At the turn of the 20th century, unbeknownst to the American people at the time, a new movement was on the rise. This movement was the Progressive Era, an era that would see political activism and social reform in the United States flourish. However, it is undeniable that the outcome of the Progressive Era would not be the same had it not been for the mass media of the time.
Investigative journalists, dubbed ‘muckrakers’, worked to expose the corruption and horrid conditions that riddled society, which in turn led to improvements in social, political and environmental conditions. It was apparent that the majority of society did not see what was occurring behind their backs, inside the factories which produced their food, and inside the slums near their residences.
The muckrakers knew otherwise, vowing to alert the American people of what they were not aware of. The Muckrakers made it their mission to liven the consciousness of America to the social ills plaguing many vulnerable communities. They viewed themselves as modernizers who could utilize their communication skills to bring public institutions up-to-date in order to protect society for the common good.
This is the story of how a group of journalists defined an era of the United States.
Before we dive into the specifics, you might be wondering where the term “muckraker” came from, and what it even means. The term muckraker is derived from a character in John Bunyan’s novel, Pilgrim’s Progress, named “the man with the muck-rake”; however, the term gained popularity after President Theodore Roosevelt, a primary participant in the Progressive Era, referenced the character in a 1906 speech, stating:
The men with the muck rakes are often indispensable to the well being of society; but only if they know when to stop raking the muck.
As the gap between the rich and the poor increased dramatically during this time, especially in major cities, the muckrakers were often from large media outlets based in these cities that were suffering from prominent issues.
Despite there being numerous muckrakers during the Progressive Era that all contributed towards creating a safer and more efficient society, there were three prominent muckrakers whose work had prodigious effects during the time: Upton Sinclair, Jacob Riis, and Lincoln Steffens.
Upton Beall Sinclair Jr. was born in Baltimore, Maryland on September 20, 1878, to affluent parents. Growing up in two different social settings, rich and poor, greatly influencing his eventual books and works as a muckraker. In the late 1890s, he became an investigative journalist working with mostly local issues, and in 1906, Sinclair rose to fame after his novel The Jungle skyrocketed in popularity.
The book exposed the horrible sanitary conditions in the American meatpacking industry. Sinclair specifically traveled to a meatpacking plant in Chicago, Illinois to gain his evidence. What he found was stomach-revolting. He wrote of this matter in The Jungle:
[In these factories], there would be meat that had tumbled out on the floor, in the dirt and sawdust, where the workers had tramped and spit uncounted billions of consumption germs. There would be meat stored in great piles in rooms; and the water from leaky roofs would drip over it, and thousands of rats would race about on it.
After the book gained popularity, there was a public outcry among the American people, who, learning of this new news, demanded an upgrade in the sanitary conditions of which their food was being processed. This quickly led to a variety of passed laws regarding the conditions of Americans’ food, including the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, which required the U.S. Bureau of Chemistry to inspect all food and drugs, and required ingredients to be placed on the label of a drug’s packaging.
Sinclair’s actions also led to the Federal Meat Inspection Act, which ensures that meat is processed under sanitary conditions, and makes it illegal to misbrand meat or other products being sold as consumable food.
Sinclair, not expecting his work as a muckraker to have such a profound effect on people’s lives (he originally wrote the book as a means to spread socialism, not intending to expose the sanitary conditions in the food industry), stated:
I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.
In addition to The Jungle, he published his journalistic piece The Brass Check in 1919, which publicized the issue of yellow journalism during the time, and led to the first code of ethics for journalists. It is undeniable that his work as a muckraker left the largest footprint upon the Progressive Era.
The second prominent muckraker of the Progressive Era was Jacob Riis. Born in Ribe, Denmark on May 3, 1849, he is one of the prominent muckrakers to have not been born in the United States. At age 21, he migrated to the United States, landing in New York City but eventually finding work as a carpenter in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
After a few years, he moved back to New York, where he obtained a job at the New York Tribune as a police reporter; he often reported from the crime-infested slum of Five Points, Manhattan, where, according to historical photographer and anthropologist Alexander Alland, “the streets and numerous alleys radiated in all directions, forming the foul core of the New York slums.”
It was during this time when Riis began to shift away from writing and focus more on photography, eventually becoming one of the first to utilize flash photography. According to author Ann Bausum of National Geographic,
Riis increased awareness about the inhuman conditions shared by the urban poor through his writing and photography.
In 1890, Riis published a journalistic work entitled How the Other Half Lives, which contained photos of the slummy conditions the lower-class members of society were forced to live in. This led to reforms which improved living conditions for the poor, including the New York Tenement House Act, which outlawed rear tenements. The entire Five Points neighborhood was eventually demolished and replaced with parks and civic buildings, mostly in part due to the journalistic work of Jacob Riis.
It is undeniable that his photographs, which captured the poverty and conditions of the lower-class members of society during this time, were the catalyst that propelled his success and influence during the Progressive Era.
And if you’ve heard his name somewhere, it was likely from Jacob Riis Park, located in Breezy Point, Queens. The famous Fort Tilden which lies there (actually, there’s two forts) is worth a visit. But that’s a story for another time.
The final muckraker we’ll discuss here, but certainly not the last one to contribute to the Progressive Era, was Lincoln Steffens. Born in San Francisco, California on April 6, 1866, he began his career with the New York Evening Post. He later became an editor for McClure’s, an illustrative magazine popular during the Progressive Era.
Steffens specialized in exposing internal political and government corruption, and in 1904, published a book entitled The Shame of the Cities. In this book, Steffens exposes the corrupt political machines based in major cities across the United States, and proposes ways to tackle them. Steffens is highly regarded as ‘the first muckraker’ due to the fact that his work as a journalist proceeded most other muckrakers. According to historian and scholar Louis Filler,
The honor of having been the first muckraker–of having written the first muckraking article–was given…to Lincoln Steffens.
Thus, it goes without saying that Steffens work as a muckraker had lasting effects on the Progressive Era.
The Progressive Era was a time in the history of the United States that warranted much-needed change, and that change arguably would not have occurred if it were not for the intense work of the muckrakers. Their determination, passion and courage to expose the corruption and horrible conditions of society during this time to the American people was the spark that ignited the Progressive Era, as, once again according to Filler,
The work of these writers in particular had made the existence of a definite vogue of expose apparent to the least alert citizen.
These changes, including new building codes, sanitary improvements, new agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration, and the destruction and replacement of slums in major cities such as Five Points in New York City, improved life in both the United States and in nations worldwide.
Most importantly, the actions of the muckrakers, the mass media of the time, paved the way for a new and necessary era in American history, and that was the Progressive Era. And the importance of the media remains even in today’s world, as new eras are shaped before our very eyes. The importance of the media will always be highlighted throughout the course of modern history.
Chris is a writer and publisher who travels America, and loves doing it. He also loves pizza, video games, and sports, and can tell you a thing or two about each. Follow him on Medium to be informed of new articles.
- Sinclair, Upton. The Jungle. New American Library, 1906.
- Belisle, Brittany. “Muckraking in the Progressive Era.” Communication, Expression, and Media, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 17 Sept. 2014, accessed via this link.
- Hillstrom, Laurie Collier. The Muckrakers and the Progressive Era (Defining Moments). 1st ed., Omnigraphics, Inc., 2009.
- Roosevelt, Theodore. “The Man with the Muck-Rake.” 15 Apr. 1906, Washington, D.C.
- Bausum, Ann. Muckrakers: How Ida Tarbell, Upton Sinclair, and Lincoln Steffens Helped Expose Scandal, Inspire Reform, and Invent Investigative Journalism. National Geographic, 2007.
- Paul, Catherine A. “The Progressive Era.” VCU Libraries: Social Welfare History, Virginia Commonwealth University, 1 May 2018, accessed via this link.
- Filler, Louis. The Muckrakers. Stanford University Press, 1968.
- Kantor, Arlene Finger. “Upton Sinclair and the Pure Food and Drugs Act of 1906.” American Journal Of Public Health, 1976.
- Alland, Alexander. Jacob A. Riis: Photographer and Citizen, 1993.