There have been many comprehensive documents written about the now infamous Progressive Era in the United States, some glowing with praise for the then pioneering changes that were begun during the era, while others are more logical in their portrayal of the age as one where some strides were made but with cost and motive. A Very Different Age, clearly falls within the latter category, as the work defines the motive and changes from many perspectives to attempt a comprehensive look at just how changed the lives of American's really were. The Progressive Era roughly spanned the period of the early 20th century and created change that developed aspects of the industrial revolution, which had begun earlier. In a sense Diner stresses that the Progressive Era was a culmination of the need for individuals in America to redefine how they lived their lives, not as they had in the past as small entrepreneurs, in the context of small households but as members of larger communities that were defined by work, and often work for an employer, which might have been very large indeed and very much outside the home. These same individuals also had the opportunity, when it was afforded them to use and interact with thousands of new products that redefined their time and status, and were a result of their own labor and of corporate development.
Diner stresses that the origins of the Progressive Era were initially limited to individual reforms that would attempt to reconcile the serious 1890s depression and the economic downfall of the nation with an emerging worker and middle class. (Diner 1998, 19-23) Individuals all over the nation in high to moderate positions of power saw the era as a time to develop and pass laws and enforce standards that would limit economic reactions to market and consumerism through controlled utilization of resources and that this then evolved into corporate and government reforms and regulations as well as social and economic reforms on a more basic level. This includes consumer reforms, consolidation of services, governmental reforms, such as local civic and government reforms that attempted to reduce corruption, labor reforms, such as unionism representation that was less focused on managers and more worker driven (though these reforms were often the most highly contested and areas where much compromise was made.) (67) Diner also stresses that most importantly the Progressive Discourse, as he calls it, was a conversation between many at the top to attempt to reconcile those who worked with those who managed, including government and corporation. (203) Such reforms as education also drove the "discourse" with the movement toward educating the masses.
An educated and informed citizenry would demand "justice" and do what was "morally right." Using such language, progressives captured the discourse of politics, defining the terms within which competing players argued their positions on corporate regulation, labor, conservation, welfare, women's rights, representative government and other great issues of the day. (203)
The progressive era, for Diner marked the beginning of a fundamental struggle to define the nation, as it responded to growth development and a new consumerism that was never before seen in the nation.
Diner is particularly adept at describing the manner in which competing groups made changes and accepted compromises in reform. According to Diner compromise was often the key term of the day, as different cultural groups and blocks of people argued for change while others supported such change in theory and allowed changes that were most logical for their own ends. Yet, for the most part each chapter of his work can be seen much as an introduction to the concepts, as the work is not long enough for Diner to truly develop all the lines of reasoning and thought he opens.
For the most part Diner assesses the origins of the Progressive Era as seeded in the public i.e. The worker redefining what their relationship was to work and trying desperately to eek out a new life that was dictated by a job that also produced immense social and cultural change in the form of massive production of new technology, much of which was objects and items to increase productivity in every sphere, from communication to household work. Yet, Diner also stresses that all reform did not benefit the worker and was not seeded in a pure worker's movement, as it was a collection of compromises among competing groups for more or less power in their own particular environment. Diner contends that the Progressive Era, in history has been clouded by the idea that corporate and governmental reform as the solid issues of recompense during the era, but that in reality it was the changed and changing lives of individuals that really marks the period. His work is an attempt to marry the developments of social, economic and cultural histories to develop a concise ideology that allowed some groups reforms, while it left others with only minimal if any fundamental improvements, as a result of the fact that reforms often pitted groups against one another for scarce resources. Overall the work is demonstrative of a very broad observational text that introduces different groups, both cultural and economic as they vied for change that would better benefit their lives and while some were successful, mainly the upper middle classes and professions others were only marginally so, the low wage worker, immigrants, women and African-Americans, at the expense of competition and the growing power of for lack of a better term middle management. The chapters of the work are thematic including; Owners, Mangers and Corporate Capitalism, Industrial Worker's Struggle for Control, Immigrants in Industrial America, Rural Americans and Industrial Capitalism, African-Americans' Quest for Freedom, White Collar Workers in Corporate America, the Competition for Control of the Professions, the Progressive Discourse in American Politics, the Great War and the Competition for Control.
The Progressives, according to Diner were a group of people who developed concepts and concerns and stressed the need for reform, all the while portraying most reform and a bottom up process when in reality everyone was at the table, and owners, managers and political leaders were often at its head. Though reform occurred, according to Diner, the bottom up theory was largely a thematic representation of future hope, rather than real bottom up demands being met. In other words not much reform actually occurred without the consent and vast input of the owner and the high ranking politician in any given area. (48)
When shopkeepers and small distributors railed against the trusts and demanded government action to protect traditional entrepreneurship, they echoed a familiar theme of the progressive Era. Organized farmers demanded regulations of railroad rates and grain elevators and called on government to give farmers control over the marketing of crops. Middle-class reformers, troubled by industrial violence, child labor, arid horrific work conditions, demanded government regulation of factory and mine safety, child and female labor, working conditions and hours. (46)
Diner assesses that the "progressives" were of many faces and demands and some were more successful than others, yet they should not be looked at as wholly independent or even wholly progressive as individual interests were at play as was the powerful voice of those in power. Progressives were then a many faced set of groups waging change demands against who they believed could make such changes and more importantly it was a massive public opinion campaign that built recognition for ideas and standards that had never before been seen as important, i.e. checks and balances to capitalism and the laissez-faire economy. (20)
As an example pertaining to the question, "how progressive was the progressive era?" one must seriously discuss and think about the ramification of reforms that were largely compromises of competing groups and peoples. In the case of the professions Diner stresses that the legitimatization of many "professions" and especially the medical profession was a deliberate attempt on the part of powerful white male doctors to eliminate women and minorities from medical care, which was abundantly successful and had the byproduct and rhetoric of reducing and/or eliminating the snake oil salesmen and other "quaks" along with legitimate healers who had been caring for the health of the local inhabitants rather successfully for many years (midwives, legitimate natural healers and even local barbers) which had the long-term effect of making it much harder for women, lower class individual and minorities to enter the profession of medicine. The short-term effect of this was also the elimination of opportunity to seek medical care if one could not pay for a "well educated" white male doctor. (178-183) Another very clear example of this, give and take approach to the progressive momentum would be the development of trade unions and even the "social work" class that attempted to reform situations and problems seen in the working class setting, with the interests of those on top clearly at the head of the reforms, i.e. making the worker happier so they could produce more work. While the…