4 Cities and Progressives

Mulberry Street, New York, ca. 1900
Street vendors and customers, Mulberry Street, New York, ca. 1900.


In this chapter we’ll look more closely at the growth of American cities and the beginnings of the progressive movement and party. 


One of the most prominent changes in American life in the nineteenth century was the growth of cities and of the number and percentage of Americans living in them. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, for example, Boston had a population of 25,000, New York City 60,000, and Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles had not even been established. By 1850, Boston had 137,000 residents, New York 515,000, Chicago 30,000, San Francisco 21,000, and Los Angeles 1,600. By 1900 forty percent of American lived in cities or large towns and Boston had grown to 561,000, New York 3.4 million, Chicago 1.7 million, San Francisco 343,000, and Los Angeles 102,000.

We have seen previously that many of America’s new city-dwellers had migrated from the countryside in search of work in new industries and many more were immigrants from foreign countries. Although we’ve considered the rapid growth of American cities, it is important to note that the addition of thousands of new residents from one U.S. Census to the next, every ten years, was just the tip of the iceberg. City populations not only increased rapidly, they changed even more quickly. During the decade 1880-1890, for example, the population of Boston increased by about 85,000 people, from 363,000 to 448,000. But the number of people who moved into Boston during that decade was nearly ten times higher. More than 800,000 people passed through Boston during the decade between 1880 and 1890. Most stayed for a while and then moved on. The rapid turnover of Boston’s residents can be seen in the city directories published annually. Directory canvassers found that only about half the homes they visited had the same residents, from one year to the next.


Panorama of Milwaukee, 1898
1898 panorama of Milwaukee Wisconsin, known as the “most German” of American cities by the late 19th century.

Population historians have discovered that the most mobile city-dwellers were often wage-workers and the poor. People who owned businesses and valuable real estate were much more “persistent,” in demographic terms, because they were in a sense anchored by their possessions. Over time, though, the greater persistence of more prosperous residents often allowed them to gain greater political power than poorer people who in many cases were not around long enough to organize or often even to vote. Many poor and working-class city-dwellers were also recent immigrants, who needed time to learn the language and customs of their new homes. By 1900, inland cities such as Buffalo, Detroit, Milwaukee, Chicago, and Minneapolis were all the centers of regions where more than 75 percent of people lived in an urban setting. More than three quarters of the residents of these cities were also classified as “Whites of Foreign Parentage,” according to Census language. That meant they were immigrants or the children of immigrants, overwhelmingly from either Irish or German-speaking families. Descendants of German immigrants, who arrived in great numbers just as the Midwest was opening for settlement in the mid-nineteenth century, still make up the majority ethnicity of a wide swath of middle America.


Questions for Discussion

  • How does the decennial census misrepresent the actual impact of immigration in American cities?
  • Why was “persistence” of residence so important for achieving political influence?



1878 view of Union Stock Yard, Chicago
The Union Stock Yards, Chicago, in 1878.

Chicago embodied the triumph of American industrialization. Its meatpacking industry typified the sweeping changes occurring in American life. In the last decades of the nineteenth century Chicago had become America’s butcher. Chicago’s famous Union Stock Yards were opened in 1864, on 320 acres of swampy land southwest of the city. Animal pens were connected to the railroads with fifteen miles of track. The Yards processed two million animals in 1870, and by 1890 they were processing 9 million animals a year. By 1900, after an expansion, the 475-acre stockyard employed 25,000 people and produced over 80 percent of the meat sold in America. The Yards contained nearly 2,500 livestock pens that could house 75,000 hogs, 21,000 cattle, and 22,000 sheep at the same time. The Chicago meat processing industry, a cartel of five firms, produced four fifths of the meat bought by American consumers. British author Rudyard Kipling visited the Stock Yards on a visit to America. “Once having seen them,” he reported, “you will never forget the sight.”

Chicago’s explosive growth reflected national trends. In 1870, a quarter of the nation’s population had lived in towns or cities with populations greater than 2,500. By 1920, a majority did. Chicago’s newcomers had at first come mostly from Germany, the British Isles, and Scandinavia, but by 1890, Poles, Italians, Czechs, Hungarians, Lithuanians, and others from southern and eastern Europe made up a majority of new immigrants. 1900, nearly 80 percent of Chicago’s population was either foreign-born or the children of foreign-born immigrants. In 1906, American novelist Upton Sinclair published The Jungle, a dramatic account of the experiences of a Lithuanian immigrant family who moved to Chicago. Although Sinclair intended the novel to reveal the brutal exploitation of labor in the stockyards and meatpacking industry, to build support for the socialist movement, its major impact was to expose the entire process of industrialized food production.


Meat inspectors, 1906.
Meat inspectors checking hog carcasses after The Jungle alerted the American public to the need for government oversight, 1906.

The growing invisibility of slaughterhouses and livestock production for urban consumers had enabled unsanitary and unsafe conditions. On April Fool’s Day in 1878, the New York Daily Graphic published a fictitious interview with the celebrated inventor Thomas A. Edison. The article described the “biggest invention of the age”, a new Edison machine that could create forty different kinds of food and drink out of only air, water, and dirt. “Meat will no longer be killed and vegetables no longer grown, except by savages,” Edison promised in the fictional account. The machine would end “famine and pauperism.” And all for $5 or $6 per machine! The story was a joke, of course, but Edison nevertheless received inquiries from readers wondering when the food machine would be ready for the market. Americans had apparently witnessed startling technological advances that would have seemed far-fetched mere years earlier, so the Edison food machine seemed plausible to some readers. While the newspaper story of a “meat machine” was a joke, Chicago’s food manufacturing business was the real thing. American consumers no longer had to raise their own food, as their ancestors had done in the past. The new food industry was the machine, and Sinclair described it in The Jungle. “The slaughtering machine ran on, visitors or no visitors,” he wrote, “like some horrible crime committed in a dungeon, all unseen and unheeded, buried out of sight and of memory.” Sinclair’s description of the dangerously unsanitary and inhumane practices of the stockyards and packing plants was even more upsetting to American readers than his exposé of the working conditions faced by poor immigrants. Popular outrage over The Jungle led to the passage of the Meat Inspection Act and Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906.


Questions for Discussion

  • Why did author Upton Sinclair say, “I aimed for the public’s heart, and by accident hit it in the stomach”?
  • How did the increasing invisibility of industrial food production affect American culture?
  • How has our current food industry corrected of continued the practices of the Chicago Stock Yards?


Urban Reformers

In addition to engineers and city planners addressing growing cities’ needs for drinking water and sanitation, idealistic nineteenth-century reformers turned their attention to improving social conditions in American cities. Some reformers called attention to the social problems caused by the cultural dislocation of immigration, economic inequality, and the rapid growth of America’s cities. Others experimented with solutions. This spirit of reform became a key element of the early-twentieth century Progressive movement in politics and culture that tried to correct some of the social inequities of the Gilded Age.


Page from How the Other Half Lives
A page from Jacob Riis’ exposé of New York City, How the Other Half Lives, 1890. You may recognize the engraving: the photo it came from was included in the first chapter.

An early critic of urban inequality was Jacob Riis, a native of Denmark who became one of New York’s most prominent journalists. Riis, born in 1849 into a family of fifteen children, emigrated to New York at the age of 21. Originally trained as a carpenter, Riis became a newspaper reporter specializing in melodramatic accounts of the poverty and misery he found in neighborhoods like New York’s infamous Five Points. When words failed to convey the disparity he witnessed between the glittering world of New York high society and the hopeless world of the poor, Riis turned to photography. In 1889, Riis’s eighteen-page article “How the Other Half Lives” was included in the widely-circulated Christmas issue of Scribner’s Magazine, with nineteen line drawings rendered from his photographs. Riis expanded the material into a 303-page book, which he followed two years later with a sequel called The Children of the Poor. Riis wrote a dozen more books over the next ten years and lectured regularly on social conditions in New York City. His efforts to call attention to the inequities of city life brought Riis to the attention of New York Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt, who later called Riis “the most useful citizen of New York.” Although the narratives in Riis’s books echoed many of the stereotypes of his time, his photographs were revolutionary. Middle- and upper-class Americans discovered there was an “Other Half” living in Gilded-Age America, and some began to devote themselves to reducing the inequality of their time.


Jane Addams as a young woman
Jane Addams as a young woman.

One of the most effective social reformers who put her ideals into action providing direct services to poor city people was Jane Addams. Addams was from a prosperous Chicago family, the youngest daughter of a prominent Illinois politician. Born in 1860, Addams lost her mother and several siblings at a very young age, then grew up reading Charles Dickens’s depictions of poor Londoners and revolutionary tracts like the Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Mazzini’s Duties of Man. After four years at Rockford Female Seminary, Addams embarked on a multiyear “grand tour” of Europe. She found herself drawn to English settlement houses, where philanthropists embedded themselves among communities and offered services to disadvantaged populations. Impressed by an 1887 visit to London’s famous settlement house, Toynbee Hall, Addams decided to start her own in Chicago. She returned home and opened Hull House in 1889. Begun in an old mansion that Addams purchased, moved into, and renovated with her own funds, Hull House grew to a thirteen-building complex that housed twenty-five women volunteers and served over 2,000 people per week.


Hull House, Chicago
Postcard of Hull House, Chicago, in the early 20th century.

Hull House workers provided for their neighbors by running a nursery and a kindergarten, administering classes for parents and clubs for children, and organizing social, recreational, and cultural events for the community. Services included public baths, boys’ and girls’ clubs, and a summer camp. In addition to their service work, Addams’s volunteer staff produced detailed studies of poverty, disease, and living conditions in the Chicago neighborhoods Hull House served. Social reformer Florence Kelley, who stayed at Hull House from 1891 to 1899, convinced Addams to begin exposing conditions in local sweatshops and advocating for the organization of workers. She called the conditions caused by urban poverty and industrialization a “social crime.” Addams began pressuring politicians. Together Kelley and Addams petitioned legislators to pass anti-sweatshop legislation that limited the work hours for women and children to eight per day. While Addams called labor organizing a “social obligation,” she also warned the labor movement against the “constant temptation towards class warfare.” Addams, like many reformers, favored cooperation between rich and poor and bosses and workers.


Jane Addams, 1914
Photo of Jane Addams, 1914.

Jane Addams and her organization began to influence public opinion and political debate on issues such as education reform, immigrants’ rights, occupational health and safety, child labor, and pension laws. Addams’ approach to solving problems of urban poverty included equal parts of direct aid to poor city people, scientific study into the roots of poverty and dependency, and political activism to bring this information to the public and elected officials and to advocate change. Addams became an international celebrity. In 1912, she became the first woman to give a nominating speech at a major party convention when she supported the nomination of Theodore Roosevelt as the Progressive Party’s candidate for president. Her campaigns for social reform and women’s rights won headlines and Addams’ advocacy grew beyond domestic concerns. Beginning with her work in the Anti-Imperialist League during the Spanish-American War, Addams increasingly began to see militarism as a drain on resources better spent on social reform. In 1907 she wrote Newer Ideals of Peace, a book that would become for many a philosophical foundation of pacifism. Addams emerged as a prominent opponent of America’s entry into World War I. Addams was awarded the Nobel Peace prize in 1931 for her work at Hull House, her advocacy work, and her anti-war activism.


Questions for Discussion

  • Why did Theodore Roosevelt think Jacob Riis was the “most useful citizen” of New York?
  • How did Jane Addams gain influence in public discussions about poor relief and social programs?


Gender, Religion, Culture

Irene and Vernon Castle
Popular dancers Irene and Vernon Castle demonstrating a “Hands-free Tango” in 1914. Note her short hair and loose clothing.

Urbanization and immigration fueled anxieties that American culture was being subverted and that old forms of social and moral policing were increasingly inadequate. The anonymity of urban spaces presented an opportunity for female sexuality and for male and female sexual experimentation along a spectrum of orientations and gender identities. Anxiety over sex reflected generational tensions and differences, as well as racial and class ones. As young women pushed back against traditional expectations about premarital sexual expression, social welfare experts and moral reformers labeled such girls feeble-minded, preferring to believe that such unfeminine behavior must be a symptom of clinical insanity rather than free-willed expression. Young people challenged the norms of their parents’ generations by donning new fashions and enjoying the delights of the city. Women’s clothing loosed their physical constraints: corsets relaxed and hemlines rose.

While many women worked to liberate themselves socially and sexually, many, sometimes simultaneously, worked to uplift others. Reform opened new possibilities for women’s activism in American public life and gave new impetus to the long campaign for women’s suffrage. Much energy for women’s work came from female “clubs,” social organizations devoted to various purposes. Some focused on intellectual development; others emphasized philanthropic activities. Increasingly, these organizations looked outward, to their communities and to the place of women in the larger political sphere. Unfortunately, few of these organizations were biracial, a legacy of the uneasy mid-nineteenth-century relationship between socially active African Americans and white women. Rising American prejudice led many white female activists to ban inclusion of their African American sisters. The General Federation of Women’s Clubs (formed in New York City in 1890) and the National Association of Colored Women (organized in Washington, D.C., in 1896), were both dominated by upper-middle-class, educated, northern women, but despite their similarities they remained divided by race.

Carrie A. Nation, 1910.
Temperance vigilante Carrie A. Nation with her hatchet, 1910.

Women’s work against alcohol propelled temperance into one of the foremost moral reforms of the period. Middle-class women based their criticism of alcohol on ideas feminine virtue, Christian sentiment, and their protective role in the family and home. Other women worked through churches and moral reform organizations to clean up American life. And still others worked as moral vigilantes. Carrie A. Nation, an imposing woman who believed she worked God’s will, won headlines for destroying saloons. In Wichita, Kansas, on December 27, 1900, Nation took a hatchet to bar at the luxurious Carey Hotel. Arrested and charged with causing $3,000 in damages, Nation spent a month in jail before the county dismissed the charges on the basis of “delusion”. But Nation’s “hatchetation” drew national attention. Describing herself as “a bulldog running along at the feet of Jesus, barking at what He doesn’t like,” she continued her assaults, and days later she smashed two more Wichita bars.

Most women, however, worked within more reputable organizations. Nation had founded a chapter of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), but the organization’s leaders described her as “unwomanly and unchristian.” The WCTU was had been established in 1874 as a modest temperance organization devoted to combating the evils of drunkenness. But from 1879 to 1898, Frances Willard transformed the organization into a national political force, embracing a “do everything” policy that adopted any and all reasonable reforms that would improve social welfare and advance women’s rights. Temperance, and then the full prohibition of alcohol, however, always loomed large.


WCTU rules, 1887
Rules and regulations for the Hope and help rooms social purity department, Woman’s Christian Temperance Union

Many American reformers associated alcohol with nearly every social ill. Alcohol was blamed for domestic abuse, poverty, crime, and disease. The 1912 Anti-Saloon League Yearbook, for instance, presented charts correlating increases in alcohol consumption with rising divorce rates. The WCTU called alcohol a “home wrecker.” More insidiously, perhaps, reformers also associated alcohol with cities and immigrants, maligning America’s immigrants, Catholics, and working classes in their crusade against liquor. Reformers believed that the abolition of “strong drink” would bring about social progress, reduce the need for prisons and insane asylums, save women and children from domestic abuse, and usher in a more just, progressive society.


Charlotte Perkins Gilman, ca. 1900
American feminist and author, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, ca. 1900.

Many American women expressed new discontents through literature. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s famous short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” attacked the expectation of feminine domesticity and criticized Victorian psychological remedies administered to women, such as the “rest cure.” Kate Chopin’s The Awakening likewise criticized the domestic and familial roles available to women in American society and called attention to women’s feelings of malaise, desperation, and desire. Literature by and for women challenged the Victorian era’s constructions of femininity and feminine virtue, as well as established feminine roles.

It would be suffrage, ultimately, that would mark the full emergence of women in American public life. Generations of women had pushed for the right to vote. Notable victories were won in the West, where suffragists mobilized large numbers of women and male politicians were open to experimental forms of governance. Wyoming was the first state where women could vote beside men, beginning in 1869 with its acceptance as a U.S. territory and continuing with the writing of its state constitution in 1890. By 1911, six western states had passed suffrage amendments to their constitutions. Women’s suffrage was typically entwined with a wide range of reform efforts. Many suffragists argued that women’s votes were necessary to clean up politics and combat social evils. By the 1890s, for example, the WCTU, then the largest women’s organization in America, endorsed suffrage. An alliance of working-class and middle- and upper-class women organized the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL) in 1903 and campaigned for the vote alongside the National American American Suffrage Association, a leading suffrage organization composed largely of middle- and upper-class women. WTUL members viewed the vote as a way to further their economic interests and to foster a new sense of respect for working-class women.


Cheyenne, Wyoming in 1876
Cheyenne, Wyoming where the first territorial legislature met and voted to allow women to vote and hold office in December of 1869.

The need to protect working-class women was illustrated in 1911 when the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in Manhattan caught fire. The doors of the factory had been chained shut to prevent women employees from taking unauthorized breaks. The managers who held the keys had saved themselves when the fire broke out, but left over two hundred women locked in the factory. A rickety fire escape ladder on the side of the building collapsed immediately. Women lined the rooftop and crowded the windows of the ten-story building to avoid the flames and smoke. Many jumped, landing in what newspaper reports described as a “mangled, bloody pulp”. Life nets held by firemen tore at the impact of the falling bodies. Among the onlookers, “women were hysterical, scores fainted; men wept [and] hurled themselves against the police lines.” By the time the fire burned itself out, 71 workers were injured and 146 had died.


Bodies of Triangle Fire victims, 1911
Sixty-two people jumped or fell from the windows during the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, 1911.

A year earlier, the Triangle women had gone on strike demanding union recognition, higher wages, and better safety conditions. The owners of the factory had decided that a working fire escape and unlocked doors were too expensive and had called the police to break up the strike. After the 1911 fire, reporter Bill Shepherd reflected, “I looked upon the heap of dead bodies and I remembered these girls [and] their great strike last year in which the same girls had demanded more sanitary conditions and more safety precautions in the shops. These dead bodies were the answer.” After the fire, Triangle owners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris were brought up on manslaughter charges. They were acquitted after less than two hours of deliberation.


Questions for Discussion

  • Why did many activist women focus so much of their attention on banning alcohol? What were the advantages and disadvantages of this focus?
  • Why was Wyoming one of the first places women were allowed to vote in the U.S.?
  • How did the Triangle Fire focus national attention on women’s labor concerns?



George Beard article on neurasthenia, 1869.
George Beard’s article about neurasthenia in the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal, 1869.

While many men were challenged by the social changes women demanded, many also worried about their own masculinity. It seemed clear to many observers that industrial capitalism was withering American manhood. Rather than working on farms and in factories, where young men formed physical muscle and spiritual grit, new generations of workers sat behind desks, wore white collars, and, pushed paper. A generation of young men were in danger of becoming what Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes described as “black-coated, stiff-jointed, soft-muscled, [and] paste-complexioned.” Neurologist George Beard even coined a medical term, neurasthenia, for a new condition marked by depression, indigestion, hypochondria, and extreme nervousness. The philosopher William James called it “Americanitis.” Academics increasingly warned that America had become a nation of emasculated men. Churches too worried about feminization. Women had always comprised a majority of church memberships in the United States, but they were gaining too much influence. The theologian Washington Gladden said, “A preponderance of female influence in the Church or anywhere else in society is unnatural and injurious.” Many feared that the feminized church had emasculated Christ himself. Rather than a rough-hewn carpenter, Jesus had been made “mushy” and “sweetly effeminate,” in the words of Baptist pastor Walter Rauschenbusch.

Advocates of a more masculine, muscular Christianity sought to stiffen young men’s backbones by putting them in touch with their primal manliness. Pulling from contemporary developmental theory, they believed that young men ought to evolve as civilization evolved, advancing from primitive nature-dwelling to modern industrial enlightenment. But modern men had missed the earlier stage of development that should have toughened them up. To facilitate “primitive” encounters with nature for their members, muscular Christians founded summer camps and outdoor boys’ clubs like the Woodcraft Indians, the Sons of Daniel Boone, and the Boy Brigades. Other champions of muscular Christianity, such as the Young Men’s Christian Association, built gymnasiums, often attached to churches, where youths could strengthen their bodies as well as their spirits. It was YMCA leader who coined the term bodybuilding; others invented the sports of basketball and volleyball.


1899 basketball team
The 1899 University of Kansas basketball team, with the inventor of the sport, James Naismith at the back, right.

Muscular Christianity, though, was about more than building strong bodies and minds. Many advocates also romanticized the “Wild West” myth and championed imperialism, cheering on attempts to civilize non-Western peoples. Gilded Age men were encouraged to embrace a particular vision of masculinity connected intimately with the rising tides of nationalism, militarism, and imperialism. Contemporary ideals of American masculinity at the turn of the century developed in parallel with the United States’ imperial and militaristic endeavors in the West and abroad. During the Spanish-American War in 1898, Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders had embodied the idealized image of the tall, strong, virile, and fit American man that simultaneously epitomized the United States’ imperial agenda. Roosevelt and others like him believed a reinvigorated masculinity would preserve the American race’s superiority against foreign foes and the effeminizing effects of over-civilization. The centrality of manhood as an imperial ideal may well have set back women’s efforts to gain a voice and a vote in American society.


Questions for Discussion

  • Was concern over “neurasthenia” or “Americanitis” legitimate, in your opinion?
  • How did the new focus on fitness relate to America’s idea of itself in world affairs?

Targeting Trusts

In one of the defining books of the Progressive Era, The Promise of American Life, Herbert Croly argued in 1909 that because “the corrupt politician has usurped too much of the power which should be exercised by the people,” the “millionaire and the trust have appropriated too many of the economic opportunities formerly enjoyed by the people.” The people had failed to hold their politicians accountable, which had allowed corporations and their owners to dominate American economic life. Croly and other reformers believed that wealth inequality eroded democracy and the people had to win back the power usurped by the moneyed trusts. These “trusts” were monopolies or cartels that entered into agreements or consolidations (often illegally) to control a specific product or industry.


Puck cartoon of Standard Oil as Octopus
Cartoon showing a “Standard Oil” storage tank as an octopus with many tentacles wrapped around the steel, copper, and shipping industries, as well as a state house, the U.S. Capitol, with one tentacle reaching for the White House, 1904.

The rapid industrialization, technological advancement, and urban growth of the 1870s and 1880s triggered major changes in the way businesses structured themselves. Many believed a Second Industrial Revolution was underway, enabled by new technological inventions and propelled by new national and global markets and by the federal government’s laissez faire, or “hands off,” economic policy. An argument influenced by the ideas of social Darwinism claimed that an unregulated business climate had allowed for the beneficial growth of trusts, notably Andrew Carnegie’s Carnegie Steel (consolidated in 1901 along with 200 companies in 127 cities as U.S. Steel) and John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company. These two corporate giants displayed the vertical and horizontal integration strategies common to the new trusts: Carnegie used vertical integration to control every phase of business from raw materials to transportation, manufacturing, and distribution; and Rockefeller practiced horizontal integration by buying out competing refineries. Once they dominated a market, critics warned, the trusts would be free to inflate prices, bully rivals, and bribe politicians.


Andrew Carnegie, 1905
Andrew Carnegie in 1905

Between 1897 and 1904, over four thousand companies were consolidated down into 257 corporations. The twentieth century became the age of monopoly and the aggressive businessmen known as robber barons. Their cutthroat stifling of economic competition, mistreatment of workers, and corruption of politics sparked an opposition that pushed for regulations to rein in the power of monopolies. The great corporations became a major target of reformers. Big business, whether in meatpacking, railroads, telegraph lines, oil, or steel, posed new problems for the American legal system. Before the Civil War, most businesses had operated in a single state. They might ship goods across state lines or to other countries, but they typically had offices and factories in just one state. However, once railroad routes crossed several state lines and mass-producing corporations operated across the nation, questions arose about who had the authority to regulate such firms. During the 1870s, many states passed laws to check the growing power of corporations. In 1877, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld these laws in a series of rulings, finding in cases such as Munn v. Illinois and Stone v. Wisconsin that railroads and other companies of similar size necessarily affected the public interest and could thus be regulated by individual states. Later rulings, however, conceded that only the federal government could constitutionally regulate interstate commerce and the new national businesses operating it. In 1887, Congress passed the Interstate Commerce Act, which established the Interstate Commerce Commission to prevent discriminatory and predatory pricing practices. The Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890 aimed to limit the anticompetitive practices institutionalized in cartels and monopolistic corporations. The Sherman Act declared that not all monopolies were illegal, only those that “unreasonably” stifled free trade. The courts seized on the law’s vague language, however, and the act was turned against itself to limit the growing power of labor unions. Only in 1914, with the Clayton Anti-Trust Act, did Congress attempt to close loopholes in previous legislation.


Thomas Nast "Senatorial Roundhouse" political cartoon
Thomas Nast’s political cartoon, “The Senatorial Roundhouse”, illustrates American people’s frustration with big business’ control of politics, 1886.

Aggression against the trusts and the progressive practice of “trust busting” gained popularity with the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, following the assassination of William McKinley in 1901. Roosevelt was by no means antibusiness, he imagined himself a mediator between opposing forces such as between labor unions and corporate executives. Despite his own wealthy background, Roosevelt pushed for antitrust legislation and regulations, arguing that the courts could not be relied on to break up the trusts. Roosevelt also used his own moral judgment to determine which monopolies he would pursue. Roosevelt believed that there were good and bad trusts, necessary monopolies and corrupt ones. Although his reputation as a trust buster was wildly exaggerated, he was the first major national politician to go after the trusts. “The great corporations which we have grown to speak of rather loosely as trusts,” he said, “are the creatures of the State, and the State not only has the right to control them, but it is in duty bound to control them wherever the need of such control is shown.” Roosevelt was also an expert at reading which way the political winds were blowing, and may have been responding to popular opinion in his choice of targets.


Roosevelt as infant Hercules
1906 Puck Magazine cover showing Theodore Roosevelt as the infant Hercules fighting large snakes with the heads of Senator Nelson W. Aldrich and Standard Oil owner John D. Rockefeller.

His first target was the Northern Securities Company, a trust used by wealthy bankers, including J. P. Morgan, to hold controlling shares in all the major railroad companies in the American Northwest. By controlling the majority of shares, rather than the principal, Morgan and his collaborators tried to claim that it was not a monopoly and circumvent the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. Roosevelt’s administration sued and in 1904 the Northern Securities Company disbanded into separate competitive companies. Two years later Roosevelt signed the Hepburn Act, allowing the Interstate Commerce Commission to regulate best practices and set reasonable rates for the railroads. Roosevelt was more interested in regulating corporations than breaking them apart. However, his successor William Howard Taft firmly believed in court-led trust busting and during his four years in office more than doubled the number of monopoly breakups that occurred during Roosevelt’s seven years in office. Taft notably went after U.S. Steel, the world’s first billion-dollar corporation that J.P. Morgan had formed by merging nearly every major American steel producer.


J.P. Morgan in 1903
J.P. Morgan in 1903

Trust busting and the handling of monopolies dominated the election of 1912. When the Republican Party re-nominated the incumbent Taft for a second term, Roosevelt left the party and formed the Progressive or “Bull Moose” Party. Although Roosevelt had attacked Morgan early in his presidency, he had then come to a secret agreement with the powerful banker and had banned any additional antitrust suits against Morgan-backed corporations. In the 1912 campaign, Roosevelt’s main financial support came from George Perkins, the Morgan partner who had put together the U.S Steel merger. Taft and Roosevelt split the Republican votes, allowing the Democratic candidate, Woodrow Wilson, to carry forty states with only about 42 percent of the popular vote. Wilson’s platform emphasized neither trust busting nor federal regulation but rather small-business incentives so that individual companies could increase their competitive chances. Yet once he won the election, Wilson edged nearer to Roosevelt’s position, signing the Clayton Anti-Trust Act of 1914. The Clayton Act substantially enhanced the earlier Sherman Act, specifically regulating mergers and price discrimination and protecting labor’s access to collective bargaining and related strategies of picketing, boycotting, and protesting. Congress created the Federal Trade Commission to enforce the Clayton Act, ensuring at least some measure of implementation.


Questions for Discussion

  • Why were critics of big business concerned about the wave of mergers between the 1890s and the early 1900s?
  • How did the growth of commerce from a local to a national scope change the way government related to businesses?
  • Was President Roosevelt’s reputation as a “trust-buster” deserved?


Primary Sources

Andrew Carnegie on “The Triumph of America” (1885)

Steel magnate Andrew Carnegie celebrated and explored American economic progress in this 1885 article, later reprinted in his 1886 book, Triumphant Democracy.

Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams (1918)

Henry Adams, the great grandson of President John Adams, the grandson of President John Quincy Adams, the son of a major American diplomat, and an accomplished Harvard historian, writing in the third person, describes his experience at the Great Exposition in Paris in 1900 and writes of his encounter with “forces totally new.”

Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives (1890)

Jacob Riis, a Danish immigrant, combined photography and journalism into a powerful indictment of poverty in America. His 1890, How the Other Half Lives shocked Americans with its raw depictions of urban slums. Here, he describes poverty in New York.

Rose Cohen on the World Beyond her Immigrant Neighborhood (ca.1897/1918)

Rose Cohen was born in Russia in 1880 as Rahel Golub. She immigrated to the United States in 1892 and lived in a Russian Jewish neighborhood in New York’s Lower East Side. Her, she writes about her encounter with the world outside of her ethnic neighborhood.

Jane Addams, “The Subjective Necessity for Social Settlements” (1892)

Hull House, Chicago’s famed “settlement house,” was designed to uplift urban populations. Here, Addams explains why she believes reformers must “add the social function to democracy.” As Addams explained, Hull House “was opened on the theory that the dependence of classes on each other is reciprocal.”

Eugene Debs, “How I Became a Socialist” (April, 1902)

A native of Terre Haute, Indiana, Eugene V. Debs began working as a locomotive fireman (tending the fires of a train’s steam engine) as a youth in the 1870s. His experience in the American labor movement later led him to socialism. In the early-twentieth century, as the Socialist Party of America’s candidate, he ran for the presidency five times and twice earned nearly one-million votes. He was America’s most prominent socialist. In 1902, a New York paper asked Debs how he became a socialist. This is his answer.

Woodrow Wilson on the “New Freedom,” 1912

Woodrow Wilson campaigned for the presidency in 1912 as a progressive democrat. Wilson argued that changing economic conditions demanded new and aggressive government policies–he called his political program “the New Freedom”– to preserve traditional American liberties.

Theodore Roosevelt on “The New Nationalism” (1910)

In 1910, a newly invigorated Theodore Roosevelt delivered his outline for a bold new progressive agenda, which he would advance in 1912 during a failed presidential run under the new Progressive, or “Bull Moose,” Party.


This chapter was written by Dan Allosso, based on two chapters from The American Yawp. Those chapters were edited by David Hochfelder (Chapter 18), with content contributions by Jacob Betz, David Hochfelder, Gerard Koeppel, Scott Libson, Kyle Livie, Paul Matzko, Isabella Morales, Andrew Robichaud, Kate Sohasky, Joseph Super, Susan Thomas, Kaylynn Washnock, and Kevin Young; and Mary Anne Henderson (Chapter 20), with content contributions by Andrew C. Baker, Peter Catapano, Blaine Hamilton, Mary Anne Henderson, Amanda Hughett, Amy Kohout, Maria Montalvo, Brent Ruswick, Philip Luke Sinitiere, Nora Slonimsky, Whitney Stewart, and Brandy Thomas Wells.

Recommended Reading on City Life:

  • Beckert, Sven. Monied Metropolis: New York City and the Consolidation of the American Bourgeoisie, 1850–1896. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
  • Bederman, Gail. Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880–1917. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.
  • Blight, David. Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001.
  • Briggs, Laura. “The Race of Hysteria: ‘Overcivilization’ and the ‘Savage’ Woman in Late Nineteenth-Century Obstetrics and Gynecology.” American Quarterly 52 (June 2000). 246–273.
  • Chauncey, George. Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890–1940. New York: Basic Books, 1995.
  • Cole, Stephanie, and Natalie J. Ring, eds. The Folly of Jim Crow: Rethinking the Segregated South. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2012.
  • Cott, Nancy. The Grounding of Modern Feminism. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987.
  • Cronon, William. Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. New York: Norton, 1991.
  • Edwards, Rebecca. New Spirits: Americans in the Gilded Age, 1865–1905. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
  • Gutman, Herbert. Work, Culture and Society in Industrializing America: Essays in American Working-Class and Social History. New York: Knopf, 1976.
  • Hale, Grace Elizabeth. Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890–1940. New York: Pantheon Books, 1998.
  • Kasson, John F. Amusing the Million: Coney Island at the Turn of the Century. New York: Hill and Wang, 1978.
  • Leach, William. Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture. New York: Random House, 1993.
  • Lears, T. J. Jackson. No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880–1920. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.
  • Odem, Mary. Delinquent Daughters: Protecting and Policing Adolescent Female Sexuality in the United States, 1885–1920. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.
  • Peiss, Kathy. Cheap Amusements. Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986.
  • Peiss, Kathy. Hope in a Jar: The Making of America’s Beauty Culture. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999.
  • Putney, Clifford. Manhood and Sports in Protestant America, 1880–1920. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001.
  • Silber, Nina. The Romance of Reunion: Northerners and the South, 1865–1900. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.
  • Strouse, Jean. Alice James: A Biography. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1980.
  • Trachtenberg, Alan. The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age. New York: Hill and Wang, 2007.

Recommended Reading on the Progressive Era:

  • Ayers, Edward. The Promise of the New South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
  • Bay, Mia. To Tell the Truth Freely: The Life of Ida B. Wells. New York: Hill and Wang, 2010.
  • Cott, Nancy. The Grounding of Modern Feminism. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987.
  • Dawley, Alan. Struggles for Justice: Social Responsibility and the Liberal State. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991.
  • Dubois, Ellen Carol. Women’s Suffrage and Women’s Rights. New York: New York University Press, 1998.
  • Filene, Peter. “An Obituary for ‘The Progressive Movement,’” American Quarterly 22 (Spring 1970): 20–34.
  • Flanagan, Maureen. America Reformed: Progressives and Progressivisms, 1890s–1920s. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
  • Foley, Neil. The White Scourge: Mexicans, Blacks, and Poor Whites in Texas Cotton Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.
  • Gilmore, Glenda E. Gender and Jim Crow: Women and the Politics of White Supremacy in North Carolina, 1896–1920. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.
  • Hale, Grace Elizabeth. Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890–1940. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
  • Hicks, Cheryl. Talk with You Like a Woman: African American Women, Justice, and Reform in New York, 1890–1935. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010.
  • Hofstadter, Richard. The Age of Reform: From Bryan to F.D.R. New York: Knopf, 1955.
  • Johnson, Kimberley. Governing the American State: Congress and the New Federalism, 1877–1929. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006.
  • Kessler-Harris, Alice. In Pursuit of Equity: Women, Men, and the Quest for Economic Citizenship in 20th-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
  • Kloppenberg, James T. Uncertain Victory: Social Democracy and Progressivism in European and American Thought, 1870–1920. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.
  • Kolko, Gabriel. The Triumph of Conservatism. New York: Free Press, 1963.
  • Kousser, J. Morgan. The Shaping of Southern Politics: Suffrage Restriction and the Establishment of the One-Party South, 1880–1910. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1974.
  • McGerr, Michael. A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America, 1870–1920. New York: Free Press, 2003.
  • Molina, Natalia. Fit to Be Citizens?: Public Health and Race in Los Angeles, 1879–1939. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.
  • Muncy, Robyn. Creating a Female Dominion in American Reform, 1890–1935. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
  • Rodgers, Daniel T. Atlantic Crossings: Social Politics in a Progressive Age. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.
  • Sanders, Elizabeth. The Roots of Reform: Farmers, Workers, and the American State, 1877–1917. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.
  • Stromquist, Shelton. Re-Inventing “The People”: The Progressive Movement, the Class Problem, and the Origins of Modern Liberalism. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2006.
  • White, Deborah. Too Heavy a Load: In Defense of Themselves. New York: Norton, 1999.
  • Wiebe, Robert. The Search for Order, 1877–1920. New York: Hill and Wang, 1967.
  • Woodward, C. Vann. Origins of the New South, 1877–1913. Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1951.

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