When you hear Frank Sinatra cooing, “My Kind of Town,” a song dedicated to Chicago, you hear him drop the phrase, “Union Stock Yards,” and you think that it’s a wondrous place perhaps.
But you’ve only to turn to Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” for a portrait of what it was like.
The “Union Stock Yard and Transit Company,” as was its official name, was a sprawling stockyard in Chicago’s southwest quarter, built on land that was once a wilderness of bog. In 1864, a consortium of nine railroad companies bought it for $100,000, and built upon it, rows of pens, sheds, abattoirs, and factories.
It opened its gate on December 25, 1865, and soon, grew into a busy commercial hub. One by one, big meat-packing firms moved into the area: Armour, Swift, Morris, Hammond.
Their business was meat, of course. But no part of the animal went waste, from the carcass to the bones. With the so-called refuse, they also made a wide assortment of consumer goods: leather, soap, fertilizer, glue, faux ivory, gelatin, shoe polish, buttons, perfume, violin strings.
Published in 1906, the book is a shocking exposé of the workings of this establishment, told through the experiences of an immigrant family and its members’ desperate attempts to eke out a living there.
After selling off all they owned, and scraping together passage fare, in the early 1900s, Jurgis Rudkus and his family move to the U.S. from Lithuania. A party of 12—comprising his father, Dede Antanas; his fiancée, Ona Lukoszaite, her cousin, Marija Berczynskas, her stepmother, Elzbieta Lukoszaite, and her six children; and his uncle-in-law, Jonas—arrives in Chicago, a bustling, industrial city, bewildered and lost.
They’d heard from a friend that this was a country of high wages, where money could be made, and with hard graft, life could be lived comfortably.
Much before Henry Ford’s Model T rolled out of the assembly line, the meatpackers had pioneered the same production process. The gory task of slaughtering an animal would be broken up into a series of little steps such that each worker needed to master only one.
Unlike [in the pork processing plant, the work of processing beef] was done on one floor. Instead of there being one line of carcasses, which moved to the workmen, there were 15 or 20 lines, and the men moved from one to another of these.
They worked with furious intensity, literally, upon the run, at a pace with which there is nothing to be compared, except a football game. It was all highly specialized labor, each man having his task to do. Generally, this would consist of only two or three specific cuts, and he would pass down the line of 15 or 20 carcasses, making these cuts upon each.
First, there came the “butcher,” to bleed them. This meant one swift stroke, so swift that you could not see it—only the flash of the knife and before you could realize it, the man had darted on to the next line and a stream of bright red was pouring out upon the floor.
Every hour, these men turned 500 cattle into beef.
Technological discoveries sped up operations, and expanded markets. For instance, Gustavus Swift’s development of the first refrigerated railroad car, in 1882, made it possible to ship processed meat, not live animals, to eastern markets.
Jurgis lands himself work in the “killing beds” immediately, and is delighted to be “paid the fabulous sum” of 17.5 cents an hour. He marvels at the wonderful efficiency of it all, in the way in which livestock is slain, and shipped off to every corner of the nation, until he sees the knavery, the monstrous greed, and the insensate brutality that drives it.
The great corporation, which employed you, lied to you and lied to the whole country. From top to bottom, it was nothing, but one gigantic lie.
Behind the scenes, there thrived an entire industry of contaminated meat. Beef or pork that was utterly unfit for consumption was either canned or made into sausages.
It was only when the whole ham was spoiled that it came into the department of Elzbieta. Cut up by the 2,000-revolutions-a-minute flyers and mixed with half a ton of other meat, no odor that ever was in a ham could make any difference.
There was never the least attention paid to what was cut up for sausage.
There would come, all the way back from Europe, old sausage that had been rejected and that was moldy and white. It would be dosed with borax and glycerin and dumped into the hoppers and made over again for home consumption.
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.
This is no fairy story and no joke. The meat would be shoveled into carts, and the man who did the shoveling 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.
There was no place for the men to wash their hands before they ate their dinner, and so, they made a practice of washing them in the water that was to be ladled into the sausage.
There were the butt-ends of smoked meat and the scraps of corned beef and all the odds and ends of the waste of the plants that would be dumped into old barrels in the cellar and left there.
Under the system of rigid economy, which the packers enforced, there were some jobs that it only paid to do once in a long time, and among these was the cleaning out of the waste-barrels. Every spring they did it and in the barrels would be dirt and rust and old nails and stale water and cart load after cart load of it would be taken up and dumped into the hoppers with fresh meat and sent out to the public’s breakfast.
Some of it they would make into “smoked” sausage, but as the smoking took time, and was therefore, expensive, they would call upon their chemistry department and preserve it with borax and color it with gelatin to make it brown. All of their sausage came out of the same bowl, but when they came to wrap it, they would stamp some of it “special,” and for this they would charge two cents more a pound.
Not only did the packinghouses sell products that were grossly unhygienic, the conditions in which its employees toiled were just as abhorrent.
The floor on which the cutting took place was slippery, “half an inch deep with blood, in spite of the best efforts of men, who kept shoveling it through holes.” The entire facility had no heat, withal, save for the kitchens.
In the winters, the hot blood that drenched the workers would freeze solid.
If you leaned against a pillar, you would freeze to that. And if you put your hand upon the blade of your knife, you would run a chance of leaving your skin on it. The men would tie up their feet in newspapers and old sacks and these would be soaked in blood and frozen and then soaked again, and so on, until by nighttime a man would be walking on great lumps, the size of the feet of an elephant.
Workers had no holidays. If they were late by a minute, they’d be docked an hour’s pay.
If they treated their human employees so callously, one can only see the torture they put the hogs and steers through. Without heed to the law, they killed cows that were about to birth a calf, as venial government inspectors, looked the other way, their pockets jangling with bribes.
Barring the littlest kids, everyone worked. Still, the Rudkus’ couldn’t make ends meet, barely making enough to stay alive—and sometimes, not even that. Drinking formaldehyde-tainted milk; peas, colored with copper salts; and food, full of potato starch, how could they help not falling ill.
The novel is the diary of a working man, who goes from being a hardworking, meatpacking laborer to a happy hobo to an honest steel mill worker to a filthy, starving beggar to a small-time political player to a jailbird to a socialist agitator.
The one thought that kept coming back to me as I read the book was why Jurgis ever made the decision to come to America.