Carole Owens: True progressives of Progressive Era



1915: Typhoid Mary was at work in a New York City hospital; President Wilson was in the White House; "Birth of a Nation" was in the movie theaters; the Lusitania was sunk; Babe Ruth hit his first home run in the majors; the U.S. House of Representatives rejected a bill giving women the right to vote; the KKK was founded, and Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, and Orson Welles were born.

I count 1915 as the penultimate year of the Gilded Age, but other historians lop off as many as 30 years from the Gilded Age and call those years the Progressive Era. They call it the Progressive Era because it was a time of movements; I call it the Gilded Age because most of the movements failed, and in the end, the Progressive Era was not very progressive.


For example, in March 1911, a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory killed 145 workers; most of them teenage girls. The factory was an eight-story building on a city street in Manhattan. When fire broke out and the women tried to flee, they discovered the doors were locked. The fire escape was too narrow and rather than an escape route it created a jam of human bodies -- wedged and burning. The only way out was to jump from upper story windows. The entire event -- the building consumed and 145 dead bodies strewn on the street -- took 18 minutes.

Now imagine you are walking on that street, shopping perhaps, with your small child in tow, and all of a sudden, bodies fall from upper-story windows and break (literally) on the sidewalk in front of you. People were shocked, sickened, and outraged. There were marches in the street demanding workplace safety legislation. In spite of public outrage it took 59 years to pass meaningful legislation protecting workers in the workplace. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was not established until 1970.

The girls worked a 12-hour day at the Triangle factory, six days a week. They were paid $15 a week. These female workers were spinsters or widows; they were definitely poor and probably immigrants. It was a group that no industrialist or politician feared or cared about -- until they unionized.

The fire helped build and strengthen the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union. White middle class married women did not work, but they too were organizing. They were neither unaware nor inactive: the people walking on that Manhattan Street when the fire broke out and the bodies burned and fallen, were middle-class matrons. Those matrons were "club women" Formerly their clubs focused on self-improvement: delicate luncheons served up with inspirational speakers. By 1915, club women were focused on improving the whole country and all of their brothers and sisters; if there were any progressives during the Progressive Era, they were the women.

Their clubs organized to combat social, political and economic problems. In 1915, the largest and most active were the National Association of Education, the Women’s Temperance Union, Women’s Trade Union, National Household Economics, National Consumers League, and Collegiate Alumnae Association.

In 1915, Pittsfield was 154 years old, and had been a city for 24 years. Mirroring the rest of the country, Pittsfield was replete with women’s clubs: working girls’ club, businesswomen’s club, temperance club, Monday Morning club and more. The newest women’s club was the College Club.

The mission of the College Club was "to help young women into the next level of education." It was not an easy task. There had been schools for girls in Pittsfield for 90 years. The Pittsfield Female Academy was founded in 1826. However, in 1915, the old academy was the Maplewood Hotel. The population of Pittsfield was 39,000. Enrollment in Pittsfield High School was 1,000 students, and of that number only 148 graduated, and just 42 went to college. Statistician Edward Boltwood ("History of Pittsfield") does not even bother to break down the 42 college-bound graduates by sex so it is fair to assume all 42 were male.


In the country at large or at home in Pittsfield, these clubs did contribute, even though they were not, in the end, change agents or very progressive. The second aim of the College Club: "To be of practical value to the community and maintain a spirit of fellowship among its members" was the true key to success. According to Boltwood, all the clubs, social, political, and economic shared in the goals of creating fellowship and helping the community. The clubs became social centers, and were instrumental in creating a strong sense of community in Pittsfield.

Two years later, April 1917, America entered World War I and then the Gilded Age was absolutely over. American soldiers returning from war, would come home to a different country.

Carole Owens is a Berkshire writer and historian.


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