10 Tales of the Muckrakers During the Progressive Era

10 Tales of the Muckrakers During the Progressive Era

Larry Holzwarth - June 25, 2018

In The Pilgrim’s Progress, a character concentrated on raking filth rather than his own salvation. He was called the man with the muck rake. In a speech delivered in 1906, Theodore Roosevelt mentioned the character, stating that “there are times and places where this service is the most needed of all services that can be performed. But the man who never does anything else, who never speaks or thinks or writes, save of his feats with the muck rake, speedily becomes, not a help but one of the most potent forces for evil.” Roosevelt’s remarks were directed at an emerging form of journalism, whose practitioners became known as muckrakers following his speech.

Muckrakers became a force in the Progressive Era, exposing abuses in industry, politics, financing, and publishing. Roosevelt’s use of the term was deliberately derisive, as he warned of the need for those exposing abuses to be absolutely accurate rather than deliberately sensational. Despite his labeling of many of them as what would today be called fake news, muckrakers thrived, especially in magazines and semi-fictional novels. The journalists known as muckrakers loathed the name, and considered Roosevelt’s use of the term a betrayal after many of them had supported him in office. Today, they would be called investigative journalists.

10 Tales of the Muckrakers During the Progressive Era
The term muckrakers was derived from a character in The Pilgrim’s Progress after President Theodore Roosevelt used it in a speech regarding journalists. Library of Congress

Here are ten muckrakers whose work changed American society and history.

10 Tales of the Muckrakers During the Progressive Era
Ida Tarbell’s work included the reporting of the business practices of the Oil Trust and John D. Rockefeller. Wikimedia

Ida Tarbell

Ida Tarbell was a Pennsylvania born teacher of geology when she discovered that she preferred writing to conducting classes. A graduate of Allegheny College, Tarbell moved to Paris to study historical research. While there she wrote articles for several publications, including McLure’s Magazine, which ran a series she wrote on the life of Napoleon. Her work was popular with McLure’s readers, and after returning to the United State Tarbell wrote a series for the magazine on Abraham Lincoln. The twenty installment series was meticulously researched by Tarbell herself, using obscure records and other documents she found in Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois.

The series on Abraham Lincoln led to Tarbell’s national reputation as a writer and lecturer. She used techniques of historical research to discover primary sources for her work, producing the first wholly accurate account of Lincoln’s childhood and work as a young man. By 1898 Tarbell was living in New York, where she worked as both a writer and editor for McClure’s. It was there where she applied her research techniques to a study of the history of Standard Oil. She began a series of interviews with Henry H. Rogers in 1900, then the most powerful executive of the company. Tarbell and Rogers, both originally from the same area of Pennsylvania, met for the next two years.

Tarbell did her own research on Standard Oil acquisitions and business practices, and then consulted with Rogers, who offered explanations and insights on the events under discussion. Rogers was under the impression that Tarbell was preparing to write a series which lauded Standard Oil and John Rockefeller’s (who was retired by that time) success in business. When the series began to appear in print, in McLure’s Magazine in November 1902, he was surprised to learn that the series instead brought to light the questionable and often ruthless business practices of the company under Rockefeller. The series continued for 19 articles, concluding in October 1904.

Ida Tarbell’s father had been an independent oil man who later worked for Standard Oil, and for much of her childhood she witnessed her father’s complaints of the atmosphere which existed in the company. Her memories both informed her writing and drove her to ensure that her reports were accurate. During her research she uncovered proof of Standard Oil’s manipulating shipping prices to cripple competition, and other evidence of Rockefeller’s abuse of his financial power. Many of these had been blithely confirmed by Rogers. The series was immensely popular, McLure’s circulation increased as the series went on, after which it was combined and published in book form.

When The History of Standard Oil Company was published as a book in 1904 it received almost unanimous positive reviews and wide public acceptance. The book is cited as a factor leading to the breakup of the Standard Oil Company in 1911 (which led to its acquiring even greater value as a sum of all its parts) and is considered a seminal work of investigative journalism dedicated to the public good. Tarbell disliked hearing her work termed as muckraking, defending it as instead a balanced finding of facts presented to allow the reader to make an informed judgment, rather than deliberately attempting to stir up emotions.

10 Tales of the Muckrakers During the Progressive Era
After The Jungle, Upton Sinclair complained for the rest of his life that the American people had missed its main point. Library of Congress

Upton Sinclair

Upton Sinclair was a socialist and American writer of nearly one hundred books, as well as essays, magazine articles, and other works, but he remains most well-known for his novel The Jungle, published in 1906. Prior to publishing the novel in book form, Sinclair had the chapters published in serial form in a socialist newspaper called Appeal to Reason in 1905. The series and novel were intended to promote socialism rather than reform the meatpacking industry. Instead its readers were primarily concerned with the unhealthy practices and unsanitary conditions under which the meat they consumed was processed.

In 1904 Sinclair spent seven weeks employed in a Chicago meatpacking plant, taking note of the conditions of both the plant and the workers there. He was sent to the plant under the sponsorship of Appeal to Reason, which wanted a series which focused on the mistreatment of workers as an argument to advance socialism. Sinclair’s experience in the plant was the inspiration to write the articles which became a novel, using a fictional immigrant family which encountered sexual harassment of female members, work related illnesses, and injuries at the plant. The completed work as considered too shocking by at least five publishers.

When the book was published by Doubleday, (as well as a limited edition published by the Socialist Party) it became an immediate bestseller, but not because the public was shocked at the exposure of the exploitation of the working man as its writer intended. Instead the public was appalled that diseased beef and pork was being sold for their consumption. The depictions of humans being rendered into lard after accidents, and human digits and even limbs being ground into sausage caused a public outcry, but not for safer working conditions. The outcry was heard in Washington, where President Roosevelt expressed doubts over Sinclair’s veracity.

Nonetheless, Roosevelt sent federal officials to investigate the meatpackers, and their report back to the President confirmed much of what was in the novel. Rather than release their report to the public Roosevelt sent it directly to Congress, which was already hearing the clamor for government action. The Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act were passed by Congress that summer, less than six months after the appearance of the novel, and over the protests of the Bureau of Animal Husbandry (part of the Department of Agriculture), which claimed that the conditions described in The Jungle had never existed.

Sinclair protested over the new meat inspection laws as well, claiming that it was another burden on the taxpayer rather than on the meatpackers, who received the benefit of free inspection of their products. Though he wrote many other works in the muckraking genre, none of them created the fervor for change more than The Jungle, about which he complained for the rest of his life. His view was that the public had missed entirely the point of the book – exploitation of the workers – in its concern for its own well-being. “I aimed at the public’s heart and by accident I hit it in the stomach”, he later said in an interview. The Jungle has never been out of print.

10 Tales of the Muckrakers During the Progressive Era
Lincoln Steffens wrote of the rampant corruption in American machine politics in several cities. Library of Congress

Lincoln Steffens

Lincoln Steffens was one of the earliest writers of the style which became known as muckraking, starting his career as a journalist with the New York Evening Post. In 1901 he joined McLure’s Magazine, which became a leading publisher of the investigative pieces as well as fictional works by well-known writers of the day. Steffens was hired as an editor, a position with which he struggled, and in the spring of 1902 he was sent out of town in search of stories which would help him learn his responsibilities. Steffens learned of a newly elected attorney in St. Louis who was investigating corruption in the city government.

Steffens hired a St. Louis based freelance writer to write the piece for McLure’s, but when that writer failed to provide much of the details of the story out of fear of retaliation, Steffens rewrote the entire piece. Entitled Tweed Days in St. Louis, the piece was a highly detailed description of the corruption and how it worked between the city’s leading businessmen and the government. Steffens followed the St. Louis article by producing a series of articles describing corruption in Minneapolis, more on the attempts to remove the corruption in St. Louis, and articles on corruption in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Chicago. Steffens documented the corruption he found, and in the case of Chicago a city relatively free of graft.

The series proved to be popular as Steffens described the manner of corruption in each city, allowing the residents of communities not included in the series to recognize the signs of corruption as it applied to their homes. Several of the articles led to investigations and convictions, as in Minneapolis where the Mayor’s brother was convicted and the Mayor himself fled the state to avoid arrest. Illegal gambling in Minneapolis, from which the mayor and corrupt police officers had profited, was removed by reformers. When Steffens returned to St. Louis to study the progress of reformers he found that although the investigation was ongoing the general attitude of the public was one of apathy.

Steffens found the citizens of Philadelphia to be similarly unmoved by the corruption in their city. His piece on the City of Brotherly Love was entitled Philadelphia: Corrupt and Contented. According to Steffens the former Mayor of Philadelphia had announced his intention of taking all that he could out of his office, and that the city’s charter, reformed in 1885, had been done so with the presence of corruption included by design. In New York Steffens found Tammany Hall to be “corruption by consent” and described the spread of its graft as the largest he had ever experienced, although he found the mayor’s office to be essentially honest in its operation.

The articles were later published in a book under the title The Shame of the Cities. The second article on St. Louis, The Shame of St. Louis, was cited as motivating the citizens of that city with undertaking real reform of the government and the removal of the political machine there. Steffens later wrote another piece covering the St. Louis reform movement reporting the triumph of the progressives in removing the corrupting influences. Steffens later wrote approvingly of the rise of the communist power in the Soviet Union, but as he aged his favorable view of the communists waned. Steffens died in 1936, after a lifetime of progressive activism.

10 Tales of the Muckrakers During the Progressive Era
A photograph of children sleeping in Mulberry Street in the New York slums. Taken by Jacob Riis. Library of Congress

Jacob Riis

Jacob Riis was a trained carpenter who had learned English through the reading of Charles Dickens when he arrived in the United States from Denmark in 1870. His first act in America was to purchase a gun for protection in New York. It cost him half the money he had. He tried his hand at mining in Pennsylvania, found odd jobs as a carpenter and laborer back in New York, eventually pawned his pistol, and finally found a job in New Jersey. Eventually he became a salesman, with the help of the Danish Consulate in Philadelphia, selling flatirons. While working as a salesman he attempted to sell several articles and pieces of fiction.

By the time Riis returned to New York, again destitute, he knew well the ills of poverty, hunger, unemployment, homelessness, and hopelessness. He finally landed a job as a reporter, eventually purchased the newspaper, resold it for a large profit, and returned to Denmark to marry his longtime love there, Elisabeth. Riis and his bride returned to New York and he began working as a police reporter for the New York Tribune, based in the core of Five Points, then the worst of New York’s teeming slums, riddled with crime. Riis began to use photography to document the conditions of the slums where he worked.

In 1889 Riis published an article in Scribner’s Magazine entitled How the Other Half Lives, which included photographs of some of the city’s worst areas. The article was well received and Riis expanded the article into a book, providing greater detail of life in the slums and the attitudes of the slumlords responsible for their existence. Riis followed the successful book with several others and engaged in lecture tours, supported with photographs, to generate support for social reforms. Riis also documented the perils of the drinking water in New York, where other towns north of the city used water bound for New York as sewers.

The article describing the water situation led the city of New York to take steps to improve the water supply by purchasing the New Croton reservoir. Riis continued to urge social reform and both societal and government action to improve the lives of the urban poor, but in his books and articles he often attributed the condition of some of the tenements to be based on racial attitudes of the tenants, attributing their failures to rise out of poverty to racial shortcomings. His work was particularly harsh regarding Jews and Oriental immigrants, and he once wrote of urban blacks that they were happy living in poverty in the tenements.

Jacob Riis was responsible for raising public consciousness of the plight of the poor in the slums of New York and other cities. He did so by appealing to the emerging middle class and the wealthy. Riis managed to bring himself out of the depths of poverty and squalor in the tenements in a manner which was followed by many of the immigrants who settled there temporarily upon arrival in America, willing to endure them in order to save enough money to eventually emerge from them. His most significant contribution was his ability to raise awareness of health issues arising from poor sanitation and water distribution, which led to significant reforms.

10 Tales of the Muckrakers During the Progressive Era
Cosmopolitan became a voice for the muckrakers after being bought by William Randolph Hearst. Wikimedia

David Graham Phillips

David Graham Phillips was a graduate of Princeton University and an experienced journalist and novelist when he wrote a series of articles for Cosmopolitan Magazine in 1906 exposing the corruption within the United States Senate and its connection to wealthy American families. The series was entitled The Treason of the Senate, and although it presented a disturbing view of the corruption present between Senators and others outside of the body, it also presented areas of corruption within the Senate itself, including the manner in which Senators were selected, there being at the time no direct election of US Senators by voters.

After a foreword was published in February the first full article appeared in March 1906, and focused on Senator Chauncey Depew of New York. Depew was presented as a long time pawn of the steamboat and railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt and William Vanderbilt, who had steered legislation through the Senate at Vanderbilt’s behest, using Vanderbilt’s money to obtain votes as necessary. Prior to Depew’s entry into the Senate he had bribed other elected officials to obtain votes as directed by the Vanderbilts, and his own Senate seat had been obtained through the railroad magnate’s persuasion of New York government officials.

The second installment was a description of the relationship between Senator Nelson Aldrich and the Rockefellers. Aldrich was one of the most powerful men in the Senate and was the Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. Aldrich had steered bills manipulating tariffs through the Senate as directed by the Rockefeller influence, and he also controlled who in the Senate received contributions from the oil tycoon. This gave Aldrich control of a political bloc within the Senate itself which would have been viewed as a political machine were it applied to a municipal or state government. The attacks on Aldrich were particularly well documented.

The third installment in May described the corruption surrounding Senator Arthur Gorman of Maryland, who had been removed from his scandalous Senate office in 1896, but managed to use his influence and power in Maryland to get his Senate seat back. Gorman and Aldrich were political allies and used the money fed them to obtain votes in the interests of their supporters, including railroads and sugar interests in the case of Gorman. While President Roosevelt attacked the series and its author, few others did, including in the home states of the Senator’s involved, of which there were several more in smaller roles.

The series led to an increase in the demand for direct election of Senators by popular vote, which resulted in the 17th Amendment to the Constitution being ratified in 1913. Phillips could well claim to have been the most successful muckraker of all, since his work helped to amend the Constitution of the United States. There was little backlash against the article in other publications, despite its frequent use of purple prose in its description of some of the activities which went on in the deal-making of the Senate at the time. Phillips did not live to see direct election of Senators. He was murdered in New York in 1911.

10 Tales of the Muckrakers During the Progressive Era
Henry Reuterdahl painting of an American destroyer on patrol in the Atlantic, painted for the US Navy. Wikimedia

Henry Reuterdahl

Henry Reuterdahl was a Swedish painter and sketch artist who came to the United States to create illustrations at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. Following the exposition he remained in the United States and began a long association with the United States Navy during the Spanish-American War. He was a naval reserve officer and a contributor to Jane’s Fighting Ships, as well as an author of several articles about nautical topics. He also developed a personal friendship with William Simms, a young naval officer who eventually rose to command the American naval forces in British waters during the First World War.

In the early twentieth century Simms saw the need for many improvements in the Navy’s operation and training based on his personal observations of European fleets. These suggested innovations, in particular in gunnery training, were routinely absorbed by the naval bureaucracy and failed to be incorporated in the fleet. Simms finally took the highly unusual step of a junior officer going over the heads of his superiors and addressing the President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, directly. Roosevelt, a former undersecretary of the Navy, agreed with several of them, and ordered them implemented. Simms and Reuterdahl frequently discussed privately the inflexibility of the Navy’s management.

Roosevelt requested that Reuterdahl accompany the Great White Fleet in its circumnavigation of the globe beginning in 1907, to document it in both word and art. Reuterdahl agreed. The fleet was already at sea in January 1908 when an article written by Reuterdahl appeared in McLure’s Magazine which sharply criticized the manner in which the US Navy was run. It criticized the design of the ship’s being built, calling many of them obsolete, and described the nature of the way in which the Navy was run as being the foundation of the failing to build and maintain an up to date fleet. According to Reuterdahl, the navy’s bureaucracy compelled it to mismanagement.

Reuterdahl left the Great White Fleet in Peru after learning of an illness in his family, causing newspapers and magazines to speculate that he had been removed as a result of the article. The article itself caused a sensation across the country, fed by the large amount of tax money spent on the fleet and set aside for future shipbuilding programs. The article also called for the implementation of a system of advancement based on merit and seniority, rather than the existing system of advancement based on seniority alone. They were virtually the same arguments which had long been endorsed by Simms, and Congress ordered an investigation.

The investigation opened in 1908, and after five years of hearings and testimony from naval officers, ship designers, and shipbuilding contractors, the Department of the Navy was directed to initiate reforms in a reorganization of the entire department. Reuterdahl remained connected with the Navy and during the First World War became the official artist for the Navy Department, serving as the head of the poster bureau. He was instrumental in the development of many of the iconic recruiting posters prepared by the US Navy during the war. He died in an insane asylum in 1925, and was buried with military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.

10 Tales of the Muckrakers During the Progressive Era
Patent medicines were under no obligation to be truthful in their advertising, nor reveal their ingredients, many of which were toxic. Wikimedia

Samuel Hopkins Adams

Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the public was inundated with nostrums, tonics, pills, potions, and powders collectively known as patent medicines. Patent medicines were hawked by peddlers, sold in stores and apothecaries, and sometimes by doctors. As the magazine industry grew it became dependent on revenues, and patent medicines became one of the first products to be advertised nationally on a major scale. The products promised relief from everything which could be considered an ailment, with many of the products promising immediate relief from a multitude of problems.

Patent medicines were for the most part unregulated, their contents proprietary and their promises unverified. They were one of the first products to seek celebrity endorsements in their advertising, and one of the earliest to be compounded of ingredients which could be matched by most pharmacists, who could locally create a similar product far more cheaply than the national brand. Many of the medicines were potentially toxic, contained addictive ingredients, and could do more harm than good to the health of the consumer. Nearly all of the liquid tonics and nostrums contained some level of alcohol in their mixture, others contained opium and cocaine. Some contained all three.

Samuel Hopkins Adams produced a series of article for Collier’s Magazine beginning in the autumn of 1905, which was titled The Great American Fraud. The series ran for eleven installments, with the first running that October announcing the intent of the series, and the exposure of the false claims of the manufacturers of patent medicines over the efficacy of their products. The series entailed some risk for the magazine as patent medicines were a major source of its revenue. In the introductory article Adams described products which were sold as medicines as “in reality practically cocktails.” Adams primary motive was exposure of false advertising.

The ensuing series was sensational and gained a wide following as Adams meticulously examined numerous nationally known patent medicines, explaining the components from which they were made, and gaining the support of much of the temperance movement in condemning the products. Several patent medicines which advertised themselves as a cure for consumption, as tuberculosis was then called, were revealed to contain opium and alcohol. Nerve tonics for children were also found to contain opium and hashish, others contained a healthy dose of alcohol. None demonstrated any effectiveness against the illnesses they purported to cure.

The series was a forerunner of both the Pure Food and Drugs Act and to laws restricting what advertisers could and could not claim regarding the benefits of using their products. False claims in advertising became illegal, although the Supreme Court later found that the proscription against false claims applied to the ingredients of a product, but not the compounded product itself. The American Medical Association published the entire series in a book which sold more than half a million copies, but the patent medicine business continued relatively unscathed until regulation of the industry began after the First World War.

10 Tales of the Muckrakers During the Progressive Era
Child labor and hunger in schools were subjects addressed by muckrakers to prick the national conscience. Library of Congress

John Spargo

Born in Cornwall and raised for the most part in Wales, John Spargo was a Christian Socialist with strong Marxist leanings when he was invited to join in a lecture tour of the United States in 1900. Spargo was hoping to speak about the advantages of socialism on a tour which was to include numerous stops across the United States. When he arrived in America with his recent bride he was disconcerted to learn that the promised tour was for the most part an exaggeration of its planners. Spargo arrived in New York in the winter of 1901, taking odd jobs and charity to survive. A few lectures attended by members of the Socialist Party in New York brought a small income.

Spargo took to editing a local socialist news sheet, called The Comrade, which was published monthly in New York. This brought him some national recognition and he began to lecture on social change in venues around the country. At the national Socialist Party convention in 1904, Spargo opposed the creation of a single publication speaking for the Socialist Party, believing that multiple independent publications were more effective in generating healthy debate. His position was accepted by the convention, and his reputation as a leading socialist of the day was considerably enhanced. He was elected to the National Committee of the party in 1905.

The same year Spargo wrote the first of a series of books which addressed the issue of child labor in the United States and Great Britain, which he referred to as slavery. The first of these works was The Bitter Cry of the Children. In it Spargo graphically described the labor performed by young children, including the work both supporting and in coal mines. Spargo described the difficulty of the labor and the dangers of the mines, including the constant exposure to and inhalation of coal dust and its undoubted ill effects on health. “I could not do that work and live,” he wrote, “but there were boys of ten and twelve years of age doing it for fifty and sixty cents a day.”

Spargo followed this work with Underfed School Children in 1906, in which he argued for feeding students in public schools. Spargo pointed out that attempts to teach children who were distracted by the continuous pangs of hunger were futile, and presented the further argument that poorly nourished children were more likely to become sickly, making their education a waste of time since they would likely not survive long enough to make use of it by becoming productive members of society. Spargo continued the argument in The Common Sense of the Milk Question in 1908.

During the Second World War, amid rationing of many foods, public schools across the country began to implement many of Spargo’s ideas. By the 1920s Spargo had abandoned many of his socialist leanings and become a member of the Republican Party. He became a leading historian in Vermont, concentrating on the history and lore of the small state. He faced declining health in the 1920s but recovered and became a leading expert on ceramics as practiced as a craft in Vermont. Spargo’s work brought attention to the child labor laws of the time and the health of children living in poverty, albeit change came but slowly.

10 Tales of the Muckrakers During the Progressive Era
Charles Edward Russell examined the beef and tobacco industries and many other issues during his writing and political career. Wikimedia

Charles Edward Russell

In his autobiography, Lincoln Steffens wrote of Charles Edward Russell, “He was the most earnest, emotional, and gifted of the muckrakers…His face looked as if he had suffered from the facts he saw and reported.” Russell was one of the first to take on the Beef Trust which was later savaged by Sinclair’s The Jungle. Russell’s report on the Beef Trust revealed that although technology had significantly reduced the cost of beef production the members of the Beef Trust had manipulated prices and shipments to keep the cost of beef to the consumer artificially high, increasing their profits and political power through donations to officials.

Russell later did a similar expose on the nation’s tobacco industry, in which tobacco farmers were exploited by the producers of cigars and the increasingly popular cigarettes. The expose also exposed the exploitation of laborers in the factories. Russell examined and reported on the scandalous operation of the state prison system in Georgia, in Everybody’s Magazine, and in 1914 presented an article entitled How Business Controls News, which reported on how the large businesses and trusts controlled what was printed in newspapers and magazines.

Unlike most of the writers and reporters who were lumped together as muckrakers, most of whom despised the term and the way that it placed them all in a single category which could be dismissed out of hand, Russell was proud of the term. “Looking back,” he wrote, “it seems to me clear that the muckraking magazine was the greatest single power that ever appeared in this country.” As with many of the muckrakers, Russell was an avowed socialist claiming that among other things, socialism offered the “righting of the centuries of wrong the producers have suffered, the dawn of a genuine democracy, peace instead of war…”

During the muckraking period William Randolph Hearst owned Cosmopolitan Magazine, and Hearst employed Russell to produce several articles for his publication. Russell took on the rising American aristocracy among the wealthy elite in an article titled The Growth of Caste in America, and produced several series for Hearst, while simultaneously writing for other magazines and publications. Russell also produced numerous books, including his autobiography Bare Hands and Stone Walls in 1933. Russell was hugely popular during the muckraking period among the general readerships of the magazines, but reviled by the business and political interests he exposed.

In 1909 Russell became a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, in response to the preceding year’s Springfield, Illinois race riots. Russell remained associated with the organization for the remainder of his life as a member of the board. He twice ran for Governor of New York, once for Senator from New York, and once for Mayor of New York, but his unabashed socialist views and party membership prevented him from winning election. In 1917 he supported the American entry into World War I, for which he was expelled from the Socialist Party which opposed the war. He died in Washington in 1941.

10 Tales of the Muckrakers During the Progressive Era
The New York Tribune displays pictures from a Chicago slaughterhouse during the Spring of 1906, with The Jungle a bestseller. Library of Congress

The Muckraker Era

The muckrakers did not have free reign throughout their era, as big businesses and the trusts had weapons at their disposal through which to silence them. Magazines provided the platform from which muckrakers reported their findings, and magazines needed advertising revenues to survive. Advertising boycotts by businesses affected by the articles and their adverse publicity led the businesses to apply leverage to the publications. Lawsuits were another weapon, as few magazines could match the financial assets of the trusts they reported on. The Progressive Era itself lost momentum after Theodore Roosevelt left office, another factor which affected the muckrakers.

McLure’s Magazine was one of the earliest of the muckrakers, and when several of its most noted writers in the genre defected to form The American Magazine its impact was severely blunted. McLure’s Magazine faded rapidly in the face of competition from Collier’s, Cosmopolitan, The American Magazine, and several others and by 1911 the magazine was forced to sell to its creditors. It resumed publication as a women’s magazine, and never again produced the hard hitting types of articles which it pioneered in the first decade of the twentieth century. In 1929 McLure’s Magazine ceased publication. Other magazines continued to present muckraking articles, though with less frequency.

The muckrakers are often connected with yellow journalism, an era which for the most part preceded them. Yellow journalism evolved in the late nineteenth century and involved the sensationalizing of stories for the purpose of expanding sales. Yellow journalism was unconcerned with supporting facts when presenting stories, and both exaggerated events and made them up out of whole cloth. The muckrakers were meticulous in the presentation of supporting facts in their reports, in part because of the frequent attacks upon them by the interests they targeted and the politicians the interests controlled. This led to even Sinclair’s sensationalized novel The Jungle being deemed by investigators to be supported by facts in its description of the meatpacking industry.

The muckrakers enjoyed considerable success in raising public awareness of issues, to the point that reforms were enacted in diverse industries and in local and national political activity. Meatpacking, drug manufacturing and distribution, the dairy industry, mental health care, banking, the stock market, the railroads, the US Navy, child labor, prisons, police forces, and many more interests were subjected to reforms as awareness of the abuses they practiced was raised in the public mind. Many of these reforms were staunchly opposed by conservatives, who castigated them as socialism, but public pressure gradually eroded their power.

The muckrakers were the forerunners for the investigative journalists which followed. McLure’s Magazine imposed standards on its writers which they took with them to other magazines and publications. These standards included an emphasis on accuracy and research into facts, rather than speculation. Although changes in the style of writing makes the work of most of the muckrakers seem flowery to the modern eye, very little of their work was disproved. The people of the United States were alarmed by the corruption which was exposed and the dangers it posed to them. That alarm was sounded by Roosevelt’s “man with the muck rake”.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“The Woman Who Took on the Tycoon”, by Gilbert King, Smithsonian Magazine, July 5, 2012

“Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle”, by Harold Bloom (ed), 2002

“The Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens”, by Lincoln Steffens, 1931

“Jacob Riis: Reporter and Reformer”, by Janet B. Pascal, 2005

“Literature and Insurgency”, by J.C. Underwood, 1914

“Theodore Roosevelt and the Great White Fleet: American Sea Power Comes of Age”, by K. Wimmel, 1998

“Adams, Samuel Hopkins”, entry by Samuel V. Kennedy, American National Biography Online, 2000

“John Spargo and American Socialism”, by Markku Ruotsila, 2006

“The Pen is Mightier: The Muckraking Life of Charles Edward Russell”, by Robert Miraldi, 2003

“Years of Conscience: The Muckrakers”, by Harvey Swados, 1962