Social Control vs. Social Reform: How Progressives Missed the Mark

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Social Control vs. Social Reform: How Progressives Missed the Mark

Caroline Shelton

HIS104 – Writing Assignment 1

The industrial age resulted in a number of technological advances that made information more accessible to the masses. One new form of media that arose from these advances and changed the way people read about their changing world was documentary photography. Photographers of the progressive era depicted the gritty reality of the nation’s slums in order to promote change. The idea presented behind the before-and-after photograph is that the tenant’s quality of life can improve with the cleanup and organization of his home. Realistically, this idealistic transformation is not enough to address cause of the problem; rather, the reality behind the tenant’s poverty is literally being swept under the rug. These photographs ultimately reflect the views of a movement that sought to make the lower class more manageable, not more comfortable.

Progressive reform during the late 19th and early 20th century was collection of movements to improve the various “social ills” that developed out of a rapidly industrializing America. The movements ranged from the prohibition of alcohol and brothels to women’s suffrage to the abolition of child labor (Text 609-17). Although these movements were propagated by groups with different motivations and opposing viewpoints, the prevailing idea shared among middle class progressives about living conditions appeared to be that beautification and tidiness of the “slums” would make society better as a whole.

In the before-and-after photograph of the one-room living space, the photographer suggests that elimination of the room’s “clutter” equals efficiency and cleanliness, which equals a better quality of life (Text 612). But a major point lost on the photographer is that this working class tenant, along with most others, did not have the luxury of laundry rooms and kitchen spaces where they could conveniently store these...