Who Were The Muckrakers And What Did They Do

Who were muckrackers, and what contributions did they make?

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larrygates eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Muckrakers were journalists of the Progressive Era (late 19th early 20th century) who wrote articles in major magazines exposing corruption in business, government, even the stock market. They were given the name "muckraker" by Theodore Roosevelt from John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress in which Bunyan described a man who could only look downward with a muckrake in his hands. A muckrake is a rake used to clean muck--a combination of straw and excrement--from horse stables. Theodore Roosevelt said of them

the muckrakers are indispensable to . . . society, but only if they know when to stop raking the muck.

Among the more notable muckrakers:

  • Jacob Riis who wrote How the Other Half Lives, a description of the horrible living conditions in New York City, particularly those areas occupied by immigrants.
  • Ida Mae Tarbell wrote A History of the Standard Oil Company. It was not a true "history" but rather a polemic of the ruthless business practices of John D. Rockefeller.
  • Henry Demarest Lloyd: Wealth against Commonwealth, a description of large corporate concerns who answered to no one and even corrupted governments when it suited their purposes.
  • Upson Sinclair: The Jungle which was written as a Socialist Manifesto, but is more famous for describing the squalid conditions in Chicago's meat packing industry. Sinclair once said of the book,

I aimed for the nation's heart, but I hit it in the stomach.

Most muckrakers were better at pointing out problems rather than suggesting solutions; however The Jungle did lead to major reform. Theodore Roosevelt read the book, and sent inspectors to meat packing plants to see if the conditions described in the book were true. It turns out they were. The inspectors wrote:

We saw meat shoveled from filthy wooden floors, piled on tables rarely washed, pushed from room to room in rotten box carts, in all of which processes it was in the way of gathering dirt, splinters, floor filth, and the expectoration of tuberculous and other diseased workers

As a result, Congress passed the Meat Inspection Act and the pure food and drug act.

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