Progressing into the 20th Century

Omaha, NE 1900

Omaha, NE 1900
Courtesy Historical Colorado, CHS.J3318

"The turn of the century." For many people, moving from one century to the next seems like a new beginning. In reality, the idea of a "century" is just numbers on a calendar or on a clock. (One should remember that there have been and still are different systems for telling time and counting the years.) In our western European civilization, however, a new century is a powerful symbol of progress. People look back at the last 100 years and remember the struggles that happened. And we tend to look forward with hope to the next 100 years.

The Progressive Movement was concerned about a variety of issues, including monopolies cornering the markets

The Progressive Movement was concerned about a variety of issues, including monopolies cornering the markets
Courtesy U.S. Government

When the calendar changed from 1999 to 2000, the event was marked by celebrations and fireworks. Television networks broadcast the events live from around the globe as people in each new time zone marked the turn of the century.

The same sort of celebration happened when the century turned from 1899 to 1900, especially in the United States. After a century of European expansion into the west, the open frontier closed, and new and old residents had to figure out how to live together. The United States had almost split into two nations, and now citizens of the north and south, black and white had to figure out how to live together. There were political issues to sort out — what was the most fair way to govern this suddenly huge nation? And there were social issues that dominated the concerns of people. These people who were interested in progressive reform came together into a political movement known as "Progressivism."

The following pages concentrate on the following issues:

  • Reforming labor and health issues in the beef industry.
  • The struggle over whether or not to allow women to vote.
  • Changing the care for orphans.
  • Gaining citizenship for Native Americans.
  • Racial tensions in Nebraska.
  • The "Noble Experiment" that prohibited alcohol for over a decade during the first third of the 20th Century.

Find out more about Populist Roots [1875-1899]

Republican Campaign Poster, 1900

Republican Campaign Poster, 1900

The Progressive Movement

The dawn of the 20th century in Nebraska and across the nation signaled the birth of the Progressive Movement. Supporters of the movement were found in both major political parties, Democrat and Republican. While some of the alternative parties, like the Populists, were still in existence, their experiences in the 1890s had shown how hard it is to succeed outside of the two major parties. So, proponents of the Progressive Movement tended to work within the major parties, and they advanced a whole host of issues. Reformers tried to improve social conditions by implementing forward-thinking or "progressive" goals.

Child Laborer in the Mollohan Mills; Newberry, South Carolina, December 1908

Child Laborer in the Mollohan Mills; Newberry, South Carolina, December 1908
Courtesy Library of Congress, nclc.01451
Many of the progressive concerns in the 20th Century had roots in our previous history.

  • Suffrage. When the U.S. was founded, only white men were allowed to vote and elect representatives to government. In the new 20th Century, many women were demanding suffrage, or the right to vote.
  • Prohibition. For many social reformers, alcohol was a social evil that caused the breakdown of marriages, violence and abuse. There were many in the country who wanted to prohibit liquor.
  • Race. During the 1800s, African American slaves were freed and became citizens, at least in name. But as blacks began to move around the country, tensions between the races boiled over.
  • Native Americans. Throughout the 1800s, native tribes were pushed west and finally onto small parcels of land "reserved" for them, the reservations. But their legal status within the United States had not been resolved.
  • Children. During the 1800s, children were often forced to work long hours in back breaking jobs. The 20th Century saw a movement to outlaw child labor.
  • Workers. Young and old were simply out on the street if they were injured on the job. Workers’ compensation systems were devised during the early 1900s.
  • Direct Elections. Before the turn of the century, members of the U.S. Senate were elected by the politicians in each state legislature. The direct election of senators by the voters was a major electoral reform.
  • Political Reform. In many states, progressive reformers wanted to give more power to the people by allowing citizen groups to initiate new laws themselves — the initiative — or to review the actions of legislatures — the referendum. These reformers pushed through "Initiative and Referendum" systems that allowed citizens to circulate petitions to put issues and proposals on the ballot. The reformers in many states also pushed through systems to allow for the recall of elected officials.
  • Anti-Monopoly Reforms. In the new 20th Century, many businesses were becoming big business. The U.S. was a huge marketplace with lots of potential consumers, and businesses began to try and monopolize that market. They wanted to limit or eliminate competition so they could control prices and profits. Reformers said their business practices were unfair and sought to break up the monopolies or "trusts."


Democratic Campaign Poster, 1900

Democratic Campaign Poster, 1900

In Nebraska, also, these issues had been debated for years. Suffrage for women had been a reoccurring issue in Nebraska from the territorial days and had reemerged with vigor in the early 1870s. But, it would not be until the early 1900s that the state legislature would pass legislation allowing women limited voting rights — women could vote in municipal elections and for presidential electors. A prohibition law would be passed almost at the same time as the suffrage law.

Progressives faced bitter resistance from conservatives who tended to support unregulated social and economic systems, and opposed unions, reformers, socialists, communists, and anarchists. They believed that progressive reforms would take power away from the traditional power brokers — and actually, that was precisely the point. The conservatives argued that reform would lead to the destruction of capitalism and democracy.

Yet the Progressive Movement, for all its passion and rhetoric, would not completely dominate the news in the first quarter of the 20th Century. World War I loomed on the horizon and would share the center stage. The war would have a major impact on society and politics, both locally, nationally and internationally.

The Progressive movement would leave its mark on early 20th century Nebraska, but only after facing stiff resistance from conservative forces that saw the movement as an attack on established institutions and traditions.