The Progressive Era brought several important changes to American society, including a woman’s right to vote and cleaning up the food industry. The so-called muckrakers inspired many of the changes. The term refers to reform-minded investigative journalists who exposed corruption and society issues like child labor and unsafe working conditions. The term, popularized by President Theodore Roosevelt in a 1906 speech, comes from the classic 1678 British novel Pilgrim’s Progress. Still, the literary work that helped prompt the Pure Food and Drug Act was Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.
The 1906 novel portrayed the horrible working conditions and exploitation of immigrants in industrialized cities like Chicago, the main setting for the book. The main character, a Lithuanian immigrant named Jurgis, worked in slaughterhouse characterized by unsafe and unsanitary conditions. The book sought to showcase the exploitation of the working class and arguably promote socialist policies, which inspired President Roosevelt to call the author a “crackpot,” but the public disregarded the plight of the immigrant and zeroed in on the contaminated meat described in the slaughterhouse. In response, the government investigated local Chicago meatpacking facilities and learned that Sinclair was not exaggerating.
Testimony before Congress and public outrage helped pass two laws in 1906: the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act. The groundswell behind the legislation primarily involved pure food, but medicine was included in the laws.