Critics of the U.S. During the Progressive Era By: Elliana, Erisa, Sara, and Catherine

A number of critics challenged the dominant corporate ethic in the United States and sometimes capitalism itself, offering alternate visions of the good society through utopianism and the Social Gospel (6.3.II.B).

The Social Gospel

Social Gospel was a reform movement led by Protestant ministers who used religious doctrine to demand better housing and living conditions for the urban poor. Popular at the turn of the twentieth century, it was closely linked to the settlement house movement, which brought middle-class, Anglo-American service volunteers into contact with immigrants and working people. Washington Gladden, a Protestant reverend went to visit shoe factory workers on strike, he found himself sympathetic with their movement . Gladden then went on to publish a book that supported the right of workers to organize unions, Working People and their Employers (1876). Gladden’s book brought him fame and notoriety and would come to be seen by many as the beginning of a new era in American Christianity.

Minister Walter Rauschenusch preaching the Social Gospel and encouraging middle-class Protestants to attack urban problems.

The Social Gospelers saw the problems of industrialism as the result of greed and the collective failure to protect people. Social Gospel leaders such as George Herron saw the terrible living conditions of workers and their families in urban areas as evidence of the beginning of a new millennium in which Christians were called to build the Kingdom of God.

It was not until the first decade of the twentieth century that the Social Gospel message began to have widespread appeal to the people in the pews. It also helped that as poverty, inequality, and industrial injuries all continued to grow, muckraking journalists began to report on these grim realities. Jacob Riis’s photographs and writing were only the beginning of America’s exposure to the realities of industrialism. Like Riis, many of the leading muckrakers were followers of the Social Gospel who were driven by their faith to try to show Americans the problems of the new industrial order.

The Social Gospel movement stressed the challenges of modern and urban living and this picture above depicts children who have been taught this teaching from a very young age, since it offered people hope and something to believe in for low and middle class people.

The Social Gospel’s role in the Progressive Era was amplified by the close connection between the Social Gospel and the emergence of professional social science in the late nineteenth century. During the last three decades of the nineteenth century, economics, political science, and sociology all emerged in American universities as the result of the influence of the Social Gospel. The leaders in all three disciplines were “social Christians” who saw their work as central to showing the truth about American society and the need for reform.


Entrepreneurs of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century have often been given a bad image for their businesses techniques. While men like Cornelius Vanderbilt, John Rockefeller, and Andrew Carnegie did drive their competitors out of business, they developed modern America.

Vanderbilt was the king of the railroads. He eliminated many government supported railroad companies because they could not keep up with the quality or prices of Vanderbilt's lines. He was near entirely controlling the railroad industry himself. He improved the life's of many Americans by connecting the United States with rail; he created jobs for a number of men and enabled them to support their families.

One of Vanderbilt's business partners for a time was John D. Rockefeller. Building his oil industry from the ground up, Rockefeller was determined to beat out his competition. By significantly cutting the costs of production, he was able to sell kerosene at a low price which drove other companies out of the market. Rockefeller would then buy up the other businesses and give the former head of the company stalk in the company, creating a trust that Rockefeller controlled. While this enraged middle class citizens, fearing the unchecked power would endanger their jobs, Rockefeller sold his kerosene for the cheapest price on the market.

Carnegie, Vanderbilt, Rockefeller

Sanitation and Health

Industrialization grew rapidly during the late 19th century. As immigrants started coming over to the U.S. many of them settled in large cities such as New York City where industrialization was rapidly growing. Immigrants were willing to work for small wages in factories. As more and more immigrants came over overcrowding became a major issue in large cities, like New York. This lead to a major sanitation problem. There were no sewage systems or garbage pick up trucks like today. Garbage and sewage was just thrown outside treating a major health problem. Multiple families could be found living together which created another major health problem. With such confined living, disease spread quickly. Colonel George Waring used his military leadership skills to lead to the New York Department of Street cleaning. His sanitation efforts had lasting effects on sanitary improvements and health nationwide.

Confined living spaces were not uncommon. Multiple families could be found living in a space like this.
Many homes did not have running water or toilet facilities.
Waste facilities were shared with others. People used the bathroom in the hall or a community toilet outside. As you can see, living conditions were very unsanitary at the time, however sanitation movements have greatly improved these conditions.

Police Force

During the late 19th century, crime rates were higher then ever. The average gun was only 12$ and very accessible. The number of mafias and gangsters rose drastically. Gangsters would have hit lists where they would get paid for performing some act of violence. For example, punching someone would be $5, biting someone's ear off would be 15$, and killing someone would be $100. A police force was established at the time however, these criminals would often get away with these crimes. Criminals would often just stay in a city until everyone figured out who they were, then just leave move to another city where they were unknown and commit more crimes there. This all changed when photography was used to identify criminals and police records were kept.

An murder incident.
A mug shot or a criminal, used for police records of the NYC Police Department.


With the rise of urbanization came the increase size of major cities. People were swarming into cities to create better lives for themselves and their families. As cities were becoming a more desirable place to live, the price of their land was steadily increasing. Instead of expanding outward, these cities began to expand vertically through the use of skyscrapers. Much criticism came from these buildings in the sky; many believed they were unsafe and refused to go inside them. Those who worked to build them had no safety harnesses. Many died or were seriously injured on the job while building these buildings. People took on building skyscrapers, however, because it payed well and many of the builders were immigrants who lived in poor conditions (as mentioned above). Skyscrapers were the perfect solution to this problem because they allowed for the amount of living space to increase.

This was how early skyscrapers looked. The first were only about five stories high, but as time went on the beacons taller.


Made with Adobe Slate

Make your words and images move.

Get Slate

Report Abuse

If you feel that this video content violates the Adobe Terms of Use, you may report this content by filling out this quick form.

To report a Copyright Violation, please follow Section 17 in the Terms of Use.