Welcome to The Jungle: the story of adopting two food safety laws

Stephen Kosnar
Accra, Ghana

 

In the heart of the Great Union Stock Yards, Chicago, U.S.A. Kelley & Chadwick. C.1909. Accessed from the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs catalog.

In 1912 my great-grandfather Matthew Kosnar collected his family in rural Bohemia and began a journey that would take them by train, ship, and train again, nearly 6000 miles to their final destination in Chicago, Illinois.

Matthew and his two oldest sons began working immediately, and his youngest son, John (my grandfather), who was a small boy, enrolled in school.

After two years, the family saved enough money for a down payment on a house at Robey and 53rd, which fulfilled Matthew’s need to be walking distance from his job at Morris and Company.

Curious what his father did all day, John skipped school one morning and ventured from his home in the “Back of the Yards” neighborhood to the nearby Union Stock Yards.

From opening day in 1865 to 1900, approximately 400 million animals passed through the Union Stock Yards, which at its peak stretched nearly one square mile from Halstead Street to Ashland Avenue and 39th Street to 45th Street.1,2 For almost a century it was the largest livestock market in the world.3

On the morning John arrived at Morris and Company, he looked inside a building and discovered a horror show. There were sounds of screaming animals, the pungent smell of animal waste, and cattle carcasses hanging in the air. Blood pooled on the floor along with bits of offal; and in a corner of the building, John’s father held a large mallet in his hand. Matthew raised the mallet in the air and brought it crashing down on a cow’s head. John turned and ran from the building. He never told his father he had seen him, and he never returned inside the stockyards.

Given what John witnessed, it is difficult to imagine that the conditions he saw were an improvement from just a few years earlier; but they were. In 1905 New York writer Upton Sinclair was commissioned by Appeals to Reason, a socialist newspaper, to write about the conditions of workers in Chicago’s meat packing industry. Sinclair went undercover in the Union Stock Yards, and the result of his observations and conversations became the material for his novel The Jungle. Appeals to Reason serialized the novel in 1905, and Sinclair found a publisher for the entire novel the following year.4

The book gained instant success, selling millions of copies as well as being translated into over a dozen languages.5 Ironically, Sinclair wrote the novel to bring awareness to the plight of meat packing workers and to promote his socialist political views; however, the popularity of the novel came from another source: the public’s outrage over unsanitary meat produced at the Union Stock Yards. Sinclair would later write in an article for Cosmopolitan Magazine: “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”6

Chicago – Meat Packing Industry – Swift & Co.’s
Packing House: cutting up hogs, removing hams
and shoulders. c1905. Accessed from the
Library of Congress Prints &
Photographs catalog.

In The Jungle, Jurgis Rudkus, a Lithuanian immigrant, settles in Packingtown, the neighborhood adjacent to the Union Stock Yards. (Packingtown was the real name of the area and later would be better known as the “Back of the Yards.”) Jurgis struggles against harsh living and work conditions, dishonest businessmen, and corrupt politicians. Early in the book, industrialized meat packing thrills the neophyte Jurgis, who is captivated by the modern machinery and the intensity of the workers. The luster quickly wears away when Jurgis and his family come face-to-face with meat packing practices:

There was never the least attention paid to what was cut up for sausage…There would be meat that had tumbled out on the floor, in the dirt and sawdust, where the workers had tramped and spit uncounted billions of consumption germs. There would be meat stored in great piles in rooms; and the water from leaky roofs would drip over it, and thousands of rats would race about on it. It was too dark in these storage places to see well, but a man could run his hand over these piles of meat and sweep off handfuls of the dried dung of rats. These rats were nuisances, and the packers would put poisoned bread out for them; they would die, and then rats, bread, and meat would go into the hoppers together.7

Sinclair was not the only one writing about the conditions of the meat packing industry; for example, The Lancet published articles, and Charles Edward Russell wrote a well-received non-fiction book The Greatest Trust in the World.8 The Jungle, nevertheless, reached the greatest number of readers and caused the strongest reaction.

Historians like Louise Carroll Wade have taken issue with Sinclair’s distorting and exaggerating the reality inside the stockyards and Packingtown neighborhood; and there is no denying the sensational nature of the prose.9 Furthermore, a close literary critique of the novel reveals weaknesses in the story because of its political preaching. There is also, however, no denying the novel’s ability to influence and move people. In his introduction to the Oxford World’s Classics edition of The Jungle, Professor Russ Castronovo states that the only other American novel to have as much social and political impact as The Jungle is Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which influenced society’s views on slavery.10

In 1906 Sinclair sent President Theodore Roosevelt a copy of The Jungle. Roosevelt knew of Sinclair from his socialist writing and did not approve of Sinclair’s politics.11

Roosevelt read Sinclair’s novel, and while it motivated him to act, he remained skeptical of the veracity of the details — feeling Sinclair was politically motivated to portray the industry in the worst light.12 As a result, Roosevelt commissioned Charles P. Neill, Commissioner of the Bureau of Labor, and James Bronson Reynolds, a social worker, to investigate the meat packing industry in Chicago.13

Splitting backbones and final inspection – hogs ready for cooler, Swift & Co., Chicago. c1906 Feb. 24. Accessed from the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs catalog.

While the report does not match Sinclair’s novel point-for-point with regard to unsanitary conditions, it confirmed much of the novel. In one section of the report, the authors describe a hog that had fallen off a hook, hit the ground, and slid part way into a bathroom. The hog was retrieved and, without being cleaned, reintroduced for processing.14

The strongest condemnation came in a section titled “Sanitary Conveniences.” Neill and Reynolds describe the “abominable” condition of the privies and go on to say even worse was the absence of supplies for workers to wash their hands. In some cases, sinks were non-existent. Workers with unsanitary hands returned to their stations and handled the meat. The section concludes by stating that the distance was so great to some of the privies that workers often urinated on the floors of their workstations or in the corner of the workrooms; and the urine, along with the blood from animals, soaked into the wood floors.15

With regard to public health, cholera and typhoid were major health concerns in the Union Stock Yards area and infant mortality rates were higher in Packingtown than other parts of the city.16 In addition, the waste from the Union Stock Yards and Packingtown flowed into the South Fork of the Chicago River. The resulting gases, from decomposing waste, earned the section of river the name “Bubbly Creek.”17

After reading the Neill and Reynolds report Roosevelt wrote a message to Congress: “The conditions shown by even this short inspection to exist in the Chicago stock yards are revolting. It is imperatively necessary in the interest of health and of decency that they should be radically changed. Under the existing law it is wholly impossible to secure satisfactory results.”18

In 1906 Sinclair and other writers did not start a completely new movement to create better food quality laws. Bills had been circulating for over a decade. But previous efforts at creating new laws had stalled.19 Now with Roosevelt (who had invited Sinclair to the White House to talk about Chicago meat packing) fully behind the food safety movement, two bills, the Pure Foods and Drugs Act of 1906 and the Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906, moved quickly through Congress. Roosevelt wasted no time signing both into law.20,21 The new legislation made it illegal to manufacture, sell, or transport harmful food and assured that livestock was slaughtered and processed in a sanitary fashion. As a result of the Federal Meat Inspection Act, the Bureau of Animal Industry hired 1,300 inspectors and set up eight meat testing laboratories throughout the country.22

Upton Sinclair went on to write dozens of novels. His novel Dragon’s Teeth, about an American in Germany during the rise of the Nazis and Adolph Hitler, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1943.23 None of the books, however, came close to having the social and political impact of The Jungle.

Matthew’s son never forgot the shock he felt seeing his father working in the Union Stock Yards. Nevertheless, he had a happy childhood growing up in the Back of the Yards, where he enjoyed playing baseball between 52nd and 53rd and chasing trains passing through the neighborhood.

 

References

  1. Union Stockyard and Transit Co. http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/2883.html. Accessed April 14, 2019.
  2. Pate, J’Nell L. America’s Historic Stockyards: Livestock Hotels. Fort Worth: TCU Press; 2005: 78. https://books.google.com.gh/books?id=ho8Te_Qf4NEC&pg=PA75&lpg=PA75&dq=carl+sandburg+stockyards+chicago&source=bl&ots=VhCPkBOXo5&sig=ACfU3U1NOAiDFOhNEUhENAQG8eOwhGzJqg&hl =en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjAmvn5pc_hAhV6SBUIHVhLD5k4ChDoATABegQIBxAB#v=onepage&q=carl%20sandburg%20stockyards%20chicago&f=false. Accessed April 14, 2019.
  3. Ibid, p. 78.
  4. Upton, Sinclair. Castronovo, Russ, ed. The Jungle. Oxford World’s Classics Edition: New York: Oxford University Press; 2010: https://books.google.com/books?id=d6Fu7_1NuTsC&printsec=frontcover&dq=meat+packing&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwj3tY-JqMrhAhUOnZ4KHVxQDRIQ6AEIKDAA#v=onepage&q=meat%20packing&f=false. Accessed April 14, 2019.
  5. Slotnik, Daniel E. Upton Sinclair, Whose Muckraking Changed the Meat Industry. New York Times. June 30, 2016. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/projects/cp/obituaries/archives/upton-sinclair-meat-industry. Accessed April 14, 2019.
  6. Sinclair, Upton. What Life Means. Cosmopolitan Magazine. October 1906. http://dlib.nyu.edu/undercover/what-life-means-me. Accessed April 14, 2019.
  7. Sinclair, Upton. The Jungle. New York: Doubleday, Page & Company; 1906. https://ia802706.us.archive.org/29/items/jungle00sinc/jungle00sinc.pdf. Accessed April 14, 2019.
  8. Wade, Louise Carroll. The Problem with Classroom Use of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. American Studies, 32(2) 1991, 79-101. https://journals.ku.edu/amerstud/article/view/2885. Accessed April 14, 2019.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Upton, Sinclair. Castronovo, Russ, ed. The Jungle. Oxford World’s Classics Edition: New York: Oxford University Press; 2010: https://books.google.com/books?id=d6Fu7_1NuTsC&printsec=frontcover&dq=meat+packing&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwj3tY-JqMrhAhUOnZ4KHVxQDRIQ6AEIKDAA#v=onepage&q=meat%20packing&f=false. Accessed April 14, 2019.
  11. The Jungle. Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University. https://www.theodorerooseveltcenter.org/Learn-About-TR/TR-Encyclopedia/Reading-and-Writing/The-Jungle. Accessed April 14, 2019.
  12. Letter to Upton Sinclair: Theodore Roosevelt, March 15, 1906. https://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/to-upton-sinclair/. Accessed April 15, 2019.
  13. Commisioners: Charles P. Neill. https://www.bls.gov/bls/history/commissioners/neill.htm. Accessed April 14, 2019.
  14. Report on Chicago Stockyards. https://history.house.gov/HouseRecord/Detail/15032448817. Accessed April 15, 2019.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Washington, Sylvia Hood. Packing Them In: An Archaeology of Environmental Racism in Chicago, 1865–1954. Bloomington Indiana: iUniverse; 2017: 75-91. https://books.google.com/books?id=4ZOaAAAAQBAJ&lpg=PA76&dq=1900%20chicago%20stockyards&pg=PA76#v=onepage&q=1900%20chicago%20stockyards&f=false. Accessed April 14, 2019.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Report on Chicago Stockyards. https://history.house.gov/HouseRecord/Detail/15032448817. Accessed April 15, 2019.
  19. Wade, Louise Carroll. The Problem with Classroom Use of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. American Studies, 32(2) 1991, 79-101. https://journals.ku.edu/amerstud/article/view/2885. Accessed April 14, 2019.
  20. Part I: The 1906 Food and Drugs Act and Its Enforcement. https://www.fda.gov/AboutFDA/History/FOrgsHistory/EvolvingPowers/ucm054819.htm. Accessed April 14, 2019.
  21. Celebrating 100 Years of FMIA. https://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/wcm/connect/fsis-content/fsis-questionable-content/celebrating-100-years-of-fmia/overview/ct_index. Accessed April 14, 2019.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Slotnik, Daniel E. Upton Sinclair, Whose Muckraking Changed the Meat Industry. New York Times. June 30, 2016. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/projects/cp/obituaries/archives/upton-sinclair-meat-industry. Accessed April 14, 2019.

 


 

STEPHEN KOSNAR is a freelance writer interested in healthcare topics. He has written for the Medical Review of North Carolina as well as the Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He currently lives in Accra, Ghana, with his wife, a physician, and three children.

 

Spring 2019  |  Hektorama  |  History Essays