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LESSON / UNIT TITLE: Muckraking in the Progressive Era

Teacher Name(s): Elizabeth Segraves

School District: Williamsport Area School District

Building: Williamsport High School

Grade Level: 11

Subject: American History

Time Required: 1-2 days

Lesson/Unit Summary:

Students will develop an understanding of the role of muckrakers in exposing societal problems and contributing to the passage of legislation to improve problems that developed in society during the Industrial Age through the analysis of various articles written by Progressive Era muckrakers.

Essential Questions for Lesson/Unit

  1. How did the work of various muckrakers contribute to the success of the Progressive Era?

  2. What connections can be made between news reporters of the early 1900’s and today?

  3. What role does analysis have in historical construction?

Pennsylvania Academic Standards Addressed in Lesson/Unit
8.1.5.A: Identify and explain the influences of economic features on continuity and change over time.
8.1.6.A: Explain continuity and change over time using sequential order and context of events.
8.1.8.A: Compare and contrast events over time and how continuity and change over time influenced those events.
8.1.7.B: Identify and use primary and secondary sources to analyze multiple points of view for historical events.
8.1.12.C: Analyze, synthesize, and integrate historical data, creating a product that supports and appropriately illustrates inferences and conclusions drawn from research. (Reference RWSL Standard 1.8.11 Research)
8.1.U.C: Analyze, synthesize and integrate historical data, creating a product that supports and appropriately illustrates inferences and conclusions drawn from research. (Reference RWSL Standard 1.8.11 Research)

Lesson/Unit Objectives

  1. Work in small groups to evaluate the role that muckrakers had on the Progressive Movement

  2. Demonstrate your understanding of the material through a written reflection

Vocabulary/Key Terms for Lesson/Unit

  • Progressive Movement

  • Muckraker

  • Trust

  • Political Machine

  • Tenement

Historical Background for Teachers / Research Narrative

Muckraking in the Progressive Era

The Progressive Era is the name given to the time period between 1890 and 1920. This name reflects the desire of a large group of American citizens to help society “progress” or move forward since the Industrial Age.

The Industrial Age had created many social, economic, and political problems that restricted the role of citizens in society, especially the poor. A key part of the Progressive Movement was returning control of government to the people and improving the lives of the poor. The movement largely appealed to the educated middle class. This population agreed with the improvements brought about by industrialization, but disagreed with the lack of regulation on the growth of industry and the problems caused by urbanization. Taking advantage of new technological developments in transportation, communication, and organization, industry grew tremendously and immigrants flooded into unprepared cities to fill factory jobs. Members of the progressive movement thought that the government should intervene in laissez-faire capitalism on behalf of those taken advantage of by the powerful monopolies. They also desired to fix corruption in the government and get rid of the political machine who took advantage of immigrants by protecting voters. Men and women alike would play key roles in making these various improvements to society. Overall, this population believed that the problems society faced could best be addressed by providing good education, a safe environment, and an efficient workplace. Issues that were beyond the control of the government would fall upon the citizens to address. They did this largely through the founding of nonprofit organization that spread during the early 1900’s like the YMCA and Salvation Army.

Much of what this movement achieved and addressed connected with the efforts of journalist from the early 1900’s. Unlike yellow journalism where stories are exaggerated, this new style of journalism sought to bring social issues to the public’s attention. The name given to these writers would be “muckrakers”. The term "muckraker" was taken from the fictional character in John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, a man who was consigned to rake muck endlessly, never lifting his eyes from his drudgery and first applied by President Teddy Roosevelt who favored their work, but also thought they got carried away. Writers who were considered muckrakers directed their criticisms against the trusts, prison conditions, exploitation of natural resources, the tax system, the insurance industry, pension practices and food processing, among others. Most of their work was published in magazines such as McClure’s, Everybody’s, and Collier’s. These publications provide them with a wide enough audience to arouse nationwide concern and also provided the funds necessary to research and write about these issues.

Leading writers of this genre included:

  • Lincoln Steffens, an investigator of corruption in state and municipal governments, published Shame of the Cities in 1904.

  • Edwin Markham published an exposé of child labor in Children in Bondage (1914).

  • Jacob Riis depicted the misery of New York City slums in How the Other Half Lives (1890).

  • Ida Tarbell wrote a series of magazine articles detailing the business practices of Standard Oil, which appeared in McClure's and later were published in book form as The History of the Standard Oil Company (1904).

  • David Graham Phillips' Cosmopolitan article, "The Treason of the Senate," a bitter indictment of political corruption, provoked President Roosevelt's wrath, but created momentum that would culminate in the adoption of 17th amendment.

  • Henry Demarest Lloyd's Wealth against Commonwealth (1894) chronicled the rise of John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil.

  • Ray Stannard Baker examined the sad state of race relations in America in Following the Color Line (1908),

  • Samuel Hopkins Adams won fame from his muckraking exposés of the patent medicine industry

  • Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906) exposed the unsanitary working conditions and food production of the meat packing industry.

The impact that these authors had varied, but most influenced the public to call upon the government to take action. Several pieces of legislation to improve city slums, break up trusts, and clean up factories emerged from these authors’ efforts and the Progressive Movement as a whole. Historians agree that if it had not been for the revelations of the muckrakers, the Progressive movement would not have received the popular support needed for effective reform (Filler).


Filler, Louis. Crusaders for American Liberalism. Yellow Springs, OH: Antioch Press. 1950.

Hoy, Suellen. Chasing Dirt: The American Pursuit of Cleanliness. New York: Oxford University Press.


“Learn About the Progressive Era.” Digital History. 19 January 2011. http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/modules/progressivism/index.cfm

Melosi, Martin, ed. Pollution and Reform in American Cities, 1870–1930. Austin, TX: University of

Texas Press. 1980.

“Muckrakers: Social Issues.” United States History. 19 January 2011.


“The Progressive Era.” Eleanor Roosevelt Historical Site. 19 January 2011. http://www.nps.gov/archive/elro/glossary/progressive-era.htm

Instructional Prodedures and Activities
1-2 days prior to this lesson assign and distribute multiple readings to students by various muckraking authors (Sinclair, Tarbell, Steffens, Riis, Adams). Also provide students with an ARTIST handout so they can complete an analysis and summarize the article.
Prior knowledge would include how and why the Progressive movement began and the goals of the movement itself. Vocabulary words should also have been introduced at the beginning of the unit. Review if necessary.

  1. Bell ringer: Explain in 5+ lines the impact that industrialization had on American society.

    1. Give students approx 2 minutes and check work as they write

    2. Pair-share

    3. Take examples from students

  2. Briefly discuss muckraking and its role in the Progressive Era

  3. Put students in groups with other classmate who had the same article and have them discuss their ARTIST handout and summaries (approximately 10 min). What stood out to them? How did you react to reading the article? What questions do are there?

    1. Circle around to the various groups and ask questions about the article and check for completion of the ARTIST worksheet.

  4. Jigsaw the students using their original article as a base so that the groups now consist of one student for each author and have the groups share their information.

    1. Have students note the author, name of work, problem it exposed, and impact.

    2. Give approximately 15-20 minutes circling among groups to stimulate conversation about the articles.

  5. Draw the class back together for a brief group discussion on what the issues were and how society was influenced by the work of these writers.

  6. Homework: Students should write a 1-2 page reflection on the role of muckrakers in the Progressive Era. A clear description of muckraking should be included. Students should also reference the articles discussed in groups, what they learned, how muckraking influenced the progressive era, and identify any connections between new reporting in the early 1900’s and today.

Suggested Strategies for Differentiating Instruction





Chuck the articles so that students are only reading key parts.

Complete the ARTIST worksheet in the small groups.

Skip the second grouping and have each small group report out to the rest of the class.

Provide an outline for the reflection that clearly identifies what students should discuss.

Assessment of Student Learning (Formative and Summative)

ARTIST worksheet can be collected.

Class participation can be evaluated throughout the lesson.


Reflection will be collected and scored.
Materials and Resources
ARTIST summary

Primary source readings from selected “muckraker” authors

Author(s) of Unit/Lesson Plan

Elizabeth Segraves, Williamsport Area School District, Williamsport Area High School

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