The best books on the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (1877-1920) in U.S. history

Nancy C. Unger Author Of Fighting Bob La Follette: The Righteous Reformer
By Nancy C. Unger

Who am I?

I study the Gilded Age and Progressive Era because it has so many practical applications for the present.  As we face our own Gilded Age of enormous technological achievements paired with ongoing problems stemming from what Bob La Follette called “the encroachment of the powerful few upon the rights of the many,” why reinvent the wheel?  What worked for progressive reformers in their struggles to create a more equitable and just society?  What didn’t work, and why? To help answer those questions I wrote Fighting Bob La Follette: The Righteous Reformer and Belle La Follette: Progressive Era Reformer, and co-edited A Companion to the Gilded Age and Progressive Era.


I wrote...

Fighting Bob La Follette: The Righteous Reformer

By Nancy C. Unger,

Book cover of Fighting Bob La Follette: The Righteous Reformer

What is my book about?

The endlessly fascinating Robert La Follette (1855-1925) represented Wisconsin in the House of Representatives, as governor, and, for twenty-one years, in the U.S. Senate.  As the nation rapidly transformed into an urban-industrial giant, he tackled some of its biggest problems, including political corruption, environmental devastation, and worker exploitation.  “The supreme issue, involving all the others,” he declared, “is the encroachment of the powerful few upon the rights of the many.” La Follette was a leader in the fight to more equitably redistribute the nation’s wealth and power.

La Follette’s wife, Belle Case La Follette, was a leader in the fight for women’s suffrage and racial equality as well as world peace. Together they created a remarkably close family, generating a political dynasty.

The books I picked & why

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The Jungle

By Upton Sinclair,

Book cover of The Jungle

Why this book?

First published in 1906, this classic muckraking novel set in the stockyards of Chicago is an excellent introduction to the myriad problems of the Gilded Age, including vast corruption. The gripping story follows an immigrant family as their hopes for achieving the American Dream through hard work are slowly ground into bitterness and despair. Sinclair wrote The Jungle to promote socialism, but his descriptions of the meatpacking industry were so vivid and appalling that the book contributed instead to progressive reforms including the Meat Inspection Act.  According to Sinclair, “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident hit it in the stomach.” The first half of the novel is better than the second, but it remains a gripping revelation of why progressive reform was so desperately needed.


America Reformed: Progressives and Progressivisms, 1890s-1920s

By Maureen A. Flanagan,

Book cover of America Reformed: Progressives and Progressivisms, 1890s-1920s

Why this book?

There are many books on the reforms of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era—this one is the best.  Flanagan, who writes clearly and engagingly, centers this work on four themes: politics, social justice, economics, and foreign policy. Every chapter features lively stories and helpful illustrations. While Flanagan certainly includes excellent coverage of vital federal and state reforms, she is particularly effective in her coverage of how every day Americans, including women and various minority groups, responded to the problems confronting society.


Amusing the Million: Coney Island at the Turn of the Century

By John F. Kasson,

Book cover of Amusing the Million: Coney Island at the Turn of the Century

Why this book?

This short book, filled with delightful illustrations, is so much fun that you don’t immediately notice that it’s a powerful history of how urbanization and industrialization led to a new mass culture. The particular focus is on the rise of the amusement park, and the controversies that arose over how people “should” spend their leisure time and discretionary income. When the Russian revolutionary Maxim Gory toured Coney Island in 1907, he concluded that in America, amusement (rather than religion) had become the opiate of the masses. This book, a classic, remains relevant, inspiring thoughtful analysis concerning the ongoing power of the leisure industry and its impact on how people think, live, and spend their money. 


Gilded Age and Progressive Era

By William A. Link, Susannah J. Link,

Book cover of Gilded Age and Progressive Era

Why this book?

If you’re tired of historians spoon-feeding you their interpretations of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, this great selection of the period’s documents provides an unfiltered look at what people were thinking and doing at the time in their own words. The documents are arranged thematically with four or five per section: The New South; The New West; Native Americans; Big Business; Gilded Age Society; Working People, Immigrants in the Industrial Age; Populism; The Coming of Jim Crow; Labor Protest Rebuilding American Institutions; The Political System; Imperialism and Anti-imperialism, and the Debate about World War I. This is a user-friendly collection that doesn’t go too deep into any one person or event, yet introduces the key issues of the period.


Ida: A Sword Among Lions

By Paula J. Giddings,

Book cover of Ida: A Sword Among Lions

Why this book?

To understand American race relations today, the history of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era is a vital starting point. In the wake of the Reconstruction, legalized segregation formalized institutional racism. With no federal lynch law, many states and municipalities refused to prosecute lynchings, striving instead to perpetuate myths of lynching as the only appropriate response to naturally lascivious Black men who desired inherently pure and virtuous white women. This exceptional biography traces the fascinating life of journalist and women’s suffrage advocate Ida Wells, who fearlessly fought against racism, segregation, and, especially, lynching. She was a leader in progressive era reform, despite the discrimination she endured even from many progressives due to her sex and her race.


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