To shed light on the deplorable circumstances in the meatpacking industry, Upton Sinclair published The Jungle. New federal food safety legislation were enacted in response to the public’s outcry over his account of diseased, spoiled, and contaminated meat.
Prior to the start of the twentieth century, the United States saw the emergence of a significant reform movement.
The reformers, also known as progressives, were responding to issues brought on by the fast development of factories and cities. At initially, progressives’ attention was directed toward reducing government corruption and bettering conditions in urban slums.
At the turn of the century, progressives began to take aim at major firms like Standard Oil, U.S. Steel, and the Armour meat-packing company for their allegedly unfair business dealings. The progressives exposed the firms’ practises of stifling rivals, charging exorbitant rates, and treating its employees like “wage slaves.”
Although progressives generally agreed that large corporations ought to be reined in, they disagreed on how to do so. There were progressives who advocated for anti-monopoly legislation to be used to break up the big firms. Others argued that stronger federal or state oversight was necessary.
There was a sizable but dwindling group that advocated for socialism, or government control of business. The big business tycoons ignored all these suggestions and insisted on being left alone to manage their enterprises as they saw proper.
When progressive reformers like Theodore Roosevelt were gaining traction, he was president. After William McKinley was assassinated in 1901, he became president and stayed in office until 1909. Massive corporations were Roosevelt’s preference. In his opinion, corporations are permanent institutions. Still, he advocated for them to be governed “with due concern of the people at large.”
In several cases, Roosevelt was not pleased by the work of progressive journalists and authors who revealed what they considered as corporate injustices. Progressive journalist David Phillips crossed a line when he published a series of articles accusing senators from both parties of favouring the interests of big business over those of the people. President Roosevelt agreed. He was someone with a “muck-rake,” as he put it.
Still, Roosevelt conceded, “There is filth on the floor, and it must be scraped off with the muck-rake.” In time, “muckraker” became a popular descriptor. As a noun, it meant authors who dug up the seedy underbelly of society through their investigative writing.
Chicago’s meatpacking districts were notorious for their unsanitary conditions, with “filth on the floor” being a common phrase. An “accidental muckraker,” Upton Sinclair rose to prominence after writing a novel exposing the meat-packing industry while being a relatively obscure author.
In the early 20th century, four large meatpacking organisations purchased out the numerous smaller slaughterhouse businesses across the United States. Companies like Armour, Swift, Morris, and National Packing were able to set pricing for cattle ranchers, feed growers, and consumers because of their sheer size.
The four major meatpacking corporations have established major hubs in a small number of locales. The Chicago meatpacking business was the biggest in the world.
Numerous acres of livestock facilities, feed lots, slaughterhouses, and meatpacking industries were affected. This section of Chicago, along with the surrounding neighbourhood where the employees lived, was known as Packingtown.
Meat packers invented the first industrial assembly line decades before Henry Ford used it to make cars. Instead of an assembly line, it was more of a “disassembly line,” with roughly 80 distinct tasks between killing an animal and selling its meat.
Knockers, rippers, leg breakers, and gutters were only some of the occupations held by members of “killing gangs.” Fresh, smoked, salted, pickled, and canned meats were produced as the animal carcasses swung on hooks. Lard, soap, and fertiliser were made from the leftover organs, bones, fat, and other byproducts. Meatpacking corporations “used everything but the squeak,” according to the workers.
In dark, unventilated rooms that were sweltering in the summer and unheated in the winter, unskilled immigrant men performed the back-breaking and frequently dangerous task. People used sledgehammers and knives while standing all day on bloody, rotting meat scraps and foetid water. Tasks such as trimming meat, making sausage, and canning were performed by women and children over the age of 14.
Most employees worked six days a week for 10 hours an hour and were paid very little. However, a few talented workers made as much as 50 cents an hour as “pacesetters,” who hurried up the assembly line to maximise output. Many workers were unhappy with the implementation of pacesetters.
Immigrants from Poland, Slovakia, and Lithuania constituted the vast majority of Chicago’s packing-house workforce by 1904. In Packingtown, near the stench of the stockyards and the four municipal dumps, they huddled together in tenement apartments and rented rooms.
Some immigrants were sold tiny houses on credit by real estate agents, despite their knowledge that the vast majority of them would be unable to make the monthly payments after experiencing job loss, salary reduction, or disability.
The mortgage holder would foreclose on a family of immigrants who had fallen behind on their payments, then paint the house and sell it to yet another family of immigrants.
Said Author Upton Sinclair
Upton Sinclair, who was born in Baltimore in 1878 but hailed from a storied Virginia family, grew up there. The family’s fortune and property were lost in the Civil War. Sinclair’s father turned became a drunken itinerant whiskey salesman.
His mother had hoped he would enter the ministry. His first narrative was written when he was only five years old. The pig ate the pin and it ended up in the family’s sausage.
Sinclair and his family relocated to New York City when he was 10 years old, and he completed his secondary education there. As a student at Columbia University, he started writing and selling short tales to periodicals.
For his working-class audience, he wrote novels about cowboys, athletes, and war heroes.
In 1897, after completing his studies at Columbia University, Sinclair married Meta Fuller. The couple only produced one offspring. Sinclair began attempting to publish novels but had little success.
He had been researching socialism while he was striving to make a life as a writer. The idea of a peaceful revolution in which the people of the United States would vote for the government to take over the ownership of large enterprises became increasingly appealing to him.
He became a member of the Socialist Party in 1903, and a year later he began contributing articles to the socialist publication Appeal to Reason.
The Chicago meatpackers’ union went on strike in 1904 for more pay and safer working conditions. The strike and union were broken when the Big Four businesses brought in strikebreakers to replace the striking workers. The strikers and their families went into poverty while the new hires kept the assembly lines operating.
When Sinclair’s editor at Appeal to Reason heard about the strike, he recommended he write a novel about it. Sinclair, then 26 years old, travelled to Chicago at the year’s end in 1904 to learn more about the strike and the plight of the meat-packing industry’s employees.
He talked to them, their loved ones, their physicians and lawyers, and even their social workers. He had firsthand experience with the deplorable conditions inside many meat processing facilities.
Sinclair fictionalises the conditions of Chicago’s Packingtown in his novel The Jungle. He saw a lot of violence in the meat packing industry, and that’s reflected in the title. The protagonist of the narrative was a young man named Jurgis Rudkis who had recently moved to Chicago with his family and some of his Lithuanian acquaintances.
Jurgis got married and financed a house because he was determined to make a better life for his family. He felt like he had finally made it when he landed a position as a “shoveler of guts” at “Durham,” a made-up company modelled after Chicago’s premier meat packer, Armour & Co.
Jurgis quickly learnt how the factory increased production with the same number of workers at a faster pace. He learned that employees were being underpaid by the corporation because they were only required to labour for an hour per day.
Jurgis noticed males with rashes and other skin conditions in the pickling room. Knife users on the accelerated production lines often suffered amputations. The strain on the backs of the men who carried 100-pound cuts of beef is well documented.
The workers who contracted tuberculosis were a regular source of coughing and bloody floor. Near the slaughterhouse, employees used outhouses without running water or soap to clean their hands. Workers in other sections had to resort to squatting in a corner because there were no restrooms available. There were very few break areas, so people ate at their desks.
A chapter about the processing, chemically enhancing, and false labelling of diseased, rotten, and tainted meat items was included by Sinclair almost as an afterthought. When no meat inspectors were nearby, he claimed, workers would process sick, injured, and dead animals. He went on to describe how pork fat and beef waste were processed, canned, and sold as “potted chicken.”
On Sinclair’s account, workers piled raw meat for canning and sausage making on the floor before transporting it in carts containing sawdust, human spit and urine, rat faeces, rat poison, and even dead rats. Most notably, he described the horror of men falling into boiling fat vats at a meatpacking plant:
Unfortunately, by the time they were dredged out, there were never enough of them left to display; sometimes, days would go by without anyone noticing them, and before long, nothing was left of them but Durham’s Pure Leaf Lard.
Beginning with an accident on the production line, Jurgis’ string of tragedies was devastating. Workplace accidents were not covered by workers’ comp, and employers bore no liability for their employees’ injuries. Jurgis’s life came crashing down around him, and he lost his family, his home, and his work.
Eventually, Jurgis connected with a socialist hotel owner who offered him a job as a porter. Jurgis found encouragement and direction from socialist speakers who visited the hotel, as well as from political demonstrations he attended.
From these addresses, Sinclair drew his own conclusions about how workers should vote for socialist politicians to seize power and put an end to capitalist greed and “wage slavery.”
In the novel’s last chapter, Jurgis celebrates the socialist party’s election victories at a party in Packingtown. Once again, Jurgis felt optimism and excitement. A speaker who sounded a lot like Socialist Party presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs pleaded with the throng, “Organize! Organize! Organize!” Listen to what I’m saying, and “We’re going to take Chicago! We’re going to take Chicago! WE SHALL CONQUER CHICAGO!”
A Look at the Reaction from the Public
The Jungle was initially released as a serial in The Appeal to Reason in 1905, and then as a book the following year, in 1906. We saw a huge increase in sales. It was translated into 17 languages and became a worldwide bestseller.
However, Sinclair was disappointed when people complained about the dirty meat and misleading labels but paid little attention to the situation of the workers. Revenue from the meat industry plummeted. He added, “I tried to appeal to the public’s sentiments and wound up striking it where it hurts most” (in the stomach).
Sinclair considered himself a novelist, not a muckraker who dug into issues of economic and social injustice. The Jungle, however, became one of the most iconic muckraking books of the Progressive Era. In other words, Sinclair became a muckraker by mistake.
Mail to the White House demanding changes in the meat packing sector was overwhelming. In order to debate The Jungle, President Roosevelt invited Sinclair to the White House. As a result, the president established a special commission to look into the slaughterhouses in Chicago.
In May of 1906, the panel that was convened to investigate the incident reported its findings. Almost every horrific detail that Sinclair described in his book was corroborated by the report.
The commissioners were once present for the partial flushing of a killed hog that had fallen into the restroom of one of the workers. Workers removed the carcass without washing it and hung it up on a hook alongside the others in the production line.
Existing meat inspection laws were questioned by the commissioners since they only checked the animals’ health before slaughter.
The commissioners advocated for stricter checks to be implemented throughout the meat-packaging process. They also requested that the agriculture secretary establish regulations to ensure the “cleanliness and wholesomeness of animal products.”
Legislation Changes for Food in the United States
In response to the special commission’s findings, President Roosevelt deemed the situation “revolting.” He wrote, “A law is needed which will enable the inspectors of the [Federal] Government to check and monitor from the hoof to the can the manufacture of the meat food product,” to the legislative branch.
To pass the Meat Inspection Act of 1906, Roosevelt had to overcome resistance from meatpackers. Department of Agriculture inspectors were given the authority to prevent mislabeled or spoiled meat from entering interstate or international trade.
With the passage of this law, the federal government’s oversight over the private sector grew substantially. But the meat packers obtained a provision in the bill making the federal government, not the firms, pay for the inspection.
Sinclair was unhappy with the way the law regulated business. Keeping with his socialist beliefs, he advocated for towns to take over the ownership and management of meatpacking facilities. This model was prevalent in Europe.
The long-stalled legislation to regulate the sale of most other goods and medications finally passed after the Meat Inspection Act was enacted. For more than two decades, Department of Agriculture top chemist Harvey W. Wiley has advocated for more “clean food.”
Many of the preservative compounds he and his “Poison Squad” investigated were proven to be harmful to human health. Anger over The Jungle rekindled Wiley’s lobbying efforts for stricter federal oversight of the food and medicine industry.
On the same day that he signed the Meat Inspection Act, President Roosevelt also signed a bill regulating foods and medications. Labeling of foods and medications cannot be deceptive under the Pure Food and Drug Act. The federal Food and Drug Administration was established as a result of this legislation (FDA).
Businesses in the food and drug industries benefited from the increased consumer trust that resulted from the passage of these two laws in 1906.
To further the progressives’ goal of reining in big business, these laws were used as a bargaining chip to increase government regulation of other sectors.
Following the Events of “The Jungle,”
Upton Sinclair became renowned and wealthy thanks to The Jungle. His communist colony in a 50-room New Jersey house burned down after only a year. It was 1911 when his wife left him for a poet. Later, he got a divorce, remarried, and relocated to California.
He produced more than 90 novels during the course of his long life. The events shown in King Coal are based on a real-life massacre that occurred in Colorado in 1914. The case of Sacco and Vancetti, two anarchists convicted of bank robbery and murder in the 1920s and executed as a result of widespread media attention, was the subject of the film Boston.
The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1943 went to him for his work Dragon’s Teeth, which was set in Nazi Germany. But not a single one of these books became as popular as The Jungle.
Film adaptations of several of Sinclair’s books exist. The Jungle was made into a film in 1914 and released in the United States. The recent film There Will Be Blood is based on his work Oil!, which is set in the 1920s California oil business.
Sinclair entered electoral politics during the Great Depression. Both in 1930 (as a socialist) and 1934 (as a Democrat), he sought the office of California governor. His platform in the 1934 election was to “End Poverty in California.”
He advocated for the government to acquire moribund businesses and unused farmland to lease to the unemployed. Despite losing to the Republican governor in office, Frank Merriam, Sinclair received more than 800,000 votes (44 percent).
After the death of his second wife in 1961, Sinclair relocated to New Jersey to be with his son. There, he passed away in 1968, at the age of 90.
The Jungle’s accurate depiction of the meat-packing industry at the turn of the 20th century is a major reason why the novel is still read today. The Jungle, like Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, demonstrated the ability of fiction to affect social change.
To be Used in Conversation and Writing
1: How come the current system for checking meat’s safety for human eating has failed?
2: Why did Upton Sinclair feel let down by the public’s response and the legislation that followed the publishing of The Jungle?
3: How did The Jungle aid progressive causes?