The term derives from the word muckrake used by President Theodore Roosevelt in a speech in 1906, in which he agreed with many of the charges of the muckrakers but asserted that some of their methods were sensational and irresponsible. He compared them to a character from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress who could look no way but downward with a muckrake in his hands and was interested only in raking the filth.
Since the 1870s there had been recurrent efforts at reform in government, politics, and business, but it was not until the advent of the national mass-circulation magazines such as McClure’s, Everybody’s, and Collier’s that the muckrakers were provided with sufficient funds for their investigations and with a large enough audience to arouse nationwide concern.
All aspects of American life interested the muckrakers, the most famous of whom are Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell, David Graham Phillips, Ray Stannard Baker, Samuel Hopkins Adams, and Upton Sinclair. In the early 1900s magazine articles that attacked trusts—including those of Charles E. Russell on the beef trust, Thomas Lawson on Amalgamated Copper, and Burton J. Hendrick on life insurance companies—did much to create public demand for regulation of the great combines.
The muckraking movement lost support in about 1912. Historians agree that if it had not been for the revelations of the muckrakers the Progressive movement would not have received the popular support needed for effective reform.