• November 2011
  • Vol. 12, No. 8

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Centennial Series: The Progressive Movement

This is the fifth article in our Centennial Series, as we count down to the Children's Bureau's 100th anniversary next year. These articles address some of the social issues, practices, and policies at the turn of the last century that laid the groundwork for the creation of the Children's Bureau.

The beginning of the 20th century ushered in dramatic changes to American society that resulted in a number of new social and political movements. The post-Civil War years were characterized by social upheaval brought on by massive immigration, the shift from an agrarian society to life in new urban communities, and an economic depression. Corruption stemming from industrialization and the creation of big businesses, growing inner-city poverty, educational disparity, child labor, and class strife began to cause angst among much of the American public. This was fed by the rise of popular journalism, as newspapers and magazines made it possible for more people to keep abreast of what was happening across the country. One outgrowth of this dissatisfaction was the Progressive Movement, a political effort to address and remedy these social concerns by looking to the government to right injustices.

The Progressives were, for the most part, the new, urban middle class—doctors, lawyers, ministers, journalists, teachers, college professors, engineers and social workers—and their spouses (Sage, 2010). They viewed government as the solution to many of the social and moral problems of the day. In response to the Progressive Movement, many new Federal and State government programs were created or enhanced in the early 20th century. In fact, the Progressives touched almost every sector of life and were responsible for a number of "firsts" among government programs, for instance:

  • The creation of mothers' pension laws, also called widows' pensions, provided payments to widows with children and were the forerunners of State and Federal welfare programs that would later fall under the Social Security Act of 1935 (Leff, 1973). Illinois was the first State to pass a mothers' pension law in 1911, and 40 States would follow suit within less than a decade (Leff, 1973).
  • Some of the earliest consumer protection laws came about because of the work of activists who campaigned for government intervention against the unscrupulous patent medicine business and the unregulated food industry. Dr. Harvey Wiley, the first commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, with the aid of Mrs. Walter McNab Miller, president of the General Federation of Women's Clubs, and Miss Alice Lakey of the National Consumers League, became activists for safe food and drugs. Their efforts resulted in a groundbreaking consumer protection bill, the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 (Janssen).
  • Child labor was a strong focus of the Progressives. When the 1900 census was released, Americans were shocked by the number of children working to survive and living in poverty—one out of every six children aged 10 to 15 worked to support their families (Zelizer, 2000). Spurred by the plight of working children, the Reverend Edgar Gardner Murphy of Alabama founded the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) and fought for child-labor legislation in every State.

As ideas about child well-being took on a new dimension, citizens lobbied for the creation of a Federal agency that would focus its attention solely on the welfare of children (Marten, 2004). In 1909, the first White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children called for Congress to create the Children’s Bureau. This was fully endorsed by the founder of the Progressive Party, President Theodore Roosevelt. In 1912, the Children’s Bureau was established, and Julia Lathrop became its first chief, making her the first woman selected by a President to head a Federal statutory agency (U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, 1967).

The Progressive Party was short-lived as an American political party, but the Progressive Movement, which had begun in the late 1800s and continued on for several decades into the 20th century, had a long-lasting impact on much of American society and government, laying the groundwork for many of today's social programs designed to improve the lives and well-being of children and adults.


Janssen, W. F. (1981) The story of the laws behind the labels. Retrieved from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration website, October 2011: http://www.fda.gov/AboutFDA/WhatWeDo/History/Overviews/ucm056044.htm

Leff, M. (1973). Consensus for Reform: The mothers' pension movement in the Progressive Era. Social Service Review, 47, 397–417.

Marten, J. (2004). Childhood and child welfare in the Progressive Era. Boston & New York: Bedford/St. Martin's.

Reef, C. (2002). Childhood in America: An eyewitness history.  New York, NY: Facts On File, Inc.

Riis, J. A. (1997). How the other half lives. New York: Penguin Books.

Zelizer, V. (2000). The changing social value of children. In Fass, P., & Mason. M. (Eds.), Childhood in America (pp. 260-261). New York, NY: New York University Press.

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