The Progressive Era

Contributor: Meghan Vestal. Lesson ID: 12751

Sometimes, problems just build up until something has to be done! Things were bad for many Americans in the early 20th century, but brave citizens stepped up to make life easier, even for you and me!


United States

learning style
personality style
Grade Level
Intermediate (3-5)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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Imagine you could no longer attend school. Instead, you were forced to work 40 hours (or more!) per week in a factory. You would be required to lift heavy objects and operate machines. How would you feel about this?

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Image courtesy of Wikimedia

In this lesson, you will learn about the Progressive Era.

During the Progressive Era, there were many problems in the United States, but people worked to fix those problems.

Create the following chart on a piece of paper:

problem solution chart

As you read about the Progressive Era, complete the chart by writing the problems you read about the left side and the solutions to those problems on the right side.

What was the Progressive Era?

The Progressive Era was a time period in American history that lasted from about 1890 to 1920. The time period is known for an increased effort to reduce problems with the ways Americans were being treated by their employers and the government. This movement led to major changes to the way the government and businesses operate.

Problems with the Progressive Era

By the late 1800s, many Americans had moved to cities to work. Most people worked in factories. At the time, there were no laws that said how people should be treated at work, so people often worked long hours for very little money. The United States was getting richer and richer while its citizens remained poor. Most of the factories Americans worked in were unsafe, and people were frequently killed by machines while working. In addition, young children were often forced to work to help provide money for their families. Children as young as seven years old were seen working hard jobs, 40 hours per week in the factories.

The image below shows two young boys at work in a factory. What do you notice about this picture that would never be allowed in a factory today? Discuss your response with your teacher or parent:

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Image courtesy of Wikimedia

In addition to poor working conditions, many Americans also lived in unsanitary, or unclean, housing. The rapid growth of cities did not leave time for housing to be built slowly. Apartment buildings were often constructed quickly and were not built well. The buildings were often infested with rats and insects, and disease spread quickly. In addition, the apartments were small and crowded. Often, an entire floor of families would have to share one bathroom. Unfortunately, many hardworking Americans could not afford anything else.

Not only were their homes unsanitary, but the food Americans ate was also not safe. Reports showed that rats filled meat packing factories, and food in factories was often dropped on the floor before it was packaged.

Another important issue of the Progressive Era was women’s rights. At the time, women still did not have the right to vote or participate in government. Women had played an important role during World War I by working as nurses and raising money for the war. They felt they had earned the right to vote. Many women led protests and marches to have their voice heard.

Many people believed the reasons for the ways Americans were being treated was because of the government and big businesses. The government was not making decisions in the best interest of the people. Businesses were not treating their employees fairly. Some businesses worked to eliminate other businesses so they could raise the cost of goods.

Outcomes of the Progressive Era

During the Progressive Era, work was done to eliminate many of the problems listed above.

To start, unions were formed to protect workers. The unions worked on behalf on the workers to negotiate better working conditions and fairer wages. The work of the unions also helped to put laws in place that protected workers, including children. Laws were written that described what the conditions of a working environment should look like, how workers should be treated, and how employers were allowed to use children for work.

Housing and living conditions also began to improve. When President Theodore Roosevelt read a book about the conditions of the meat packing factories, he immediately made efforts to improve the quality of food in America. He set up government agencies to inspect factories and test the quality of food and medicine in the United States.

On August 18, 1920, the hard work of female protestors finally paid off. The 19th Amendment was added to the U.S. Constitution. This amendment gave women the right to vote in political elections. (For more information about this, visit our lesson, Women Earn the Right to Vote)

Finally, efforts were also made to limit government and business corruption. In 1913, the 17th Amendment was added to the Constitution. This amendment said senators were to be elected by the people living in the states they represented. Before the 17th amendment, state governments selected their senators. This amendment gave power to the people by allowing them to select their representatives. Tighter restrictions were also placed on businesses. Laws were passed to limit monopolies, which is when a business has complete control over a good or service that is available. Limiting monopolies helped to keep the price of goods and services low.

A lot of important events happened during the Progressive Era. The events and situations you read about are only a few of the problems and solutions that occurred during this time period. To learn more about the events that took place during the Progressive Era, read the following article. As you read Progressive Movement (Siteseen), continue to add the problem and solution chart you have been creating.

When you are finished reading the article, use your chart to discuss the following questions with your teacher or parent:

  • What do you think was the biggest problem Americans faced during the Progressive Era?
  • How do the outcomes of the Progressive Era continue to affect American society today?

When you are finished discussing the questions, move on to the Got It? section to review what you have learned by using an interactive.

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