The Muckrakers: how a group of writers in the early 20th century exposed troubling cases of corruption in America.


Students should understand

* The muckrakers were investigative reporters of the early 20th century who exposed injustices of Industrial Revolution America.

* Writers such as the muckrakers are crucial to the process of necessary social change,


Upton Sinclair lived with Chicago stockyard workers for seven weeks while researching The Jungle. His primary intention was to expose dangerous working conditions in the meatpacking houses. He was taken aback when Americans seemed more concerned with the disgusting revelations about how meat was processed. “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach,” he wrote.


COMPREHENSION: How does a monopoly increase the likelihood of high prices? (Lacking competition, a monopoly can charge any price for the commodity it controls. People wanting the product have no choice but to pay the price.)

MAKING PAST-PRESENT CONNECTIONS: Can investigative journalism have the same impact today as it did a century ago? Find at least one example of such an article or series of articles in your local newspaper and explain why it/they did or did not bring change. (Answers will vary.)

IN OTHER WORDS: Have students read and analyze an excerpt from one of the muckraker’s work (see p. T-7 for a Tarbell excerpt), then rewrite it in their own words.

IN THEIR OWN WORDS. Ask students to investigate a community issue that they care about, then write a brief report on it. Have them try to use facts rather than their own opinions to sway readers.

“As for the other men, who worked in tank rooms full of steam … their peculiar trouble was that they fell into the vats [of lard]…. Sometimes they would be overlooked for days, till all bur the bones of them had gone out into the world as Anderson’s Pure Leaf Lard!”

A century ago, a writer named Upton Sinclair horrified Americans with the above description of working conditions in a meat-processing plant. Sinclair and other journalists were uncovering some of America’s most troubling secrets. Critics accused them of just wanting to stir up trouble. But the writers proudly wore their nickname: the muckrakers.

At the turn of the 20th century, the United States was on the brink of an exciting era. The economy was booming. The Industrial Revolution had helped turn U.S. businesses such as beef, steel, and oil into economic giants.

But everywhere, ordinary people suffered. Factory workers labored under dangerous conditions. Immigrants poured into the country looking for jobs, but were trapped in crowded city slums. Meanwhile, the richest 10 percent of Americans owned 90 percent of the country’s wealth.

Some Americans began to call for reform. Their collective demands came to be known as the Progressive Movement. The muckrakers–the voices of reform–exposed corrupt (dishonest) government and the greed of big business like never before.

The Importance of McClure’s

In 1893, an ambitious Irish immigrant named S. S. McClure started a magazine in New York City. McClure’s was important because it was the first magazine to allow its writers to examine a story in depth. In its pages, Lincoln Steffens, Ida M. Tarbell, Ray Stannard Baker, and other reporters created what is now called the investigative journalist.

In 1902, Steffens wrote a story for McClure’s about government and police corruption in St. Louis, Missouri. Readers were shocked to learn of the amount of graft in a major U.S. city. Steffens went on to write similar stories from Chicago, Minneapolis, and New York. His 1904 book, The Shame of Our Cities, inspired urban reforms across the country.

Monopolies were another big problem. A businessman could gain a monopoly by buying up small companies or driving them out of business. Eventually, he would be able to control the markets for a resource, such as oil or steel. Then he could charge anything he wanted for it.

As a girl, Ida M. Tarbell had watched John D. Rockefeller’s oil business spread across northwestern Pennsylvania. Tarbell later investigated Rockefeller’s powerful monopoly. In 1902, she published the first in a series of articles on the subject. They became a book, The History of the Standard Oil Company, which alarmed many U.S. officials. In 1911, the government broke up the monopoly. Standard Oil was forced to split into more than 33 companies.

The Jungle

The muckrakers had other successes. In 1904, a weekly publication called Appeal to Reason sent Upton Sinclair to investigate Chicago’s meatpacking plants. From this experience, Sinclair wrote a novel called The Jungle. His descriptions of unsafe and unsanitary conditions outraged the public. In 1906, Congress reacted to the anger by passing the Pure Food and Drug Act. That created the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and set strict standards for all food produced in the U.S.

Other writers of the time exposed stock-market fraud, child-labor abuses, and dangerous conditions in coal mines. Their reporting sparked reforms across the country. But President Theodore Roosevelt, who grew tired of the writers’ attacks, compared them to a character in Paul Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. They were, he said, like “the Man with the Muckrake” who only knew how to stir up dirt. The name muckraker stuck.

The muckraking movement eventually declined for many reasons. In time, the country became distracted by the greater horrors of World War I (1914-1918). But the muckrakers had put their stamp on the country. Their work has inspired generations of crusading writers and reformers, and has helped improve conditions for countless Americans ever since.

WORDS to Know

* graft: money or power obtained in illegal ways.

* Industrial Revolution: the explosive growth of new machines and factory work beginning in the late 19th century.

* journalist: reporter.

* monopoly: control of a product by one person or company.

* muck: slimy dirt or filth.

RELATED ARTICLE: “He was gentle”.

In 1924, Lincoln Steffens had a son–my father, Pete Steffens. I asked my father what his father, Lincoln Steffens, was like.

“He was gentle, and he was a tease. He made sure that I learned to think for myself. [One day] I came out to play, and he drew a line in the path and said, ‘OK, Pete, I’m ordering you not to cross that line. That’s an order.’ I … defied [refused] him and stepped across the line. He scooped me up and said, ‘Good for you!’ He taught me not to take orders from anybody who is a big boss figure.”

–Daneet Steffens</p> <pre> Your Turn WORD MATCH 1. graft A. reporter 2. journalist B. control by a single person or group 3. corrupt C. slimy dirt 4. monopoly D. illegally gained money or power 5. muck E. dishonest ANSWERS 1. D 2. A 3. E 4. B 5. C </pre> <p>THINK ABOUT IT

1. What was the role of muckrakers in the early 20th century?.

2. Is there a need for this type of investigative journalist today? Why or why not?



* Civic ideals and practices: How investigative journalism led to economic and social reforms.

* Production, distribution, and consumption: Why legal standards were set for monopolies, food production, and other big business.



* Somervill, Barbara A., Ida Tarbell: Pioneer Investigative Reporter (M. Reynolds, 2002). Grades 6-12.

* Weinberg, Arthur and Lila (eds.) The Muckrakers (University of Illinois Press, 2002). High-level readers and/or teachers. WEB SITES


* An article by Lincoln Steffens

* Best American Journalism /A0777379.html

* Ida M. Tarbell


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