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1900s (1900–1910)

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Date: 2023
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Event overview
Length: 1,811 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1130L

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The decade beginning in 1900 marked a period of intense discovery, change, and development in both the United States and the world at large. By the end of the nineteenth century, the United States was becoming an increasingly industrialized nation. More people were moving from rural areas to live in urban centers. At the same time, new waves of immigration to the United States led to further changes to the American social landscape.

From an economic standpoint, the United States was still recovering from a damaging depression that lasted from 1893 to 1897. Culturally, the United States was moving away from the conservative social views of the Victorian Era to a less strict standard of living. As part of this movement, women's rights increased. On the international front, the U.S. government reconsidered its former embrace of isolationism and Manifest Destiny. As part of these doctrines, the United States had elected to remain largely isolated from foreign affairs and world politics, yet dominate all of North America, spreading capitalism and democracy throughout the continent. However, beginning in the twentieth century, the government pushed to advance U.S. interests abroad.

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Main Ideas

  • The first decade of the twentieth century was a period of rapid industrialization, change, and development as the United States moved away from the restrictive values of the Victorian Era.
  • The Second Industrial Revolution of the late nineteenth century led to increased production of goods. This resulted in many people moving to urban areas to work in factories and the increasing economic gap between workers and employers.
  • Muckraking journalists brought to light unfair labor practices and poor working conditions. In addition, unsanitary food processing and mistreatment of patients in health care facilities gained national attention.
  • Advocates for women's rights strengthened their commitment to the cause of suffrage as well as equal pay and equal rights under the law. Minority groups like African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans, however, did not enjoy the same gains in equality.
  • The United States was regarded as a land of hope and opportunity, and as such, immigration from various European countries increased greatly during this time.
  • The United States became a world leader, expanding its sphere of influence around the globe.

Technological Advances and Industrialization

Beginning in the late eighteenth century, advances in industrial practices allowed businesses to operate more efficiently. More goods could be made by fewer workers, allowing companies to increase production. These advances completely changed the landscape of society.

By the late nineteenth century, the development of steel and changes to production methods led to the start of the Second Industrial Revolution (1870–1914). Railroads, which were necessary to transport goods, now crisscrossed the United States. Workers increasingly took jobs at factories in cities rather than remain on family farms. They often worked in unsafe conditions for long hours at low pay. Many of these jobs were filled by immigrants who lived in cramped conditions in large cities.

Despite these challenges, the growth in American industrialization enabled the United States to become an economic power. By 1913, the country was responsible for one-third of the world's total output of goods. While these changes had the benefit of leading to greater wages, they also created cultural upheavals.

In the mid-1800s, two-thirds of Americans lived on farms. By 1910, almost half of the population resided in cities. Industrial development had the further effect of creating greater economic inequality between the rich and the poor. By 1900, roughly 45 percent of the total wealth of the United States was owned by less than one percent of Americans. In 1906, seven men owned 85 percent of America's railroads. This disparity between rich and poor helped to promote social activism.

Many important inventions were developed during the decade. The Wright Brothers made their first flight of a heavier-than-air aircraft in 1903. Other inventions dating to this period include escalators, radio receivers, gas-powered cars, vacuums, air conditioners, and helicopters. This era is also responsible for the development of the teddy bear, instant coffee, and the talking motion picture.

The Progressive Era

The U.S. government had adopted an approach to business in the nineteenth century called laissez-faire. French for "hands-off," this style of governance placed few limits on what businesses could do. The government knew this would enable industries to grow quickly, thereby increasing the overall wealth of the country. This wealth, however, was distributed to only a small percentage of people. Workers forced into low-paying jobs resented the advantages being given to the wealthy, and they banded together to protest. As a result, the decade of the 1900s is often called the "Progressive Era" for the efforts of people to bring positive changes to all Americans regardless of income.

Working conditions were often unsafe in factories. At the turn of the twentieth century, an average 500,000 people were injured in their workplace, with another 30,000 dying annually. In 1907, a disaster at the Monongah Mine in Monongah, West Virginia led to the deaths of 362 people; it remains the worst industrial accident in U.S. history.

To highlight the dangers of workplaces, a group of concerned journalists exposed the lack of protective regulations for workers. Beyond these safety issues, the journalists uncovered unsanitary food-processing conditions. These reporters further exposed corruption in government agencies. Several journalists became famous for their efforts. Lincoln Steffens (1866–1936) highlighted the corrupt relationships between big business and city officials; Ida Tarbell's (1857–1944) investigation of Standard Oil led to the creation of anti-monopoly laws; Nellie Bly (1863–1922) exposed the mistreatment of patients at mental health hospitals; and Upton Sinclair's (1878–1968) The Jungle (1905) described labor abuses and unsanitary food processing at meatpacking plants. Thanks to their efforts, the public increasingly demanded changes to unfair industry practices. Another effect of these campaigns was the rise of labor unions to protect the rights of workers.

The cultural changes of the Progressive Era also brought significant progress in women's rights. In 1880, only 2.6 million people were employed in the United States; by 1910, the number jumped to 7.8 million. While most well-paying jobs were restricted to men, women increasingly were able to work as doctors, writers, and social workers. The ranks of women enrolled in colleges also grew significantly.

Women's suffrage, which championed the right of women to vote, similarly gained steam during this era. The heightened efforts of women activists would eventually lead to the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1920, granting all women the right to vote. For working class women, equal rights were focused more on salary and improving conditions in factories—efforts that saw important advancements throughout the decade.

Other minority groups like African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans did not enjoy the same gains in equality over this period. Many Jim Crow laws, which deliberately reduced the rights of blacks and other minorities in the United States, were passed. These efforts led to reduced voter participation among blacks, particularly in the South. In response, blacks established groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Urban League in 1909 and 1910, respectively. These groups proved instrumental in helping to overcome inequalities in American society.

Growth in immigration to the United States had a significant impact on the social landscape of the United States during this period. The number of immigrants entering the United States grew from 3.5 million in the 1890s to 9 million in the 1900s. By 1910, nearly one in seven people were foreign-born. The composition of the immigrants changed as well. While immigrants to the United States in the early to mid-nineteenth century were mostly from northern and western Europe, by 1900 they were increasingly arriving from southern and eastern European countries. By 1910, 70 percent of immigrants were from these areas.

This growth in immigration led to increased tensions between native-born and immigrant populations. These hostilities were worsened by differences in language and culture, and many Americans were concerned about immigrants taking jobs and housing that might have gone to native-born Americans.


Despite its problems, the United States continued to be regarded as a land of opportunity both at home and abroad. The books of Horatio Alger (1832–1899) came to serve as symbols of the great American Dream. His books featured young adults born into poor circumstances who pulled themselves up to become self-made successes. This belief that any person could achieve the rags-to-riches dream helped to define America in the early twentieth century. It also helped to drive the massive wave of immigration during this period.

By the turn of the twentieth century, America was adopting looser cultural standards. Restrictive clothing, like corsets and long skirts, largely fell out of style as women became more independent. Other aspects of the strict modesty of the nineteenth century also began to fade away. Victorian Era styles that favored dark somber colors and fastidious attention to detail in architecture, literature, and fashion became less popular. In their place, lighter colors and simpler styles were favored. Ragtime and jazz music saw increasing popularity during this decade, as did vaudeville performances.

The massive industrial growth of the late nineteenth century required a new pool of educated workers. These workers were generally trained as administrators, salespeople, and office workers. As these types of employees required more training, they were paid more than manual laborers. These workers helped to create a growing middle class in the United States. With greater amounts of disposable income, this middle class was able to afford a greater variety of household goods like telephones, electric lights, and newer inventions like vacuum cleaners. The middle class in turn helped to drive a growing market for consumer goods.

International Policies of the United States From 1900-1910

During the nineteenth century, the United States had been primarily concerned with its own affairs rather than international matters. However, America's growing economic clout led to greater interest in extending its power onto the world stage. This new political philosophy was driven most effectively by President Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919), who came to power after the assassination of President William McKinley (1843–1901) in 1901. Roosevelt was a military veteran who was known for his charisma and vigor. Under his leadership, the United States sought to establish itself as a world power.

He helped to fund the U.S. acquisition and subsequent construction of the Panama Canal during the 1900s. Among his other policies, he greatly expanded the U.S. Navy, making it one of the largest in the world. He pushed to make America the strongest power in the New World by exerting influence over its Latin American and the Caribbean neighbors. The United States extended its global reach through its control of the Philippines and its heavy involvement in the domestic affairs of Cuba.

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Critical Thinking Questions

  • Do you agree that the 1900–1910 decade was a "progressive" era? Why or why not?
  • What impact did the massive wave of immigration during this period have on American culture?
  • Why did the United States abandon the doctrine of Manifest Destiny for expansionism?

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|AJYDPA551638009