The People Strike Back: The Progressive Era

The time period from 1895-1915 is known as the Progressive Era in America. A diverse group of reformers known as “Progressives” were attempting to protect the American people from the greed and ruthlessness of big businesses. They believed that regulation from the government on every level was the best way to achieve this objective. An example of big business’s ruthlessness was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire on March 25, 1911.  On that sad day 146 women and men died in a fire in the factory. People were forced to jump out the window because the doors were locked from the outside by the employers. The employers locked the doors to stop people from leaving early or stealing. Locking the doors from the outside was ruthless in my opinion. They treated and trapped their employees like animals. They would’ve been better offer just having security guards posted outside the doors. But having security guards cost money, so their greed got the best of them and they just locked the doors.

The Progressives desire for more government regulation was born out of suffering. Many middle-class people believed in the idea of self-reliance until Big Business started dominating the economy at the turn of the century. The rise of Big Business put a lot of middle-class ran businesses out of business. People like John D. Rockefeller will tell you to pull yourself up by your bootstraps. But when you go to do so, they knock you upside the head with their greater resources. And that’s pretty much what happen to a lot of middle-class proprietors.


The working class suffered greatly under Big Business. And tales of that suffering invoked both sympathy and fear in many middle-class people. So Progressives knew that things needed to change. Lacking the wealth of the upper class and the numbers of the working class, Progressives had to get creative. They manifested their creativity by building cross-class political coalitions. And by the end of the Progressive Era, the government had a greater role in regulating the economy, protecting workers, and many other things. The Progressives didn’t achieve all their goals but they laid a powerful foundation for future reformers.

In my personal opinion, I believe the government should only get involve in business if it’s necessary. And unfortunately greedy/ruthless businesses make it necessary. If people run a business that is unsafe for their workers, that’s evil. Is making money more important to them than human life? But when the government gets involved they get mad. Not realizing they’re the reason the government got involved. When it comes to minimum wage, I do believe there should be a minimum wage. And I wish all businesses would pay their employees a living wage if it’s feasible. However, I also believe people have to take responsibility for their lives and make power moves. Constantly doing something that elevates them and becoming more strategic in life decisions. Human beings have tremendous power within; the Progressive Era is proof of that power.




Keene, Jennifer D., Saul T. Cornell and Edward T. O’Donnell. Visions of America: A History of the United States, Combined Volume, 3/e. Boston: Pearson, n.d.

16 thoughts on “The People Strike Back: The Progressive Era

  1. I agree that it was ruthless to trap them in the building by locking all the doors. They were not being treated right at all. Its sad that it took 146 deaths for employers to realize that they have taken the advantage of their power too far. Greed makes people do stupid things and this was one of them. Progressives tried to help the working people and ended up helping the government help our economy. I believe government should not get involved in businesses unless the last possible option.

  2. It’s very sad that employers went down to such low points as to locking their own employees into their workplace just to do their job. Just the thought of being locked in somewhere to do a job makes me anxious! I agree with your views on how the government gets involved with business, as long as it’s necessary. Unfortunately, during these times in the Progressive Era employers did bring that on themselves, however I still think that if the government didn’t get involved with business back then there would still be problems in the way businesses are run today.

    1. In this situation, I agree that the government should have gotten involved. However, I cannot imagine it getting that bad again in todays society so if they interfered again, it would have to be something very big for me to support it. Government should have as little power in businesses as possible (other than life or death situations).

    2. I agree! I would be freaking out and having so much anxiety if a employer locked me in the building to work. That is not fair to anyone. No one should ever be overworked well being treated so poorly with low wages. I agree with how you said that greed makes people do stupid things because that is so true. Even today people are so money hungry and it leads them to do some dumb things.

    3. Right! It’s nuts that happened. I couldn’t imagine being locked in my work place, let alone the conditions they were working in. I also agree with your statement that there would probably still be problems in businesses working conditions if the government hadn’t stepped in.

  3. “The Progressives desire for more government regulation was born out of suffering. ”

    Unfortunately this is so very true. Without the lower and middle class going through some hardships, the Progressives would have never been started. This suffering that they went through lighted a flame inside of them to make changes in America. You said later in your blog that they had to “get creative” due to their lack of money and numbers, and that also is so true. The Progressives had to make something big out of nothing in order to be taken seriously, and that is exactly what they did. Like you said, they took different things from all of the different political parties and unions and came up with one big idea that was the middle ground between it all.

    I honestly think it is amazing what they did and how they went about doing it. Making something out of nothing is extremely difficult as is. I can only imagine having nothing to help you and having no real support or an actual “game plan” before even starting.

    1. It seems to be a reoccurring pattern in history where a change isn’t made unless something drastic happens. Unfortunately, most of these drastic events seem to involve terrible situations (in this case, multiple deaths). It’s good to see that this incident was motivation to improve the lives of Americans, but the cost seems very high.

    2. It seems that compromise helped win the day after everything, I’m not sure if it was entirely enough of a change in the long run, but Rome wasn’t built in a day. The steps taken to rectify the atrocities should’ve come at a natural course but it is sometimes surprising how abhorrent people can become when consumed by greed. But I suppose absolute power corrupts absolutely in the end. To be fair, these types of atrocities still exist the world over and not much is done about it, I suppose we humans are destined to walk all over one another.

  4. It is really unbelievable hearing how workers were treated back then. Today we would never think of our employer having the power to lock the workers in. Like you said the “their greed got the best of them” resulting in 146 unnecessary deaths. Today I am glad he have shaped our country to where business and workers can get along. Though sometimes it may not look like it we really are lucky to work in the conditions we have today.

    1. It would be insane if we saw these conditions today, I am glad everything got straitened out so that if it ever happened again, us as the people would have more power to change it then the government and that is really promising to know.

  5. I think it’s horrible that employers locked their employees in the buildings simply because they didn’t want them leaving early. Big Business took advantage of their power and ended up killing 146 people in a factory fire. This is very sad that workers were treated so poorly when all they were trying to do was work to support their families. The progressives were a very important group that brought reform to working conditions however, this group wasn’t founded until after many people went through harsh conditions. We are very lucky to have laws about working conditions and to simply have the conditions we have today.

  6. One thing I wondered when reading this chapter is if the shrinking middle class that were currently experiencing means that there will be less people to fight for progressive causes in the future.

  7. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire on March 25, 1911 was such a tragedy. It is terrible that the employers would lock their employees to force them to work for them. This fire should have proven to people how terrible labor laws were and needed to be changed. That fire could have been avoided if they were treated like human beings and not slaves. I am thankful for the Progressives and glad we have so many labor laws to protect our civil rights.

  8. It is sad that government regulation was the result of the working class suffering. Sad to think that employer’s had such little regard for their employees that the government had to get involved. Today the rise of big businesses is still putting middle class run businesses out of business. I agree with you about the minimum wage. Individuals need incentive to improve themselves and humans do have power!

  9. I would be absolutely terrified to go to work everyday after hearing those stories and probably be working in some of those same conditions. The sad thing is, these people didn’t have a choice, they had to work to get by. I feel that many of these problems wouldn’t have occurred had there not been greed. Unfortunately, greed is practically inevitable so thank goodness the Progressives stood up for what is right.

  10. It is so sad to hear what happened with the many working incidents back then and to see the many people suffer. I think it was a good thing for progressives to step in and demand government regulation in that area. I believe that is a fine line though. Government should only be involved in workers safety I believe. They should have no say in the business ends of it.

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