Progressivism in the Factory

Advisor: Henry Binford, Associate Professor of History, Northwestern University, National Humanities Center Fellow.

How did Americans define progress during the Progressive Era?


During the Progressive Era, from the 1890s through the 1920s, the idea of progress manifested itself in a variety of ways from cleaning up slums to eliminating government corruption to Americanizing immigrants to standardizing industrial practices. Such initiatives often sought to improve life by applying insights derived from the newly emerging social sciences—disciplines like sociology, psychology, economics, and statistics. Relying on extensive data gathering, professional expertise, and careful management, this scientific strand of Progressivism sought to bring rationality and efficiency to legislative chambers, factory floors, even household kitchens.


Frederick Winslow Taylor, The Principles of Scientific Management, 1910 (excerpt).

Text Type

Informational text with moderately complex meaning, text structure, language features, and knowledge demands. Tier 2 vocabulary words are defined in pop-ups (full list at bottom of page).Tier 3 words are explained in brackets.

Text Complexity

Grades 11-CCR complexity band.
For more information on text complexity see these resources from

Teacher’s Note

The text opens with an example of a paragraph developed, at least partially, through comparison and contrast. It also shows students how a term can be parenthetically defined. Moreover, it illuminates scientific management by suggesting Taylor’s confidence in his method and illustrating the extent to which its goals are as much psychological as industrial. Before managers and workers can take on new duties, they must first think of themselves in new ways. Managers must transform themselves from supervisors to experts in command of detailed knowledge of manufacturing processes, while workers must yield their “initiative” to their jobs with “absolute uniformity,” which we will later see means absolute obedience.

Paragraph 5 and the footnote illustrate the importance of research and data gathering in scientific management and, indeed, in the social sciences that fueled many Progressive reforms. Through research and data gathering, Taylor and his associates decide what workers should do. Note how “top-down” this method is; workers are never consulted about how best to do their jobs. In paragraph 6 we see that Taylor also relies on data gathering and research to select the “little Pennsylvania Dutchman” as his first subject. He always begins with the best worker and uses him to set the rate for everyone else. Remind students that while Taylor is illustrating how scientific management works, he is also arguing to potential clients, like the Bethlehem Iron Company, that it does, in fact, work and that they should hire him to implement it in their operations. Thus to the extent that Taylor is making an argument, the footnote, which is almost a parody of measurement and data gathering, answers skeptics who might challenge his method’s goals and effectiveness.

The first sentence of paragraph 7 is pivotal in the text. Everything that precedes it contextualizes it, and everything that follows illustrates it.

Taylor’s exchange with Schmidt, the “little Pennsylvania Dutchman,” is the heart of the text. It provides an excellent opportunity to explore tone and strategies of persuasion. Taylor adopts an authoritative, intimidating tone that clearly puts him in charge. He isolates Schmidt from his co-workers so that Schmidt has no allies should he decide to resist Taylor’s offer. Note how Taylor manipulates Schmidt by appealing to character traits he has discovered by observing him. The “little” man has middle-class aspirations—he is building a home—and he is close with money—to him a penny looks like a cart wheel. Thus Taylor knows he would be especially susceptible to a proposition, however daunting, that promises to raise his status and bring him more income. Pay particular attention to the way in which Taylor subtly reels out the definition of a “high-priced man” and wins Schmidt’s assent to each new element of the definition before introducing the next. The logic of Taylor’s argument can be summarized as follows: a “high-priced man” behaves in this way; you are a “high-priced man”; therefore, you will behave in this way. Once Schmidt agrees that a “high-priced man” is someone who wants to make more money and that because he wants to make more, he is a “high-priced man,” Taylor knocks him off balance by saying that money has little to do with being a “high-priced man.” He then introduces a second element into the definition: a “high-priced man” loads more pig iron. When Schmidt agrees to load more, Taylor adds yet another element, complete obedience to the manager. He ends the exchange by motivating Schmidt to prove that he is a “high-priced man.” At this point students can explore Taylor’s idea of motivation. For Schmidt the primary motivation seems to be higher wages; he probably would have been willing to accept more work simply for a raise. But Taylor believes that money is not enough, that stimulating pride and individualistic competition is also necessary. Taylor, we discover, is not simply trying to get Schmidt to haul more pig iron; he is trying to get him to buy into a system, scientific management, that, relying as much on psychology as on economics, requires him to recast his image of himself from a worker to a “high-priced man.”

With the final discussion questions — How scientific is scientific management? Did scientific management improve Schmidt’s life? — you can end the lesson with debates about larger issues in Progressivism. Taylor tells us that his method worked: through measurement, data gathering, and psychological manipulation, he enhanced the company’s efficiency and provided Schmidt a way to increase his income. These results cost the Bethlehem Iron Company very little. We are left to speculate how much they cost Schmidt.


Contextualizing Questions

  1. What kind of text are we dealing with?
  2. When was it written?
  3. Who wrote it?
  4. For what audience was it intended?
  5. For what purpose was it written?

Progressivism drew its inspiration from two sources—evangelical Protestantism and the sciences, both the natural and social sciences. In the early nineteenth century evangelical Protestants undertook reforms out of a desire to purge the world of sin. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries they directed their efforts to the ills they found in America’s growing cities. The reforming spirit of Protestantism inspired many who did not embrace the doctrines of Protestantism or its often dark and pessimistic world view. Among these were many social scientists, specialists in such disciplines as psychology, economics, sociology, and statistics. These scientific Progressives conducted experiments and gathered data in an effort to discover the underlying laws that governed human behavior. Armed with such knowledge and with faith in its uplifting and improving power, they optimistically believed they could devise solutions to problems ranging from labor unrest to unsanitary living conditions to inefficient manufacturing. Their interventions were generally characterized by a desire to control natural forces and impose a degree of order on them.

For consulting engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor (1865-1915) the object of control was business efficiency, and he explained how to achieve that goal in The Principles of Scientific Management (1910), one of the most influential books of the twentieth century. His meticulous time and motion studies helped transform the United States from a country of small workshops plying local trades to a country of huge factories supporting national industries. He promoted the development of large efficient manufacturing organizations by structuring work according to strict rules of reason, determined through the systematic study of interactions among job requirements, tools, methods, and human skills. His most important client was Bethlehem Iron Company, later Bethlehem Steel. In the excerpt presented here, his goal is to bring a pig iron handler to his highest efficiency, which means increasing the amount of iron he hauls from 28,000 pounds per day to 106,400 pounds.

Text Analysis

The Principles of Scientific Management

Close Reading Questions

What technique of paragraph development does Taylor use in paragraph 1? What is the effect of Taylor’s use of parallelism: “Under the old type of management…,” “Under scientific management…”? How does Taylor define “initiative”? What is the effect of the word “absolute”? Read the sentence without it. Does it change the meaning, the tone? Why might Taylor have used it?

What are the psychological goals of scientific management? How does scientific management affect workers? Under scientific management how does the role of the manager change? List the words in paragraphs 1 and 2 that characterize scientific management.

1. Under the old type of management success depends almost entirely upon getting the “initiative” of the workmen, and it is indeed a rare case in which this initiative is really attained. Under scientific management the “initiative” of the workmen (that is, their hard work, their goodwill, and their ingenuity) is obtained with absolute uniformity and to a greater extent than is possible under the old system; and in addition to this improvement on the part of the men, the managers assume new burdens, new duties, and responsibilities never dreamed of in the past. The managers assume, for instance, the burden of gathering together all of the traditional knowledge which in the past has been possessed by the workmen and then of classifying, tabulating, and reducing this knowledge to rules, laws, and formulæ which are immensely helpful to the workmen in doing their daily work….

2. It is this combination of the initiative of the workmen, coupled with the new types of work done by the management, that makes scientific management so much more efficient than the old plan….

3. One of the first pieces of work undertaken by us, when the writer started to introduce scientific management into the Bethlehem Steel Company, was to handle pig iron on task work….

4. The Bethlehem Steel Company had five blast furnaces, the product of which had been handled by a pig-iron gang for many years. This gang, at this time, consisted of about 75 men. They were good, average pig-iron handlers, were under an excellent foreman who himself had been a pig-iron handler, and the work was done, on the whole, about as fast and as cheaply as it was anywhere else at that time….

What aspects of science are illustrated in paragraph 5 and the footnote? How would you describe the scientific management approach to work? Cite evidence from the text to support your description. Whose interests is Taylor serving, those of the management or those of the workers? Cite evidence from the text to support your answer.
5. We found that this gang were loading on the average about 12½ long tons [one ton = 2,240 pounds] per man per day. We were surprised to find, after studying the matter, that a first-class pig-iron handler ought to handle between 47* and 48 long tons per day, instead of 12½ tons…. It was our duty to see that the 80,000 tons of pig iron was loaded on to the [railroad] cars at the rate of 47 tons per man per day, in place of 12½ tons, at which rate the work was then being done. And it was further our duty to see that this work was done without bringing on a strike among the men, without any quarrel with the men, and to see that the men were happier and better contented when loading at the new rate of 47 tons than they were when loading at the old rate of 12½ tons.
What does Taylor mean by “scientific selection”? In what ways is the selection of the “little Pennsylvania Dutchman” “scientific”? What qualities did Schmidt possess that led Taylor to choose him? Cite evidence from the text to support your answer.
6. Our first step was the scientific selection of the workman. In dealing with workmen under this type of management, it is an inflexible rule to talk to and deal with only one man at a time, since each workman has his own special abilities and limitations, and since we are not dealing with men in masses, but are trying to develop each individual man to his highest state of efficiency and prosperity…. [W]e selected… a little Pennsylvania Dutchman who had been observed to trot back home for a mile or so after his work in the evening about as fresh as he was when he came trotting down to work in the morning. We found that upon wages of $1.15 a day he had succeeded in buying a small plot of ground, and that he was engaged in putting up the walls of a little house for himself in the morning before starting to work and at night after leaving. He also had the reputation of being exceedingly “close,” that is, of placing a very high value on a dollar. As one man whom we talked to about him said, “A penny looks about the size of a cartwheel to him.” This man we will call Schmidt.
Could the first sentence of paragraph 7 serve as the thesis sentence of this entire text? Support your answer with evidence from the text. Why is it important to separate Schmidt from his fellow workers? Characterize the tone with which Taylor addresses Schmidt. Cite language from the text to support your characterization. Why does he adopt this tone? What does it suggest about his attitude toward Schmidt?

7. The task before us, then, narrowed itself down to getting Schmidt to handle 47 tons of pig iron per day and making him glad to do it. This was done as follows. Schmidt was called out from among the gang of pig-iron handlers and talked to somewhat in this way:

“Schmidt, are you a high-priced man?”
“Vell, I don’t know vat you mean.”
“Oh yes, you do. What I want to know is whether you are a high-priced man or not.”
“Vell, I don’t know vat you mean.”

Why does Taylor insist that Schmidt knows what a “high-priced man” is? Why does Taylor compare Schmidt to “cheap fellows”? What image of Schmidt does Taylor construct? How does he do it?
8. “Oh, come now, you answer my questions. What I want to find out is whether you are a high-priced man or one of these cheap fellows here. What I want to find out is whether you want to earn $1.85 a day or whether you are satisfied with $1.15, just the same as all those cheap fellows are getting.”
What does the contrast between Schmidt’s language and Taylor’s suggest?
9. “Did I vant $1.85 a day? Vas dot a high-priced man? Vell, yes, I vas a high-priced man.”
Why does Taylor claim to be aggravated when Schmidt answers his question?

10. “Oh, you’re aggravating me. Of course you want $1.85 a day — every one wants it! You know perfectly well that that has very little to do with your being a high-priced man. For goodness’ sake answer my questions, and don’t waste any more of my time. Now come over here. You see that pile of pig iron?”

“You see that [railroad] car?”

Why does Taylor keep asking Schmidt if he is a “high-priced man”?

11. “Well, if you are a high-priced man, you will load that pig iron on that car tomorrow for $1.85. Now do wake up and answer my question. Tell me whether you are a high-priced man or not.”

“Vell — did I got $1.85 for loading dot pig iron on dot car tomorrow?”

Note where Taylor uses phrases like “You know perfectly well” and “You know it just as well as I do.” Why does he use them? What effect would they have on Schmidt?

12. “Yes, of course you do, and you get $1.85 for loading a pile like that every day right through the year. That is what a high-priced man does, and you know it just as well as I do.”

13. “Vell, dot’s all right. I could load dot pig iron on the car tomorrow for $1.85, and I get it every day, don’t I?”

“Certainly you do — certainly you do.”
“Vell, den, I vas a high-priced man.”

14. “Now, hold on, hold on. You know just as well as I do that a high-priced man has to do exactly as he’s told from morning till night. You have seen this man here before, haven’t you?”

“No, I never saw him.”

Taylor uses the “if-then” construction in paragraphs 11 and 15: “if you are a high-priced man, [“then” implied], you will…” Why does he use it? How does it maneuver Schmidt to agree with him? How does Taylor challenge Schmidt to prove that he is a “high-priced man”? Citing language from the text, show how Taylor gradually defines what it means to be a “high-priced man.” Why does he define the term in steps? What finally does it mean to be a “high-priced man”? Summarize the logic of the argument Taylor presents to get Schmidt to agree to his new workload.
15. “Well, if you are a high-priced man, you will do exactly as this man tells you tomorrow, from morning till night. When he tells you to pick up a pig and walk, you pick it up and you walk, and when he tells you to sit down and rest, you sit down. You do that right straight through the day. And what’s more, no back talk. Now a high-priced man does just what he’s told to do, and no back talk. Do you understand that? When this man tells you to walk, you walk; when he tells you to sit down, you sit down, and you don’t talk back at him. Now you come on to work here tomorrow morning and I’ll know before night whether you are really a high-priced man or not.”
What is Taylor’s idea of motivation? Why does he not simply offer Schmidt a raise for taking on more work? How does scientific management embody the values of Progressivism? How does Taylor’s exchange with Schmidt reveal class differences in the goals of Progressivism? Support your answer with evidence from the text.
16. This seems to be rather rough talk. And indeed it would be if applied to an educated mechanic, or even an intelligent laborer. With a man of the mentally sluggish type of Schmidt it is appropriate and not unkind, since it is effective in fixing his attention on the high wages which he wants and away from what, if it were called to his attention, he probably would consider impossibly hard work….
How scientific is scientific management? Did scientific management improve Schmidt’s life? Support your answer with evidence from the text.
17. Schmidt started to work, and all day long, and at regular intervals, was told by the man who stood over him with a watch, “Now pick up a pig and walk. Now sit down and rest. Now walk — now rest,” etc. He worked when he was told to work, and rested when he was told to rest, and at half-past five in the afternoon had his 47½ tons loaded on the car. And he practically never failed to work at this pace and do the task that was set him during the three years that the writer was at Bethlehem. And throughout this time he averaged a little more than $1.85 per day, whereas before he had never received over $1.15 per day, which was the ruling rate of wages at that time in Bethlehem….
What role does the footnote play in convincing Taylor’s readers that scientific management works?

*Many people have questioned the accuracy of the statement that first-class workmen can load 47½ tons of pig iron from the ground on to a car in a day. For those who are skeptical, therefore, the following data relating to this work are given:

First. That our experiments indicated the existence of the following law: that a first-class laborer, suited to such work as handling pig iron, could be under load only 42 percent of the day and must be free from load 58 percent of the day.

Second. That a man in loading pig iron from piles placed on the ground in an open field on to a car which stood on a track adjoining these piles, ought to handle (and that they did handle regularly) 47½ long tons (2240 pounds per ton) per day….

A pig-iron handler walks on the level at the rate of one foot in 0.006 minutes. The average distance of the piles of pig iron from the car was 36 feet. It is a fact, however, that many of the pig-iron handlers ran with their pig as soon as they reached the inclined plank. Many of them also would run down the plank after loading the car. So that when the actual loading went on, many of them moved at a faster rate than is indicated by the above figures….

If anyone who is interested in these figures will multiply them and divide them, one into the other, in various ways, he will find that all of the facts stated check up exactly. [Footnote in original] Return to text.

Follow-Up Assignment

Write an essay explaining how and why, if at all, the following passage might be labeled “Progressive.” [From Household Engineering: Scientific Management in the Home by Christine Frederick, 1920.]

Time Studies of Dishwashing

When we say “dishwashing,” we commonly think of a single household task. But when closely analyzed and made the subject of a time or motion study, we see that it is composed of several parts or steps, each with different motions, and generally performed with different tools, as follows:

  1. Scraping waste from surface of china, agate or other kind of dish or utensil.
  2. Stacking or arranging dishes on surface adjacent to [next to] sink, preparatory to washing.
  3. Actual washing with water, soap or other cleanser, with aid of cloth, mop or other mechanical means.
  4. Rinsing dishes with clear water.
  5. Wiping dishes with towel or equivalent drying.
  6. Laying away dishes on or in respective shelves and cupboards.

The efficiency of the whole process of “dishwashing” can be improved only by increasing the efficiency of each step. From careful experiments made with dishwashing over a period of two months and analysis of each of the six steps in the dishwashing process, the following results were obtained:

Test A Test B
Number of dishes 50 50
Scraping and stacking 7 minutes 7 minutes
Washing and rinsing 11 minutes 10 minutes
Wiping 13 minutes 2 minutes
Laying away 8 minutes 4 minutes
Total Time 41 minutes [sic] 23 minutes


  • tabulating: organizing or arranging
  • formulae: plural of formula

Image: Photograph captioned “Carrying away and loading the pigs (pig iron), blast furnace, Pittsburg, Pa,” stereograph card by the Keystone View Co., ca. 1905 (detail). Courtesy of the Lbrary of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-69682.

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