During the first thirty years of the 20th century, America again enjoyed unprecedented industrial and economic growth.  The nation’s population doubled.  Industrial output between 1900 and 1930 grew by nearly 300%, and the gross domestic product (GNP) grew from 17 billion to 104 billion dollars.  The growth was fed by record immigration- 20 million by 1925- and the continued increase in the mechanization of both agricultural and manufacturing.  By 1920, most Americans were living in a city. The social climate in most major cities underwent pronounced change, as first and second-generation immigrants became a majority.  Manufacturing, which was becoming more and more regimented, grew to be the most important segment of the economy.  By 1930, 9 million workers were employed in some kind of manufacturing enterprise.  Technology was an important catalyst.  Electricity, telephones, motion pictures and the automobile changed the landscape in the city and on the farm.

A large proportion of the wealth created by the extraordinary growth was concentrated in the hands of a relatively few wealthy industrialists and the mega-corporations or trusts they controlled.  In 1912, a Presidential Commission created to study the growing imbalance of national wealth reported that 70 % of the nation’s families were living below what was required for decency.  There was also continuing conflict between capital and labor as working people tried to divert some of the huge increases in wealth into their own pockets.  A growing number of political and social leaders became more sympathetic to the mounting demands of the labor movement.


There were several political shifts during this era.  Theodore Roosevelt, president during the early years of the century, led a wave of progressives who aimed at reforming nearly every aspect of American life.  The progressive movement waned when America went to war (World War I), and the postwar period was a period of repression that thwarted reform impulses, discouraged criticism and demanded conformity.       


Farming activities claimed the efforts of a large number of families  even though agriculture supported a diminished number of farms.  Although farm prices were stable and even increased in the war years, most farmers still struggled to make a living.  As agricultural operations grew larger and became more mechanized, they required greater capital investment.  Such forces pushed millions of families off of their small farms.  Six million small farmers moved to the cities during the first thirty years of the 20th century.  Those who remained were often forced into selling their farms and joining an increasing number of agricultural people who rented their land.  Renting land or farm tenancy became more and more common, rising to nearly forty percent in the Mid-West. In many agricultural counties, tenancy was the norm; it was estimated that 80% of African-American farmers were in some sort of rental arrangement.  Even in the best of times weather, banks, railroads and insects combined to make farm life a challenge. One observer noted that most farmers were, “…in a constant hand-to-hand battle with poverty”.  Another observer said that mid-western farmers always looked “worsted in the battle of life”.  World War I saw prices and living standards shoot up, but it was a limited recovery.  Over-expansion and overproduction during the war led to a dramatic drop in farm prices in the mid- twenties.  Accompanying the drop in prices was a severe drought in the Mid-West.  The depression came early to American farmers and millions migrated to cities where they hoped to find manufacturing work.


Manufacturing work had its own trials.  Skilled work was becoming de-skilled through the combined impacts of technology and a new philosophy of scientific management, an approach that used assembly line techniques to reduce skilled tasks into a series of specific unskilled behaviors. For example, Shoemaking, mining, and cigar making, previously skilled occupations, were reduced to unskilled work through the application of assembly line techniques.   More manufacturing workers were employed in huge factories; environments that were loud, chaotic, and dangerous and that provided few protections for the sick or injured worker.  Labor, frustrated in their confrontations between workers and capital’s army of Pinkerton detectives and state militias, grew more radical. 

Working people learned to lean on each other to avoid destitution during periods of unemployment or illness.  Lodges and friendly societies became common sources of mutual support.  According to one estimate, 30% of urban workers belonged to one of the many lodges or associations that sprang up to address the obvious need.  Although the Masons and Odd Fellows were the most popular, more than three thousand such organizations registered during this period and nearly all offered a set of modest insurances that protected against unemployment, illness or death.  Advances in working conditions and wages were slow, but by the 1920s a growing number of large companies and plants began to offer fringe benefits under the banner of industrial welfare, an approach that was motivated by a fear of union militancy and the specter of a Russian type revolution.


A civil war in Mexico along with a demand for cheap labor in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California combined to increase immigration from Mexico. By 1920, approxamately one million Mexican-Americans were residing in the Southwest. The economic downturn that followed Worl War I sparked a predictable backlash against Mexican immigration and large numbers of Mexican-Americans were shipped back to Mexico. Civil war in the mid-1920s sent thousands of immigrants back to the US. By 1930, Mexican-Americans were a very visible minority in the most of the Southwest with the largest community residing in Los Angeles.




African-Americans found themselves abandoned to the whims and prejudices of Southern racists.  Jim Crow laws continued to multiply throughout the South and the disenfranchisement was so great that by 1915 few African-Americans could vote anywhere in the South.  Lynching continued to be a major disgrace during the pre-war years and again in the 1920s.  The 1920s saw the emergence of the Klu Klux Klan as a social and political force in the North.   As many of three million white Americans joined the Klan and the racist organization even spread its influence to the North, where it came to control the legislatures of Colorado and Indiana.  Many African Americans moved north forming “ The Great Migration”.  In just one decade, from 1910 to 1920, nearly a million African-Americans left the South.  While most Northern cities saw their African-American populations soar, New York and Chicago became the most popular destinations. New York’s Harlem neighborhood became a Mecca for African-American intellectuals and artists.  In the 1920s, this stirring mixture produced the Harlem Renaissance, one of this nation’s greatest outpourings of art, literature and music and a celebration of racial pride.  Unfortunately, African-Americans were unable to escape racism, which followed them North where they were again subjected to discrimination on the job and “de facto” segregation in the schools. Few unions other than the International Workers of the World (I.W.W.) and the United Mine Workers (UMW) admitted people of color. Without union advocacy wages for African-American workers worked for wages far below what was paid to white workers.  At the height of the Harlem Renaissance the Cotton Club--the most famous nightclub in Harlem and a stage for countless talented African-American dancers and musicians-- did not admit African-American patrons.  Some Harlem residents became disillusioned and followed radical leaders such as Marcus Garvey who preached Black Pride and separation of the races.


While generally accepted American family values continued to promote a restricted role for women, the reality was quite different.  By the early 20th century, more than five million women and two million children had joined the workforce. By World War I, 20% of all workers were women.  A growing number were drawn to “pink collar” jobs and, at the turn of the century, there were a half-million office workers- switchboard operators, department store clerks, and typists or “typewriters” as they were then identified.  Teaching attracted another half-million women.  Education helped women take a more visible role in society.  At the turn of the century, ten percent of women were attending a college.  By 1930, thirty percent of the students in college were women.  During the early years of the century, throughout the progressive era, women were the backbone of the many reforms that the progressives created. Women were also taking lead roles in the traditionally feminine fields of nursing and charity work.



At the turn into the 20th century, there were approximately a thousand strikes a year; a few years into the 20th century, there were a thousand strikes a month.  While judges and the government typically sided with business interests, public opinion was becoming more sympathetic to labor.  The labor movement split into two philosophical camps.  The more conservative labor organization, The American Federation of Labor (AFL), focused almost entirely on raising the wages of skilled workers and ignored the much larger group of unskilled industrial laborers.  The second, more militant labor group was the Industrial unions, led by such organizations as the United Mine Workers (UMW) in the east, and the Western Federation of Miners (WFM), in the west.  While the industrial unions were interested in higher wages they were also concerned with more general issues such as health care, safety, and the inherent unfairness of unregulated capitalism.  The industrial unions believed that social justice for working families would only be achieved by a radical change in society.  The AF L simply wanted a larger piece of the pie for its members.


The most radical union of the era was the International Workers Of The World (I.W.W.), better known as the Wobblies.  Founded in 1908, the I.W.W. believed in “ONE BIG UNION”, a union that embraced all working people and had the breadth and power to take on the big corporations.  The I.W.W. tried to organize everyone including African-Americans, women, miners, lumberjacks, cowboys, and even domestic workers.  The underlying philosophy of the union was syndicalism; a belief that the workers, once completely organized, would take over the means of production.  After the Russian Revolution in 1917, the American government was very suspicious of any movement that criticized the status quo and all reformers fell under a cloud of suspicion and repression.  As a consequence, I.W.W. organizers were arrested, deported and even lynched. 



Before World War I unions enjoyed a fair amount of success.  By 1920, approximately 20% of the American labor force belonged to a union.  The welfare and wages of workers improved. A growing number of states were passed rudimentary safety net social programs such as worker’s compensation and safety regulations.  A few political leaders were even beginning to talk about the need for a system of social insurances.  While some of the reforms stagnated after World War One, the die had been cast, and the standard of living for most workers slowly began to improve.  By 1929, a majority of American families had access to an automobile and a third had flushing toilets.

"If you go to the city of Washington, you will find that almost all of those corporation lawyers and cowardly politicians, members of congress, and mis-representatives of the masses claim, in glowing terms, that they have risen from the ranks to places of eminence and distinction. I am very glad that I cannot make that claim for myself. I would be ashamed to admit that I had risen from the ranks. When I rise it will be with the ranks, and not from the ranks."



In the first two decades of the 20th century temperance and suffrage continued to be the most popular reform movements and, in 1920, women obtained the right to vote and the consumption of alcohol was banned.  However, progressives were also committed to the idea that all levels of government should be expanded to address the general needs emerging from a growingly industrial society.  City governments became both a major object of and a major tool for reform.  From playgrounds to sewer systems, the services provided by most cities were upgraded. Additionally their very political characters were modified in an attempt to control corruption.  Cities also became principal providers of charity.  By 1920, municipal relief programs were spending three times as much as private charities, and most large cities had public welfare departments. Some reform leaders also became concerned about the violent clashes between labor and capital and became involved in labor relations.  Support for the labor movement became particularly popular after the dual tragedies of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in New York  and the massacre of miners at Ludlow, Colorado.  The New York Shirtwaist fire was an opportunity for labor leaders and reformers to coalesce in their efforts to create safer working conditions and the death of women and children at the hands of the Ludlow mine owners tilted public opinion in favor of organized labor.


 Other reformers focused on poverty, education, protection for working women, and race relations.  Progressives promoted race relations through forming such organizations as the National Association of Colored People (NAACP) and the Urban League.  African-Americans, like working class Americans learned the importance of mutual assistance.  There were myriad African-American self-help groups and lodges that provided assistance to widows, orphans, injured workers, and the victims of race riots, still all too common during this era. African-American women provided a much-needed volunteer force for African-American progressives; and through such organizations as the National Association of Colored Women; they supported orphanages, houses of refuge, settlement houses, employment agencies, settlement houses, and residences for working girls. 



The welfare of children also became a major cause.  In 1911, the Children’s Bureau was created.  The Children’s Bureau acted as an advocate for a variety of welfare and health issues that were important to family life and was particularly influential in improving public health programs for young mothers and young children.  Late in the 19th century, child welfare advocates pushed to replace the orphanage system with foster care programs. Most states had developed a system of foster care by 1930.  Child labor, another significant problem at the turn of the century, was all but eliminated in the North. The widow’s pension was another strategy of the child saving movement.  Widow’s pensions proliferated and, by 1930, virtually every state provided some kind of pension for single parents, allowing mothers to stay home with their young children.

Reformers were also concerned that most American families had few defenses against the major causes of poverty.  Illness, disease, injury and death- all too common events in industrial America- could quickly plunge almost any working family into destitution.   Work related injuries and deaths were particularly devastating, and American workers were injured or killed at a staggering rate.  In 1908, more than thirty thousand workers were killed and nearly half a million were injured.  In one year, in one Chicago steel mill 46 men were killed and nearly 600 injured.  Injured workers faced major hurdles to obtaining compensation, and the families of workers who died while on the job usually received only token payments from factory owners.  In the late 19th century a number of fraternal organizations and unions began providing members with modest pensions and insurances, but these programs were limited. In the early 1900s, a group of economist formed the American Association for Labor Legislation (AALL) to lobby for safety and health regulations and social insurances.   By 1920, the AALL had three thousand members and its efforts were supported by a broad coalition of reform groups that included labor, fraternal organizations, social workers, business leaders, and important politicians.  In 1911, ten states enacted worker compensation laws and by 1920 most states had some form of social insurance that covered injured employees.  While those laws provided only modest benefits for workers, they recognized that workers had a right to compensation and that industry bore some responsibility for worker’s safety. The AALL followed their success with a campaign for a comprehensive set of state laws that would create a system of insurances that included unemployment insurance, old age pensions and health care.  A strange coalition of physicians, hospitals, labor unions and lodges successfully managed to kill the initiative.  Unions and lodges were afraid that a system of publicly supported social insurances would rob them of members and power.  Social insurance programs that sheltered workers when they became unemployed or too old to work would not become national policy until the Great Depression. 


  In the early years of the 19th century, federal payments to Civil War veterans was the largest single item in the nation’s budget.  Most states were spending more funds to support war veterans than they were spending for all other forms of public welfare. Welfare for veterans was again expanded after World War I. In the 1920s, a federal bureau for veterans’ affairs was created and benefits for veterans were expanded to even include health care.  



Some reforms were malevolent.  The eugenics movement violated individual rights under the banner of social improvement through genetic manipulation.  Foster care programs, and the anti-child labor reforms were tinged with paternalism, reflecting a lack of sensitivity for the interests of working people.  In the mid-twenties, immigration reform was motivated by racism and pandered to the prejudices the general population held towards immigrants from Eastern Europe and Asia.    Even municipal reform often projected an anti-immigrant face when upper class and predominately protestant reformers tried to wrest control of local government from the ethnic-based political machines.  Racism was a family value.  Even charity and settlement workers often shunned people of color.  Jim Crow laws and the Ku Klux Klan spread to the North as more and more African-Americans fled to Northern Cities, which, by 1930, housed forty percent of America’s African-American population. 





            The first thirty years of the 20th century were years of extraordinary change.  Millions of immigrants and millions of migrants poured into the cities.  The majority of both groups, mostly unskilled, sought employment in the various industries that were all too happy to hire unskilled workers at poverty-level wages.  Poverty was a common condition that threatened all working people, but was a more immediate hazard to the newly arrived unskilled urban worker.  Labor unions fought a vicious war with capitalists, with capitalists winning most of the battles.  Most cities were run by incredibly corrupt political organizations that provided necessary social services to the burgeoning immigrant population while manipulating and exploiting a group of people that were unfamiliar with the rudiments of democracy.  Most working people were in a constant struggle to maintain the meanest standards of living.  Estimates vary, but most authorities put the poverty rates for American families at somewhere between 50 and 80 percent.  It was also a difficult time for farm families.  Farms were becoming larger and more mechanized, trends that forced small landholders deep into debt and eventually into tenant farming.  Millions of African-Americans moved north, hoping to find opportunity but too often discovered that Jim Crow had moved with them. 

            In spite of these difficulties, there were surprising advances. The progressive years, roughly from 1900 till World War I, were the peak of the reform years, but many of the causes that they championed maintained some momentum throughout the first thirty years of the century. Women made impressive contributions to the nation and, by 1920, their major crusades, temperance and suffrage, were achieved.  Women joined the workforce in record numbers and, by 1930, comprised more than 20% of the workforce.   Educated women were accepted, if grudgingly so, to a wide variety of professions.  Working people made modest, but steady gains during this era.  Both the workweek and the workday became shorter and wages rose modestly.  More significant gains were made in other areas such as public health and public services.  People lived longer and were sick less often than during the 19th century.  By 1930, most workers enjoyed some protections from work related injuries and additional social insurances had become a part of the public discourse.





coming soon will be two new chapters on the 1930s.