Learning the Lessons of History

Leon Fink and Robert Johnston

Leon Fink (left) and Robert Johnston. Photo by Matthew Kaplan

“Like those living during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (1877-1920), we can view our age as the best of times and the worst of times,” said Leon Fink, UIC distinguished professor of history, author of more than six books on labor history, and editor of the journal Labor: Studies in Working Class History of the Americas. “During both time periods, U.S. society is dealing with the complexities of almost unimaginable potential and riches, and at the same time, an almost unfathomable set of problems.”

“The correspondences make us aware that the struggles and the issues we are living through are not as novel as we often think, and this is an important consideration when we place ourselves within the stream of history,” added Robert D. Johnston, associate professor of history, director of the department’s teaching of history program, and co-editor of The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era.

1889 political cartoon 'Robber Barons.'

Robber Barons of Today,” 1889 political cartoon by Samuel Ehrhardt.

The term “Gilded Age,” with its images of robber barons living in excessive luxury in palatial estates while children starved in urban hovels or labored in factory and field, dates to the 1873 novel written by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, explained Fink. “It’s a novel about crony capitalism in the post-Civil War period that details corruption between government and rich influence peddlers, and the notion of an outwardly wealthy set of institutions that inwardly was corrupt. The story was very persuasive to muckraking journalists, such as Upton Sinclair (1878-1968), who were later examining the period, which actually began in the latter 1870s and extended into World War I (1914-1918).

Photo of the Vanderbilt Estate

The Breakers, Vanderbilt summer home Newport RI, 2009. Photo by Elisa Rolle

“The period certainly has connections to today’s 99% vs. 1% dichotomy, and we see references to our era being a second Gilded Age,” he continued. “Both are periods of great wealth creation, new technologies, transformation of work, productive processes, and the way people live materially, combined with yawning inequalities and dramatic segmentation of society.”

The latter half of the colleagues’ focus of research—the “Progressive Era,” (1900-1920)—is viewed in public memory as a period of social activism and political reform that effected sweeping changes in working and living conditions as well as new educational opportunities for the masses.

However, the contrast between the historic periods is not quite so stark.

Child mill worker 1908

Child worker, Mollahan Mills, Newberry SC, 1908. Photo by Lewis Hine

“Conflict and political contestation are very much present in both periods; there were strong reform elements in the Gilded Age and plenty of rot in the Progressive Era,” Fink said. “The last decades of the 19th century saw the greatest labor movement—the Knights of Labor, a multi-faceted, very inclusive social movement. There was nothing quite like it in the 20th century.”

“The period referred to as the Gilded Age saw some very broad, powerful social movements, including the rise of the rurally-based, populist People’s Party," said Johnston. "These efforts span society at a time when that was not ‘supposed’ to be happening and they actually disappear in the new century, replaced by important, but in many ways more limited, reform movements.”

They explained that the Progressive Era was also rocked by scandals and major confrontations such as the 1914 Ludlow Massacre in Colorado, during which the state National Guard was called out against striking mine workers, and the 1912 Industrial Workers of the World-organized Lawrence (Massachusetts) Textile Strike, which lasted more than two months and resulted in the immigrant workers achieving a 20 percent wage increase.

Fink and Johnston credit the rise of a “reading middle-class,” which was partly a function of the changing role of journalism, as well as legislative accomplishments at the federal level, as contributing to the Progressive Era being remembered as the time of social change.

“There was absolutely a thirst for change in the late 19th century, but legislative reform was hamstrung by an almost complete gridlock of the parties and weak presidential leadership,” Fink said. “After the turn of the century the citizenry expected more of the federal government and that expectation summoned stronger national leaders.”

Viewing the presidential role as “steward of the people,” Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) began the process of dealing with monopolies, initiated consumer protections for food and drugs, and established five national parks in response to the work of visionaries such as John Muir (1838-1914), who raised public consciousness about the value of nature and humanity’s relationship to the environment. During his two terms, Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) furthered anti-trust legislation, passed the federal Workingmen’s Compensation Act, made progress in limiting the work day, and supported restrictions on child labor.

News boys 1909.

Joseph and Rosy, newsies, Newark, NJ, 1909. Photo by Lewis Hine

“The story we tell about the Progressive Era is one of triumph in which the poor little coal boys and newsies that Lewis Hine so poignantly photographed were finally able not to work,” said Johnston. “Today, that national consensus on child labor is being questioned by conservative politicians who argue that we should be putting children as young as nine—especially poor kids and children of color—back into the labor force.”

A related topic again under public discussion is the role of higher education: should it focus on practical skill-set training in particular fields or provide a broad-based liberal education that develops the whole person? Fink views the question as echoing the philosophical difference between African American leaders Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois over the proper education of ex-slaves. Johnston believes the discussion also continues as part of a broad, ongoing debate that goes back to the work of John Dewey, who advocated for a holistic, experiential, democratic education.

Issues of conservation and the environment, the quality and meaning of work, public health and safety, and the proper function of education are all concerns that continue to be debated by public servants, private citizens, pundits, and scholars.

“When you compare the two periods, I would particularly remark on how preoccupied people at that time were with the new technology and their relationship to it: electricity, the telephone, the beginnings of transformation to an oil-fueled economy, huge assembly-line based workplaces, city skyscrapers, concentrated urban settings, and the new ability of immigrants to move back and forth across the oceans were changing what America was all about, said Fink. "It was the first era of globalization, uprooting, and a world-wide transformation of the economy.” 

“In both eras there was and is concern for the overall framework in which these changes are taking place. We worry over huge powerful corporations and government intrusion and the ways in which the fabric of families and communities is being challenged. A century ago people struggled with fashioning lifestyles for themselves in keeping with their values. And today there is no shortage of attempts to lead a more ecologically responsible and balanced life within the maelstrom of changes,” Fink concluded.

“I think studying history, particularly this period, can give us some sense that our own very anxious way of regarding issues is sometimes proper, but, on the other hand, we can see that there have been apocalyptic ways of looking at things before and the world has not come to an end,” said Johnston. “History provides us with inspiring examples of people who were thinking through similar issues and agonizing about them—and then, in fact, acting on them in incredibly democratic and even radical ways. We can learn from discovering how they were thinking and take heart from how they decided to act as citizens.”

Learn more about local history during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. Places to visit online and off:

Jane Addams Hull-House Museum
Glessner House Museum
Pullman State Historic Site
Pullman Historic District
Illinois Labor History Society