Life in the Fast Lane: the Rapid Change and Growth of America in the Early 20th Century

High School / Social Studies & US History
Author: Jenna Leigh Wilson, Ridgewood, New Jersey



Lesson Description

In this lesson, students will be examining a series of paintings that highlight America’s change into an industrial society, full of machines, factories, and pollution. Discussion will focus on the benefits and drawbacks of the Industrial Age and how different groups might be reacting to this rapid change. The lesson serves as a bridge between Industrialism/the Gilded Age and Progressivism, introducing the Progressive Movement to the class for further exploration.


Students will be able to

  • identify key changes brought on by the Industrial Revolution
  • evaluate the Industrial Revolution’s effects on American society 
  • articulate affordances and constraints of life in the industrial world



New Jersey Core Content Standards for Social Studies, 2009: U.S. History

6.1.12.A.5.a Relate industrial growth to the need for social and governmental reforms.

6.1.12.B.5.b Assess the impact of rapid urbanization on the environment and on the quality of life in cities.



  • color handouts of American Landscape and From Brooklyn Heights
  • notebooks and a writing utensil



Belief in moderate political change and especially social improvement by governmental action, emerging in response to the vast changes brought on by industrialization.



The class will begin with an image of Edward Hopper’s House by the Railroad displayed on the overhead.  Students are asked to closely examine the painting, jot down a few points about what they see, and be prepared to discuss their findings.  After a few minutes have passed, the teacher will ask the class to describe what they see (hopefully, the students will notice the Victorian house in the background while the railroad – a symbol of progress and industrialism – sticks out in the foreground).  Teacher should steer the conversation toward whether the students think the artwork is praising the new changes taking hold of American society or criticizing them (or whether the work is neutral).  This will lead into a discussion of how different groups in society are reacting to the industrial, technological, and urban growth of America.

Group Discussion
Working in groups of four, students will brainstorm the different ways people are benefitting and suffering from the effects of the Industrial Revolution (for instance, capitalist entrepreneurs and investors might be gaining vast fortunes as a result of the industrial boom, while immigrants might be forced to accept low-paying, dangerous factory work just to survive). 
After about ten minutes, the teacher will ask the groups to discuss the results of their brainstorming session and use the students ideas to lead into a discussion that focuses on the people who are not happy with the changes that are taking place in society.  The class will discuss what sort of things might be done to help these people, since the Industrial Age is here to stay.  During this part of the lesson, the teacher will introduce the concept of Progressivism, defining it and providing a background of the movement – why it began, whom it consisted of, and whom it was meant to benefit. 

Art Connection

Each group will then be given a color print of either American Landscape or From Brooklyn Heights.  Students in the group will each be assigned a role: wealthy industrialist, Italian immigrant, middle class factory owner, and Progressive reformer.  With their assigned role in mind, students should examine the painting and interpret its meaning.  In character, the students will discuss with other group members the things that stand out to them in the artwork and why.
As a wrap-up and means to check that students understand the various perspectives as play, students will pretend that their assigned character is “in” the painting and must write a short letter to a family member reacting to their surroundings.  This letter will be collected at the end of the lesson.




Picturing America Image:
Edward Hopper

House by the Railroad, 1925

Oil on Canvas

The Museum of Modern Art


Picturing America Image:
Charles Sheeler
American Landscape (1930)
Oil on Canvas
Museum of Modern Art Collection




Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication does not necessarily reflect those of the National Endowment for the Arts.