


Free Coinage of Silver: Objective of the Populist Party. They wanted inflation to ease loan repayments and asked the government to go off the gold standard. This was the topic of William Jennings Bryan’s famous “Cross of Gold” speech.

Graduated Income Tax: An income tax system in which wealthy individuals pay a higher percentage of their income in taxes than lower class individuals.

Initiative: When citizens can gather signatures and force their legislature to vote on an issue.

Referendum: When citizens can gather signatures and have a proposed law put on a ballot so everyone can vote. This was a way to enact legislation that might otherwise have been prevented by business interests who could pay off elected officials.

Recall: When citizens can gather signatures and force a vote to remove an elected official. This was enacted to curb corruption in government.

Whistle-Stop: Short campaign speeches given from the back of a train car as it stopped in small towns. They were a way spreading a candidate’s message in the days before radio, television or the internet.

Laissez Faire: A government policy toward business that favored low taxes and regulation.

Social Darwinism: An idea common at the turn of the century applying the survival of the fittest concept to human experiences. It argued that people and nations that succeed did so because they were inherently superior to those who lost or were less successful.

Pragmatism: A way of approaching problems developed by William James at the turn of the century. It advocated that people did not need to accept life as it was, but could work for change.

Social Gospel Movement: A movement at the turn of the century based on the belief that helping the poor was a Christian virtue. Members of the movement built settlement houses, formed the YMCA and YWCA and founded the Salvation Army.

Settlement House: A place in large cities where new immigrants could come to learn English, job skills, and find childcare while they worked. The most famous was Hull House in Chicago.

Work Permit: Permission granted from a school for a teenager to work. It is one of the effects of the Fair Labor Standards Act and is designed to protect young Americans from the abuses of child labor.

Normal School: A form of college that would train future teachers. They were especially promoted by John Dewey at the turn of the century.

High School: Free public schools for students after 8th grade. They first became common around the turn of the century.

City Commission: A legislative body for a city. Sometimes called a council, this form of government was a progressive reform and limited the influence of corrupt political machines by allowing voters to select city leaders.

City Manager: A professional selected by a city government who executes policy. This was a progressive reform and sought to separate the decision to spend public money from the awarding of contracts, thus reducing corruption.


Cross of Gold Speech: 1896 speech by William Jennings Bryan at the Democratic National convention arguing for the free coinage of silver.


Hull House: The most famous settlement house. It was founded by Jane Addams in Chicago in 1889.


Panic of 1893: Financial crisis in the 1893.

Third Great Awakening: Term for the general increase in religious practice at the turn of the century. It included the Social Gospel Movement an establishment of organizations such as the Salvation Army, YMCA, YWCA, and Christian Science Church.

Triangle Shirtwaist Fire: A well-publicized fire in New York City in which young women chose to jump to their deaths to escape the flames. Public outrage led to important workplace safety reforms.


Keating-Owen Act: Law passed in 1916 prohibiting the shipment of products across state lines created with child labor. It was struck down as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in Hammer v. Dagenhart in 1918. It was replaced by the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Fair Labor Standards Act: Law passed in 1938 protecting workers, and effectively ending child labor in America.

16th Amendment: Constitutional amendment that made a federal income tax legal.

17th Amendment: Constitutional amendment that provided for the direct election of senators.


National Child Labor Committee (NCLC): Government organization established in 1904 and charged with finding ways to reduce child labor.

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