Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

The Progressive Era: 1895-1925

A Short History of Wisconsin

The Progressive Era: 1895-1925 | Wisconsin Historical Society

As the 19th century ended, Wisconsin was developing into an increasingly industrial and technological society. To a people born and raised mostly on farms, the explosive growth of cities, rising importance of large-scale industry, and the overall speed of daily life brought uncertainty and confusion.

Large cities had created jobs and opportunities but also poverty, disease, and crime. Businesses had created more efficient and productive factories but also dangerous working conditions and poor pay for workers.

To solve these problems, reformers pushed for cleaner cities, safer workplaces, labor laws, and a more democratic government. These reformers were known as “Progressives." One of the leaders of the movement was Wisconsin's own Robert La Follette. He and many other progressive people worked to change government, public health laws, education, and working conditions in Wisconsin.

EnlargeSnapshot of Senator Robert M. La Follette and his wife Belle Case La Follette.

Bob and Belle La Follette, 1925

To many people, Robert La Follette symbolizes the Progressive movement. Yet his wife, Belle Case, provided much of the intellectual sophistication behind the progressive program. View the original source document: WHI 10739

'Fighting Bob' La Follette Leads the Movement

The stirring of political and social change reputedly occurred on September 17, 1891, when Republican leader Philetus Sawyer offered 35-year-old attorney Robert M. La Follette (1855-1925) a bribe to fix a court case. Furious, La Follette refused it, later saying, "Nothing else ever came into my life that exerted such a powerful influence upon me."

For the rest of the decade, La Follette traveled around the state speaking out against crooked politicians, powerful lumber barons, and corrupt railroad interests. Elected governor in 1900, he pledged to institute reforms to protect common people. Those who followed him called themselves "Progressive" Republicans. They believed that the proper business of government was not business, but service to the common people.

The 'Wisconsin Idea'

Elected to state, local and national offices, Progressives crafted a broad spectrum of reforms. They worked with faculty from the University of Wisconsin to help draft laws, provide expert advice, and serve on commissions. The "Wisconsin Idea," as this relationship was called, held that an effective and accountable government worked best with the help of academic experts. It was sometimes expressed as, "the boundaries of the campus are the boundaries of the state."

Scholars John R. Commons (1862-1945) and Edwin Witte (1887-1960) worked closely with Progressive politicians to create programs that benefited workers, consumers, and the disadvantaged. A new Legislative Reference Library led by Charles McCarthy (1873-1921) quickly provided lawmakers with expert information from trained researchers. The library included a bill-drafting office that was adopted in governments around the world.

Progressive Movement Reforms

Under Governor La Follette’s leadership from 1900-1905, the legislature established direct primary elections that gave voters, rather than political party leaders, the right to choose primary candidates. It also doubled taxes on railroads, broke up business monopolies, preserved state forests, and defended small farmers.

Under Governor James Davidson (1854-1922), who held office 1906-1911, new laws provided state control over how corporations issued stock and imposed stricter regulations on railroad and insurance companies.

The most important Progressive legislation passed during the 1911 session under Governor Francis McGovern (1866-1946). This legislature instituted one of the nation's first workers’ compensation programs, passed laws to regulate factory safety, encouraged the formation of cooperatives, established a state income tax, and limited work hours for women and children. Progressive officials also founded Wisconsin’s state parks system and investigated conditions on Wisconsin Indian reservations.

A number of the Progressive's reforms were adopted nationally.

Milwaukee Socialism Follows Different Model

In Milwaukee, reform followed a different model. Often called "sewer socialism" for its back-to-basics approach, Milwaukee Socialists wanted to clean up neighborhoods and factories and improve education. Milwaukee Socialists rejected the Progressives' idea that government should regulate business. Instead, they wanted to replace the existing capitalist system that allowed each business to function independently with government-owned industries that would protect workers and consumers.

EnlargeStudio portrait of Meta Berger seated.

Meta Berger

Wife of Socialist Victor Berger, Meta chose a life of public service and political activism over the conventionality and respectability common to women of her generation. View the original source document: WHI 52054

This viewpoint gained widespread popularity through the work of Austrian immigrant and newspaperman Victor Berger (1860-1929). Berger developed a program of political action that, while operating under the name Socialism, was more a variety of moderate reform. He was first elected congressional representative in 1910 and, though indicted for anti-war activities during World War I, was re-elected in 1918.

Most Milwaukee Socialists did not advocate violent revolution but rather were confident that Socialism would come through the ballot box. The city's first Socialist mayor was elected in 1910. For the next three decades, city government improved living conditions for common people by providing new sanitation systems, municipally owned water and power systems, community parks, and improved schools. Most of this occurred between 1917 and 1941 when Socialist Daniel Hoan (1881-1961) was mayor.

World War I Strains Wisconsin Democratic Traditions, German Americans

World War I interrupted the Progressive Era and strained Wisconsin's democratic traditions, perhaps costing La Follette the presidency. Between 1914 and 1917, Wisconsin's sizable German-American population, as well as the Progressive and Socialist parties, generally opposed American entry into the war. In 1917, however, public sentiment shifted toward support for Britain when Germany resumed unrestricted submarine warfare. When the U.S. officially entered the war on April 6, 1917, nine of Wisconsin's 11 Congressmen, plus Senator La Follette, voted against it, for which they were vilified.

Despite the stance of their elected officials, more than 118,000 Wisconsin citizens went into military service. In France, the Wisconsin National Guardsmen of the Red Arrow Division gained a reputation for fearless and effective fighting. In all, 1,800 Wisconsin soldiers died in the war.

At home, with U.S. support for Britain, German culture became suspect. Patriotic organizations asserted that every German American “should be treated as a potential spy." Some Wisconsin towns refused to teach German in their schools, German-language books burned in Wisconsin streets, and anyone with a German name became a potential target for harassment. Anti-German fears subsided with the war’s end.

Woman’s Suffrage Movement

One issue on which Wisconsin was not progressive during these years was the right of women to vote. Progressive leaders who endorsed worker and consumer rights were reluctant to grant women suffrage because they knew their male supporters opposed it.

On November 4, 1912, Wisconsin men voted suffrage down in a state referendum two-to-one. When politicians blocked new suffrage referenda in 1913 and 1915, Wisconsin women threw their energy into the national cause instead. A suffrage amendment to the U.S. Constitution finally passed in 1919, and the Wisconsin Legislature became the first to ratify it, giving women the right to vote in federal elections. However, Wisconsin women would not be able to vote in state elections until 1934.

Innovations in Daily Life

Two innovations in everyday life — electric power and automobiles — had as much impact on Wisconsin as political, military and legal events. Wisconsin was a national leader in both new technologies.

The first electricity offered for sale anywhere in the world came from an Appleton power plant in 1882. By 1920, electricity was powering streetcars, city lights, home appliances, and factory equipment in most Wisconsin cities.

Automobiles became common at the turn of the 20th century. Thomas L. Jeffery started an automobile company in Kenosha in 1900 that two years later produced 1,500 new "Ramblers." By 1916, his successor, Charles W. Nash, had made Kenosha the largest producer of automobiles outside Detroit. In Milwaukee William Harley and the Davidson brothers designed a motorized bicycle and produced 18,000 of them for the military.

In 1916, the state highway system began, which fueled the tourism industry. The most popular 1920s vacation route was Highway 13, which ran from the Illinois border near Beloit to the Bayfield Peninsula at Lake Superior. Resort owners called it "Lucky 13" and promised drivers they could find anything they wanted along its path — except a cold beer.

Prohibition Impacts Brewing Industry

Since the 1830s, many English-speaking immigrants had viewed alcohol as the primary cause of crime, poverty, domestic violence, and other social problems. Their German neighbors, on the other hand, considered social drinking as part of their culture and resisted being "reformed" by their teetotaling fellow citizens. These tensions culminated during World War I as anti-German sentiment contributed to the passage of national liquor prohibition, the Volstead Act, in 1919.

Prohibition had a dramatic impact on Wisconsin's breweries, a major state industry. Many tried to produce soda, ice cream, and even cheese to make ends meet. In 1926, Wisconsin voters approved a referendum allowing the sale of beer with only 2.75 percent alcohol ("near beer"), and in 1929, they repealed Wisconsin's prohibition enforcement law. Finally, on December 5, 1933, the 21st Amendment was ratified and Prohibition ended.

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