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the men with the muck rakes are often indispensable to the well being of society; but only if they know when to stop raking the muck . . ." - Theodore Roosevelt, “The Man with the Muckrake” Speech, 1906

In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt coined the term “muckrakers” to refer to the journalists who exposed corruption in politics and big business. It was a reference to a character in John Bunyan’s novel Pilgrim’s Progress who was so focused on raking the muck, he failed to see heaven above him. Roosevelt believed that muckrakers were falling victim to the same phenomenon in focusing all their energies on the bad aspects of society rather than the good. But he could not discount the muckrakers in their ability to make positive changes.

Muckrakers Definition

Muckrakers were the investigative journalists of the Progressive Era. They worked to expose corruption and unethical practices at all levels of government as well as in big business. Although united by name, muckrakers focused on a wide variety of societal ills and were not necessarily aligned in their causes. Causes varied from improving conditions in the slums to imposing food and drug regulation.

The Progressive Era

a period in the late 18th and early 19th century defined by activism and reform

Muckrakers History and Facts

The history of muckrakers has its roots in the yellow journalism of the mid to late 19th century. The goal of yellow journalism was to increase circulation, not report actual facts. This meant that publications preferred to cover stories with a certain level of sensationalism. And stories of corruption and scandal definitely caught readers’ attentions. Muckrakers used this to their advantage to advocate for change.

But what actually caused the problems society was facing? Put simply, it was industrialization. Residents of rural areas flooded into the city for new factory jobs at the same time immigrants were coming from Europe to improve their situation. As a result, cities became overpopulated and slums developed. With no regulation, factories could be dangerous places, and that’s not even mentioning the lack of proper compensation.

Muckrakers of the Progressive Era Examples

Now, let's take a look at several muckrakers of the Progressive Era to get a better idea of the key figures and causes.

Muckrakers of the Progressive Era Examples: Upton Sinclair

Muckrakers Examples Upton Sinclair StudySmarterPhotograph of Upton Sinclair, Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Upton Sinclair is among the most famous of the muckrakers, known for his explosive expose of the meatpacking industry in The Jungle. He wrote of the exploitatively long hours as well as the dangers workers faced such as losing fingers and limbs in the machinery or falling victim to disease in the cold, cramped conditions.

The great packing machine ground on remorselessly, without thinking of green fields; and the men and women and children who were part of it never saw any green thing, not even a flower. Four or five miles to the east of them lay the blue waters of Lake Michigan; but for all the good it did them it might have been as far away as the Pacific Ocean. They had only Sundays, and then they were too tired to walk. They were tied to the great packing machine, and tied to it for life.” - Upton Sinclair, The Jungle, 1906

His goal was to aid the plight of workers, but middle and upper-class readers found issue with another subject in his book: the lack of food quality and safety regulation. The plight of workers they could ignore, but the image of rats running over their meat was simply too much to cast aside. As a result of Upton Sinclair’s work, the federal government passed both the Pure Food and Drug Act (which created the FDA) and Meat Inspection Act.

Upton Sinclair was unique in his vocal support for socialism.

Muckrakers of the Progressive Era Examples: Lincoln Steffens

Muckrakers Examples Lincoln Steffens StudySmarterPhotograph of Lincoln Steffens, Source: Wikimedia Commons

Lincoln Steffens began his muckraking career writing articles for McClure’s Magazine, a magazine dedicated to the work of muckrakers. He focused on the corruption in cities and spoke out against political machines. In 1904, he published the articles in a single collection, The Shame of Cities. His work was important in gaining support for the concept of a city commission and city manager not involved with political parties

political machines

political organizations that worked to keep a certain individual or group in power

Muckrakers of the Progressive Era Examples: Ida Tarbell

Muckrakers Examples Ida Tarbell StudySmarterPhotograph of Ida Tarbell, Source: Commons Wikimedia

Similar to Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell published a series of articles in McClure’s Magazine before publishing them in a book. The History of the Standard Oil Company chronicled the rise of John Rockefeller and the corrupt and unethical practices he used to get there. Ida Tarbell’s work was important in getting the Standard Oil Company dissolved under the Sherman Antitrust Act in 1911.

The Standard Oil Company had forced Ida Tarbell’s father out of business.

our present law-makers, as a body, are ignorant, corrupt and unprincipled…the majority of them are, directly or indirectly, under the control of the very monopolies against whose acts we have been seeking relief...” - Ida Tarbell, The History of the Standard Oil Company, 1904

Muckrakers of the Progressive Era Examples: Ida B. Wells

Muckrakers Examples Ida B Wells StudySmarterPhotograph of Ida B. Wells, Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Ida B. Wells was another prominent female muckraker. She had been born into slavery in 1862 and became an anti-lynching advocate in the 1880s. In 1892, she published Southern Horrors: Lynch Laws in all its Phases, which combatted the notion that black crime led to lynchings. She also spoke against the systemic disenfranchisement of black citizens (and poor white citizens) in the South. Unfortunately, she did not find the same success as her peers.

In 1909, Ida B. Wells helped found the prominent civil rights organization, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Muckrakers of the Progressive Era Examples: Jacob Riis

Muckrakers Examples Jacob RiisPhotograph of Jacob Riis, Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Our last example, Jacob Riis, shows that not all muckrakers were writers. Jacob Riis used photographs to expose the overcrowded, unsafe, and unsanitary conditions in New York City slums. His book, How the Other Half Lives, helped gain support for the regulation of tenement housing which would materialize in the Tenement House Act of 1901.

The Significance of Muckrakers

The work of muckrakers was essential in the growth and success of Progressivism. Muckrakers exposed the problems so that their middle and upper-class readers could band together to fix them. The Progressives were successful in forcing many reforms including the legislation we discussed above, but it is important to note that the early civil rights movement did not see the same victories.

The Progressives

activists of the Progressive Era

Muckrackers - Key takeaways

  • Muckrakers were the investigative journalists of the Progressive Era, working to expose corruption and other societal ills.
  • They often focused their work on a specific subject. Not all muckrakers were unified in causes.
  • Notable muckrakers and their subjects include:
    • Upton Sinclair: the meatpacking industry
    • Lincoln Steffen: political corruption in cities
    • Ida Tarbell: corruption and unethical practices in big business
    • Ida B. Wells: disenfranchisement and lynching
    • Jacob Riis: conditions in tenement houses and slums
  • Muckrakers were crucial to the growth and success of Progressivism.

Frequently Asked Questions about Muckrakers

Muckrakers were the investigative journalists of the Progressive Era. They worked to expose corruption and other societal ills. 

The main goal of muckrakers was to force reform.

An example of a muckraker is Upton Sinclair who exposed the meatpacking industry in The Jungle.

The role of muckrakers in the Progressive Era was to expose corruption so that readers were incensed to fix them. 

In general, the muckrakers were important for their part in the growth and success of Progressivism. 

Final Muckrakers Quiz


Who coined the term "muckrakers"?

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Theodore Roosevelt

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Muckrakers were united in their causes.

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The work of muckrakers was an extension of what type of 19th-century journalism?

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yellow journalism

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What muckraker wrote The Jungle?

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Upton Sinclair

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What legislation was passed because of The Jungle?

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The Pure Food and Drug Act

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What company did Ida Tarbell expose?

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The Standard Oil Company

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Which muckraker was unique in their use of photography rather than writing?

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Upton Sinclair

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The muckrakers were crucial to the growth of what movement?

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Show question


What was the name of Lincoln Steffen's book?

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The Shame of Cities

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Which is not true of Ida B. Wells?

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born into slavery

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