The late 19th and early 20th century heralded a new age for the American people, bringing with it many economic, social, and cultural changes that fundamentally changed the shape of the nation. People in all strata of society were affected, from the lowest to the highest classes, businessmen, farmers, women, men, and they organized not only to embrace these many changes, but to reform the problems that came with it.
In the 1890s, America began to grow exponentially into an urban, industrial society. The Census Bureau declared that an unbroken moving line of settlement no longer existed in the United States, bringing westward expansion to an end and closing the frontier for good. While this brought pride and hope to the American people, it also brought despair to those who viewed it as an end to economic development, and especially to those who had been displaced and broken in the process, as the Native Americans were. Native Americans for a long time had been pushed westward and discriminated against, but there was no more west to go to. The Native Americans, however, weren’t the only ones suffering from discrimination in the 1890s. Blacks, especially in the South, had trouble gaining true civil rights. Often condemned to sharecropping or menial labor, they not only received the worst of economic conditions, but were segregated via Jim Crow laws that included disenfranchisement. Some fled the South, while others decided to organize. However, Spanish minorities in the South and West suffered discrimination as well, as did Chinese immigrants in the west.
But Chinese immigrants were a minority of the immigration group in the 1890s. Most of the new immigrants came in increasing numbers from southern and eastern Europe, many of whom settled permanently. This was in stark contrast to the western European immigrants of preceding generations. They often developed and settled in ethnic, homogenous communities in large cities. As their numbers increased, many native Americans (not Native-Americans) viewed them as a threat to traditional society, especially since many of these new immigrants were Catholics and Jews. This led to an immigrant restriction movement which sought to prevent many of these new immigrants from coming. However, more often than not these new immigrants did not subvert American culture.
But it was industrialization that really transformed America. Small shops began to change into factories, which managed to mass produce goods at lower prices. These changes came from several sources. First, railroad and steamship revolutionized transportation, lowering costs, linking raw materials with industrial centers, and creating an international network which helped boost competition. Second, the telegraph allowed information to be communicated swiftly over large distances. Lastly, new technologies created more efficiency in energy, power, and production. As these changes revolutionized industry, certain business managed to become more efficient than others. Thus developed big business, or supercorporations, as well as the robber barons who owned them. These included Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Morgan in such businesses as railroads, oil, steel, and banking. As some of these businesses managed to outcompete others in their field, a problem of trusts, or monopolies, emerged. People feared that consolidation into one large entity would give that entity too much power to do what they want.
As these new, large businesses increased in stature, they changed the nature of work for the majority of the country. Fewer people were farmers and more worked in factories, doing simple, repetitive tasks. Many of these jobs involved unskilled labor, low wages, long hours, and unsafe working conditions. Many accepted such conditions because they believed there was a prospect of upward social mobility. However, many others did not agree to such oppression and chose to organize under unions, such as the AFL. They attempted to use their economic power, through strikes and boycotts, to better their conditions. Under the leadership of Samuel Gompers, AFL membership grew immensely. However, more often than not such organizational methods led to violent clashes with those in power, and at this time unions did not effectively represent the unskilled labor force.
A new middle class emerged of white collar workers within this new work environment. Women’s roles, too, were changing. Little by little the Victorian code of preceding generations began to crack as more and more women entered the public sphere. Not only did more women begin to get jobs and enter higher education institutions, but often women’s groups led the way in social reforms, such as prohibition, child labor laws, better working conditions, helping the plight of those in poverty, and, of course, suffrage. Suffrage became especially predominant in the 1910s and movements were organized largely by middle class, white women. Challenges to the Victorian code were often linked to social problems, such as the new “divorce crisis.” However, women were becoming more open about their sexuality, their aspirations and in promoting individuality in the early 20th century. The women’s movement and the origins of modern feminism had begun, which focused on equal rights and opportunities for women, as well as individual self-expression and fulfillment.
Masculinity was also changing, as many men could no longer become property-holding, self made, entrepreneurs. Mostly, masculinity was focused on physical prowess, skill, and power within jobs, such as managerial positions. Things were changing for children as well. Not only were fewer of them working, with mandated, and more progressive, education and increased labor reform, but a new idea of “adolescence” was beginning to emerge that changed the way children were being raised. Around this time health and the average life span increased as hospitals sprouted across the country and medicine became a professional occupation. Meanwhile, religion, mostly Protestantism but Catholicism and Judaism as well, was suffering from a battle between modernism, which attempted to equate religion with science and Darwinism, and fundamentalism, which held on to the old standards of religion.
More importantly, with changing roles and an industrial economy, consumption began to increase rapidly. Leisure and entertainment became important pastimes, as indicated by the rise of movies, parks, and so on. Sports events, especially baseball, drew in large crowds. Large department stores, geared mostly towards women, emerged, fueled by advertisements that appealed to emotions and became more common in popular magazines. Radio began to emerge, as well as its need for regulation, and flight was becoming the awe-inspiring technology that might create peace once and for all. Music and dancing became popular, and material goods provided the promise of well-being and happiness.
Though consumption rose, farmers were having increasing difficulties in maintaining economic stability. With mechanization, fewer workers were needed. As mortgages increased, debts and transportation prices rose, and food prices fell. Farmers found themselves in a precarious situation. With a major recession in the 1890s, a new movement, the Populist movement, called for government to ease their plight through various reforms, especially the unlimited coinage of silver. William Jennings Bryan took up the cause by running for president on the Democratic ticket, denouncing corporations and financiers with powerful oratory. Unfortunately for the Populists, he lost to William McKinley. With McKinley as president, we plunged into the Spanish-American war in 1898 and began to fuel expansionist sentiments with acquisitions in Guam, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico. Thus, with all of these changes, the beginning of the twentieth century in America was to see major transformations in its fundamental structure. These major trusts, that were already immense, began to consolidate and merge into oligopolies that would dominate the market. The men leading them, such as J.P. Morgan, would not only become some of the richest men in the world, but also some of the most influential. The factory system behind these industries led to such revolutions as interchangeable parts and scientific management, which led to lower costs. These lower costs were transferred to the consumer by making many products more affordable, such as Ford’s Model T.
However, as these industries exploited workers more and more, union membership began to rise. At times, certain workers joined radical, at times aggressive groups. Others joined political parties to seek change. The socialists, for example, urged for government ownership of major industries, such as railroads and utilities. Under Eugene V. Debs, the Socialist party managed to gain 900,000 votes in the presidential election of 1912, six percent of the total. However, it may have been primarily because of a combination of Debs’ charisma and the dissatisfaction of capitalist conditions, for the Socialist party never enjoyed such success again in a presidential election.
This new corporate economy was almost exclusively an unregulated market, contributing to the social problems of the time. With increasing unskilled workers employed in these companies, increasing immigration from eastern Europe, and an overall population boom, class and status were becoming deeply divided between the top and the bottom. It was under these conditions that the citizens of the Progressive Age began to demand more from their government. Market forces had failed them, and had, in fact, led to them being taken advantage of. Progressive reformers demanded change on a wealth of issues, such as labor improvements, education improvements, suffrage, and more interventionist policies regarding industry. It was under such circumstances that Roosevelt and Wilson took office and embodied many of the Progressive ideals. They strengthened the role of government in curing society’s woes and regulating industry, so that, by the end of WWI, or soon after, major legislation had been passed involving child labor, trusts, women’s suffrage, and more. Roosevelt later ran again under the Progressive party and lost, but, nonetheless, the Progressive movement had become firmly embedded in the role of government.