Don't Read This Over Dinner
The "knocker" went first, hitting the cow over the head with a sledgehammer. Another man strung the beast up with a chain. Still another slit it open. The killing floor, half an inch deep in blood and guts, bubbled and steamed in the summer. In the winter, fingers were accidentally sliced off numbed hands. Great hunks of meat were carved from hanging cows. If all had gone well, they were already dead.
But as Upton Sinclair made very clear in his 1906 novel, The Jungle, Chicago's meatpacking operation in the early 1900s did not always go well. The muckraking journalist spent seven weeks in what was then the world's largest meat center, listening to the stories of workers, touring several plants, and seeing for himself what went on behind the closed doors of the industry. An ardent socialist, he hoped his novel, a fictionalized account of one Lithuanian immigrant's struggles to survive in Packingtown, would expose the exploitation of the men who worked in the grim plants.
Chophouse. It was his descriptions of meat, though, that most concerned Americans. Even President Theodore Roosevelt seemed to be more shocked by the details of how cattle and hogs were being sliced into beef and pork--and by how much condemned meat was ending up on American dinner tables--than by the workers' plight. Within a matter of months, Sinclair's book became an international bestseller and sparked legislation regulating the meat industry for the first time. "I aimed for the public's heart," Sinclair wrote later, "and by accident I hit it in the stomach."
Industrial-style slaughter existed on a grand scale when The Jungle was published. Some 13 million cows, hogs, and sheep were shipped each year to the Chicago stockyards from as far away as Texas. And every day, tens of thousands were dismantled, piece by piece. One quarter of the animals slaughtered in the United States in the 1890s met their doom on the killing floors of Chicago.
But this modern marvel had a dark side. Competition among the small groups of meatpacking operations had forced the system to move too fast, Sinclair insisted. Workers didn't have time to make allowances for sanitation. "This is no fairy story and no joke," he wrote, describing meat-filled storage rooms teeming with rats. Even when the vermin were poisoned, "the meat would be shovelled into carts, and the man who did the shovelling would not trouble to lift out a rat even when he saw one--there were things that went into the sausage in comparison with which a poisoned rat was a tidbit." Condemned meat was dosed with borax and glycerin, recolored with other chemicals, and sold. Tuberculosis in cattle was welcomed, Sinclair said, "because it made them fatten more quickly." The creek outside the plants, filled with refuse and chemicals, was so polluted it would occasionally catch fire.
Work hazards. As for the workers, well, "it was to be counted as a wonder," Sinclair wrote, "that there were not more men slaughtered than cattle." Beef-boners suffered so many knife wounds that few could use their thumbs. Pluckers who had to handle acid-treated wool had their fingers slowly burned off. Men would occasionally fall into vats of lard: Sometimes, Sinclair wrote grimly, "they would be overlooked for days, till all but the bones of them had gone out to the world as Durham's Pure Leaf Lard!"
A team of government investigators confirmed the book's facts, and Roosevelt threw his weight behind legislation to regulate the industry. Four months after The Jungle was published, Congress passed the Meat Inspection Act, which established sanitary standards, and the Pure Food and Drug Act, which required accurate labeling of food and empowered federal inspectors to prosecute plant owners.
Perfect laws they were not, and enforcement lagged until well into the 1930s. But they were the beginning of a safer meat industry--if not, as Sinclair had hoped, better lives for the workers who made it run.
This story appears in the August 15, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.