Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle: Muckraking the Meat-Packing Industry
foundation of constitutional rights bill of rights in action
Fall 2008 (Volume 24, #1)
communism, capitalism and democracy in china | upton sinclair is the jungle | john dewey and the reconstruction of american democracy
Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle to expose the appalling working conditions in the meat-packing industry. His description of diseased, rotten, and contaminated meat shocked the public and led to new federal food safety laws.
before the turn of the 20th century, a major reform movement had emerged in the united states. Known as progressives, the reformers were reacting to problems caused by the rapid growth of factories and cities. progressives at first focused on improving the lives of those living in slums and getting rid of corruption in the government.
by the turn of the century, progressives had begun attacking large corporations like standard oil, u.s. steel, and the armored meatpacking company for its unfair practices. progressives revealed how these companies eliminated competition, set high prices, and treated workers like “wage slaves”.
The progressives differed, however, on the best way to control these big companies. some progressives wanted to break up big corporations with antitrust laws. others thought that regulation by the state or federal government would be more effective. a growing minority argued in favor of socialism, public ownership of industries. the owners of the big industries rejected all these proposals: they demanded that they be left alone to run their businesses as they saw fit.
theodore roosevelt was president when the progressive reformers were gaining strength. assuming the presidency in 1901 after the assassination of william mckinley, he remained in the white house until 1909. roosevelt favored large-scale business. “The corporation is here to stay,” he declared. but he favored government regulation of them “with due consideration of the public as a whole”.
Roosevelt did not always approve of progressive-minded journalists and other writers who exposed what he saw as corporate injustices. when david phillips, a progressive journalist, wrote a series of articles attacking us. Senators from both political parties for serving the interests of big business rather than the people, President Roosevelt thought Phillips had gone too far. he referred to him as a man with a “rake”.
Still, Roosevelt had to admit, “there is dirt on the floor, and it needs to be raked up.” the term “pickup” caught on. he was referring to investigative writers who exposed the dark side of society.
Few places had more “dirt on the floor” than Chicago meatpacking houses. Upton Sinclair, a largely unknown fiction writer, became an “accidental assembler” when he wrote a novel about the meatpacking industry.
in the early 1900s, four large meatpacking corporations had bought out the many small slaughterhouse companies throughout the United States. because they were so large, the armored companies, swift, morris and national packing could dictate prices to ranchers, feed producers and consumers.
The big four meatpacking companies centralized their operations in a few cities. the largest of all was the meatpacking industry in chicago. it spread across acres of stockyards, feedlots, slaughterhouses, and meat processing plants. Along with the nearby housing area where the workers lived, this part of Chicago was known as Packingtown.
Long before Henry Ford adapted it for automobile production, meat packers had developed the first industrial assembly line. it was more accurately a “disassembly line,” requiring nearly 80 separate jobs from slaughtering an animal to processing its meat for sale. the “killing gangs” had jobs as “beaters”, “rippers”, “leg breakers” and “gutters”. animal carcasses were continually moved on hooks until they were processed into , pickled, and canned meats. organs, bones, fat, and other waste ended up as butter, soap, and fertilizer. workers said meatpacking plants “used everything but the squeal.”
Unskilled immigrant men did the grueling and often dangerous work, working in dark, unventilated rooms that were hot in summer and unheated in winter. many stood all day on floors covered in blood, scraps of meat, and dirty water, clutching sledgehammers and knives. women and children over the age of 14 worked cutting meat, making sausages, and canning.
Most workers earned just pennies an hour and worked 10 hours a day, six days a week. some skilled workers, however, earned as much as 50 cents an hour as “markers”, who sped up the assembly line to maximize production. the use of pacemakers caused great discontent among the workers.
in 1904, most of the workers at the chicago packing house were recent immigrants from poland, slovakia, and lithuania. they crammed into tenement apartments and rented rooms in the packing town, next to the city’s stinking cattle pens and four landfills.
Realtors sold small houses to some immigrants on credit, knowing that few would be able to keep up with the payments due to layoffs, pay cuts or disabling injuries. when an immigrant fell behind in payments, the mortgage holder foreclosed, repainted, and sold the home to another immigrant family.
Born in Baltimore in 1878, Upton Sinclair came from an old Virginian family. the civil war had wiped out the family’s wealth and land. Sinclair’s father became a liquor peddler and alcoholic. the future author’s mother wanted him to be a minister. at age 5 he wrote his first story. he was talking about a pig that ate a pin, which ended up in a family’s sausage.
When he was 10 years old, Sinclair’s family moved to New York City, where he attended school and college. While he was attending Columbia University, he began selling stories to magazines. he specialized in western, adventure, sports, and war hero fiction for working-class readers.
Sinclair graduated from Columbia in 1897 and three years later married Meta Fuller. They had a child. Sinclair began writing novels, but had difficulty getting them published.
While struggling to make a living as a writer, he began reading about socialism. he came to believe in the idea of a peaceful revolution in which Americans would vote to have the government take over ownership of big business. he joined the socialist party in 1903, and a year later he began writing for appeal to reason , a socialist magazine.
In 1904, the Chicago Meatpackers Union went on strike, demanding better wages and working conditions. The four big companies broke the strike and the union brought strikebreakers to replace those who were on strike. the new workers kept the assembly lines running while the strikers and their families fell into poverty.
the editor of appeal to reason suggested that sinclair write a novel about the strike. Sinclair, at age 26, went to Chicago in late 1904 to investigate the strike and the conditions suffered by meatpacking workers. he interviewed them, their families, lawyers, doctors, and social workers. he personally observed the appalling conditions inside meatpacking plants.
The Jungle is Sinclair’s fictional account of Chicago’s packinghouse. the title reflects his view of the brutality he saw in the meatpacking business. The story centered on a young man, Jurgis Rudkis, who had recently immigrated to Chicago with a group of relatives and friends from Lithuania.
Filled with hope for a better life, Jurgis married and bought a house on credit. he was elated when he landed a job as a “gut shoveler” at “durham”, a fictional company based on armor & Co., Chicago’s leading meat packer.
Jurgis soon learned how the company sped up the assembly line to get more work out of the men for the same pay. she discovered that the company was cheating workers by not paying them anything for working part of an hour.
jurgis saw men in the pickling room with skin conditions. men who used knives on fast-paced assembly lines frequently lost their fingers. the men who transported 100-pound pieces of meat were crippled in the back. workers with tuberculosis were constantly coughing and spitting blood onto the ground. right next to where the meat was being processed, workers used primitive toilets with no soap or water to wash their hands. in some areas there were no toilets and workers had to urinate in a corner. canteens were rare and workers ate where they worked.
Almost as an afterthought, Sinclair included a chapter on how diseased, rotten, and contaminated meat products were processed, handled with chemicals, and mislabeled for sale to the public. he wrote that workers processed dead, wounded and diseased animals after regular hours when meat inspectors were not around. he explained how pork fat and leftover beef was canned and labeled “canned chicken”.
sinclair wrote that canned meat and sausages were piled on the floor before workers hauled them away on carts containing sawdust, human saliva and urine, rat dung, rat poison, and even dead rats. his most famous description of a meatpacking horror concerned men falling into steaming vats of lard:
. . . and when they were caught, there were never enough left to make them worth displaying, sometimes overlooked for days, until all but the bones of them had gone into the world like pure durham lard!
Jurgis suffered a series of heartbreaking misfortunes that began when he was injured on the assembly line. there was no workers’ compensation, and the employer was not responsible for people injured on the job. Jurgis’s life fell apart and he lost his wife, son, home and job.
later, jurgis met the owner of a socialist hotel, who hired him as a doorman. Jurgis listened to socialist speakers who showed up at the hotel, attended political rallies, and was inspired by socialism. Sinclair used the speeches to express his own views on workers voting for socialist candidates to take over government and end the evils of capitalist greed and “wage slavery”.
In the last scene of the novel, Jurgis attends a celebration of socialist election victories in Packingtown. Jurgis was excited and once again hopeful. A speaker, probably modeled after the Socialist Party presidential candidate Eugene v. debs, pleaded with the crowd to “organize! organize! organize!” Do this, the speaker yelled, and “chicago will be ours! chicago will be ours! chicago will be ours!”
The Jungle was first published in 1905 as a series in The Appeal to Reason and then as a book in 1906. Sales soared. it was an international bestseller, published in 17 languages.
Sinclair was dismayed, however, when the public reacted with outrage over the disgusting meat and false labels, but ignored the plight of the workers. meat sales fell sharply. “I aimed for the audience’s heart,” he said, “and accidentally hit him in the stomach.”
Sinclair considered himself a novelist, not a sensationalist researching and writing about economic and social injustices. but the jungle took on a life of its own as one of the great scandal plays of the progressive era. sinclair became an “accidental assembler”.
The White House was bombarded with emails calling for reform of the meatpacking industry. after reading the jungle, president roosevelt invited sinclair to the white house to discuss it. then the president appointed a special commission to investigate chicago slaughterhouses.
the special commission issued its report in may 1906. the report confirmed almost all of the horrors sinclair had written about. one day, commissioners witnessed a slaughtered pig partially fall into a worker’s bathroom. the workers removed the carcass without cleaning it and put it on a hook with the others on the assembly line.
The commissioners criticized existing meat inspection laws that only required confirming the wholesomeness of animals at slaughter. the commissioners recommended that inspections be carried out at every stage of meat processing. they also requested that the secretary of agriculture establish rules that require the “cleanliness and health of animal products”.
new federal food laws
President Roosevelt called the conditions revealed in the special commission report “disgusting.” In a letter to Congress, he stated: “There is a need for a law that allows [federal] government inspectors to inspect and supervise from the hoof to the can the preparation of the meat food product. ”
roosevelt overcame opposition from meat packers and pushed through the meat inspection act of 1906. the act authorized inspectors from the us. uu. agriculture department to prevent any bad or misbranded meat from entering interstate and foreign commerce. this law greatly expanded the federal government’s regulation of private business. meat packers, however, won a provision in the law requiring the federal government, rather than companies, to pay for the inspection.
Sinclair did not like the regulatory approach to the law. True to his socialist convictions, he preferred meatpacking plants to be publicly owned and operated by cities, as was common in Europe.
Passage of the meat inspection law cleared the way for Congress to pass a long-stalled law to regulate the sale of most other foods and drugs. For more than 20 years, Harvey W. Wiley, chief chemist in the agriculture department, had led a “pure food crusade.” The rampage over the jungle revived Wiley’s lobbying efforts in Congress for federal regulation of food and drugs.
Roosevelt signed a law regulating food and drugs on June 30, 1906, the same day he signed the meat inspection law. The Pure Food and Drug Act regulated food additives and prohibited misleading food and drug labeling. This law led to the formation of the Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
The two 1906 laws ended up increasing consumer confidence in the food and medicine they bought, which benefited these businesses. the laws also acted as a wedge to expand federal regulation of other industries, one of the strategies to control big business pursued by progressives.
after the jungle
the jungle made upton sinclair rich and famous. He founded a socialist colony in a 50-room mansion in New Jersey, but the building burned down after a year. in 1911 his wife eloped with a poet. He divorced her, but soon remarried and moved to California.
during his long life, he wrote more than 90 novels. king coal was based on the 1914 massacre of striking miners and their families in colorado. Boston was about the highly publicized case of Sacco and Vancetti, two anarchists tried and executed for bank robbery and murder in the 1920s. His novel Dragon’s Teeth, about Nazi Germany, it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1943. None of these novels, however, achieved the success of The Jungle.
several of sinclair’s books were made into movies. In 1914, Hollywood released a film version of The Jungle. Recently, his work oil!, which dealt with the California oil industry in the 1920s, was made into the film There Will Be Blood.
during the great depression, sinclair entered electoral politics. He ran for Governor of California as a Socialist in 1930 and as a Democrat in 1934. In the 1934 election, he promoted a program he called “Ending Poverty in California.” he wanted the state to buy up idle factories and abandoned farms and rent them out to the unemployed. Incumbent Republican Governor Frank Merriam defeated him, but Sinclair still garnered more than 800,000 votes (44 percent).
After the death of his second wife in 1961, Sinclair moved to New Jersey to be with his son. he died there in 1968 at age 90.
people still read the jungle for its realistic portrayal of conditions in the meatpacking industry at the turn of the 20th century. Like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Jungle demonstrated the power of fiction to move a nation.
for discussion and writing
1. Why didn’t the existing inspection system protect the safety of meat for human consumption?
2. why was upton sinclair appalled by the public reaction and legislation that followed the publication of the jungle?
3. how did the jungle help progressives achieve their goals?
mattson, kevin. upton sinclair and the other american century. hoboken, no. J.: John Wiley & children, 2006.
Phelps, Christopher, ed. the jungle of upton sinclair. boston: bedford/st. Martin, 2005.
working in the packing city
upton sinclair was disappointed that congress did not address the injustices suffered by workers in the packingtown meatpacking industry. He takes on the role of a tabloid and writes an editorial detailing the injustices to workers and what Congress should do about it.
a modern gossip
Look at a contemporary problem in the community, state, or nation. investigating it writes an editorial on what should be done about it.