By Patrick Allitt, Emory University
One of the trends of the early 20th century was ‘muckraking’ journalism, where a journalist would investigate urban corruption or abuse by monopoly corporations. Lincoln Steffens, a famous muckraker, toured around the major cities of America and investigated the machines that ran them, to find out how they kept in operation; he also looked for ways in which Good Government alternatives might be introduced.
Lincoln Steffens discovered that the claim that the corruption was all because of foreigners, that it was all recent immigrants who were doing this, was false. He found that very often long-term Americans were deeply implicated. Very often the Anglo-Saxon elites that ran a city’s businesses were willing to connive at the bribery and corruption that were going on.
Here’ a quote from Steffens’ book, The Shame of the Cities:
“The typical American citizen is the businessman. The typical businessman is a bad citizen, and he’s busy, but if he’s a big businessman, and very busy, he does not neglect politics. I found him buying boodlers in Saint Louis (‘Boodlers’ was one of the nicknames for the city politicians), defending grafters in Minneapolis, originating corruption in Philadelphia, deploring reform in Chicago, and beating Good Government with corruption funds in New York. He’s a self-righteous fraud, this big businessman. He’s the chief source of corruption. In other words, don’t put this all off on the immigrants and say it’s all their fault. The people who think of themselves as the upstanding citizens have themselves to blame.”
In fact, he goes on to address middle-class voters in general and says:
“You’ve got to get involved in politics, because if you did, things like this couldn’t continue; it’s your negligence, it’s your willingness to put up with it that enables the system to survive, so we’re all to blame for not stopping it more vigorously.”
This is a transcript from the video series A History of the United States, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Steffens was part of an early 20th century Progressive movement, which had a great interest in purifying democracy, and also introducing the principle of efficiency into everyday life.
In most of America, the prevailing wind blows from the west to the east, which meant that the most attractive neighborhood to live in was west of downtown, because that way, instead of having clouds of smoke and fumes blowing from the city over their residence one would be above the source of the smoke in the first place.
The people who popularized suburbs—the little areas away from the downtown—said that this was a way of living and working in town, but because they could have a little garden attached to their suburban house, they had a little reminiscence of the old rural life that they’d left behind.
After all, a very large quantity of the new American middle class and working classes were Americans who’d moved out of farming into the city, so they could have a little fragment of the countryside in their suburban garden.
Settlement House Movement
Another characteristic of the new Progressive reform impulse was the settlement house movement, which brought poor urbanites the help of privileged yet concerned citizens. The model for these settlement houses was the Hull House in Chicago.
Jane Addams was a middle-class girl who didn’t want to get married. When she was touring Europe, she went to Toynbee Hall in London, which was a place where young men from Oxford University would go to help slum dwellers. She found it an inspiring example and wanted to build something comparable in Chicago, so she founded Hull House in 1889.
The idea of it was that she and some of her fellow middle-class ladies would help Chicago immigrants to acclimatize, to adapt to the New World, and become their advocate, face to face with the city government.
At Hull House, people could get language training in English; it provided childcare to workingwomen, and it looked after abandoned women whose husbands had run away.
They lobbied the city authorities to get public services fulfilled: trash collection, street lighting, proper policing, and so on. They also worked very hard against the influence of the big city machines.
Twenty Years at Hull House
Jane Addams wrote her autobiography called Twenty Years at Hull House, which was published in 1910 and recorded the first 20 years of her experiences there. Here’s a little passage from it, giving an idea of some of the things that she and her colleagues were involved in:
For six weeks after an operation, we kept in one of our three bedrooms a forlorn little baby who, because he was born with a cleft palette, was most unwelcome to his mother, and we were horrified when he died of neglect a week after he was returned to his home. A little Italian bride of fifteen sought shelter with us one November evening to escape her husband, who’d beaten her every night for a week when he returned from work because she’d lost her wedding ring. Two of us officiated quite alone at the birth of an illegitimate child, because the doctor was late in arriving, and none of the honest Irish matrons in the neighborhood would touch the likes of her.
Although by our standards Hull House and its methods look a bit heavy-handed, Jane Addams and her followers did respect the cultural traditions of the people they were trying to help: the dances, the foods, the singing, the craft techniques, and the languages of the immigrants around her.
Common Questions about Reforms and Developments in Early American Cities
In most of America, the prevailing wind blows from the west to the east, which meant that the most attractive neighborhood to live in was west of downtown, because that way, instead of having clouds of smoke and fumes blowing from the city over their residence, one would be above the source of the smoke in the first place.
Toynbee Hall was a place in London where young men from Oxford University would go to help slum dwellers.
At Hull House, people could get language training in English; it provided childcare to workingwomen, and it looked after abandoned women whose husbands had run away. They lobbied the city authorities to get public services fulfilled: trash collection, street lighting, proper policing, and so on. They also worked very hard against the influence of the big city machines.