Excerpts from The Jungle
Published in 1906
"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 it."
Upton Sinclair (1878–1968) was among a group of writers in the first decade of the twentieth century who were known as muckrakers; the term refers to someone who clears manure from a stall. These writers specialized in writing articles (or, in the case of Sinclair, novels) exposing abuses and wrongdoing by the major business leaders and corporations of the era. They were given their nickname by Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919), himself a champion of corporate reform.
In 1906 Sinclair published what would turn out to be his most popular novel, The Jungle. It tells the story of a family of immigrants from Lithuania who come to Chicago, looking to achieve the American dream of a better life. Instead they find the American nightmare: poverty, death, and despair.
The principal character in the book is Jurgis (YOORghis) Rudkus, a young man from rural Lithuania. Jurgis and his extended family (wife, children, parents-in-law) settle in Chicago. There, the adults in the family get jobs in the city's huge packinghouse industry, where animals are slaughtered and butchered and sent out to stores as food.
At first, Jurgis is optimistic. Money is in short supply, but he vows to work harder to earn more. Gradually, however, Jurgis is consumed by his job. He is cheated out of money when buying a house. The horrific working conditions in the packinghouse—wading for hours in cold water, for example—destroy his health and the health of other family members. There is not enough money for a doctor when illness strikes.
The tale of Jurgis's woes was the story Upton Sinclair intended to tell, with the aim of arousing sympathy for the desperately poor workers in Chicago's stockyards (temporary places to keep cattle before they are slaughtered.)
However, in the course of telling the story of Jurgis, Sinclair also told another story: how hogs and cattle were processed and sent to food markets. The book includes graphic descriptions of how packinghouses treated rotten meat with chemicals and packaged it in cans to be sold to unsuspecting consumers. Sinclair described the filthy conditions surrounding the processing of meat, and he wrote of ineffective federal inspectors who were bribed to look the other way and ignore violations of regulations governing sanitation.
It was this consumer aspect of The Jungle that captured the nation's attention. The public was outraged to read (even if in a novel) that rotten meat was being repackaged in sausage and in canned products that might end up on the tables of middle-class citizens. In some respects, The Jungle was one of the most effective pieces of writing ever published, in terms of arousing the public and causing the federal government to tighten regulations governing the sale of food products.
Things to remember while reading the excerpts from The Jungle:
- The Jungle is a novel, a work of fiction. But it is based on facts uncovered by Sinclair during nearly two months spent talking to the packinghouse workers in Chicago. Because of the book's realistic treatment of the subject, the public believed that they were reading a factual account of how business was conducted in the stockyards, and they demanded that Congress crack down with tougher rules and tighter inspections.
- Another of Sinclair's themes was the "beef trust," a group of seemingly competitive beef-processing companies that got together to drive up the price of meat. (A trust is a company that owns several other companies in the same industry, with the aim of stifling competition.) Government lawsuits to break up such trusts, and to enforce competition, was a major initiative of President Theodore Roosevelt (see entry), who was in office when The Jungle was published.
- The Industrial Revolution (the period when machines and factories came into widespread use in manufacturing) was not limited to the automobile and textile industries. It also extended into agriculture, and especially the processing of animals for food. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, a farmer or rancher might have been responsible for slaughtering and preparing his own animals for a local market (a lack of refrigeration required that most foods were sold near where they were raised). The Jungle told how industrial processes had been applied to the food industry, enabling big companies to employ elements of the factory system in raising and slaughtering beef, for example, and distributing foods on a larger scale than was possible before.
- At the beginning of this excerpt, Jurgis Rudkus has just arrived in Chicago, where he will join relatives who arrived earlier from Lithuania. He is taking a tour of Durham's, a giant meatpacking company at which he will soon get a job. Later excerpts, from other chapters, highlight some of his experiences, describing the ways meatpackers created a variety of products—much to the dismay of consumers.
Excerpts from The Jungle
Jurgis went down the line with the rest of the visitors, staring openmouthed, lost in wonder. He had dressed hogs himself in the forest of Lithuania; but he had never expected to live to see one hog dressed by several hundred men. It was like a wonderful poem to him, and he took it all in guilelessly—even to the conspicuous signs demanding immaculate cleanliness of the employees. Jurgis was vexed when the cynical Jokubas translated these signs with sarcastic comments, offering to take them to the secret rooms where the spoiled meats went to be doctored.…
Then the party went across the street to where they did the killing of beef—where every hour they turned four or five hundred cattle into meat. Unlike the place they had left, all this work was done on one floor; and instead of there being one line of carcasseswhich moved to the workmen, there were fifteen or twenty lines, and the men moved from one to another of these. This made a scene of intense activity, a picture of human power wonderful to watch. It was all in one great room, like a circus amphitheater, with a galleryfor visitors running over the center.
Along one side of the room ran a narrow gallery, a few feet from the floor; into which gallery the cattle were driven by men with goads which gave them electric shocks. Once crowded in here, the creatures were prisoned, each in a separate pen, by gates that shut, leaving them no room to turn around; and while they stood bellowingand plunging, over the top of the pen there leaned one of the "knockers," armed with a sledge hammer, and watching for a chance to deal a blow. The room echoed with the thuds in quick succession, and the stamping and kicking of the steers. The instant the animal had fallen, the "knocker" passed on to another; while a second man raised a lever, and the side of the pen was raised, and the animal, still kicking and struggling, slid out to the "killing bed." Here a man put shackles about one leg, and pressed another lever, and the body was jerked up into the air. There were fifteen or twenty such pens, and it was a matter of only a couple of minutes to knock fifteen or twenty cattle and roll them out. Then once more the gates were opened, and another lot rushed in; and so out of each pen there rolled a steady stream of carcasses, which the men upon the killing beds had to get out of the way.
The manner in which they did this was something to be seen and never forgotten. 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 fifteen or twenty 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. This floor was half an inch deep with blood, in spite of the best efforts of men who kept shoveling it through holes; it must have made the floor slippery, but no one could have guessed this by watching the men at work.…
No tiniest particle of organic matter was wasted in Durham's. Out of the horns of the cattle they made combs, buttons, hairpins, and imitation ivory; out of the shinbones and other big bones they cut knife and toothbrush handles, and mouthpieces for pipes; out of the hoofs they cut hairpins and buttons, before they made the rest into glue. From such things as feet, knuckles, hide clippings, and sinewscame such strange and unlikely products as gelatin, isin-glass, and phosphorus, bone black, shoe blacking, and bone oil. They had curled-hair works for the cattle tails, and a "wool pullery" for the sheepskins; they made pepsin from the stomachs of the pigs, and albumen from the blood, and violin strings from the ill-smelling entrails. When there was nothing else to be done with a thing, they first put it into a tank and got out of it all the tallow and grease, and then they made it into fertilizer.…
It seemed that Antanas Rudkus [Jurgis's father] was working in the room where the men prepared the beef for canning, and the beef had lain in vats full of chemicals, and men with great forks speared it out and dumped it into trucks, to be taken to the cooking room. When they had speared out all they could reach, they emptied the vat on the floor, and then with shovels scraped up the balance and dumped it into the truck. This floor was filthy, yet they set Antanas with his mop slopping the "pickle" into a hole that connected with a sink, where it was caught and used over again forever; and if that were not enough, there was a trap in the pipe, where all the scraps of meat and odds and ends of refuse were caught, and every few days it was the old man's task to clean these out, and shovel their contents into one of the trucks with the rest of the meat!…
One day a man slipped and hurt his leg; and that afternoon, when the last of the cattle had been disposed of, and the men were leaving, Jurgis was ordered to remain and do some special work which this injured man had usually done. It was late, almost dark, and the government inspectors had all gone, and there were only a dozen or two of men on the floor. That day they had killed about four thousand cattle, and these cattle had come in freight trains from far states, and some of them had got hurt. There were some with broken legs, and some with gored sides; there were some that had died, from what cause no one could say; and they were all to be disposed of, here in darkness and silence. "Downers," the men called them; and the packinghouse had a special elevator upon which they were raised to the killing beds, where the gang proceeded to handle them, with an air of businesslike nonchalance which
said plainer than any words that it was a matter of everyday routine. It took a couple of hours to get them out of the way, and in the end Jurgis saw them go into the chilling rooms with the rest of the meat, being carefully scattered here and there so that they could not be identified. When he came home that night he was in a very somber mood, having begun to see at last how those might be right who had laughed at him for his faith in America.…
With one member trimming beef in a cannery, and another working in a sausage factory, the family had a first-hand knowledge of the great majority of Packingtown swindles. For it was the custom, as they found, whenever meat was so spoiled that it could not be used for anything else, either to can it or else to chop it up into sausage. With what had been told them by Jonas, who had worked in the pickle rooms, they could now study the whole of the spoiled-meat industry on the inside, and read a new and grim meaning into that old Packingtown jest—that they use everything of the pig except the squeal.
Jonas had told them how the meat that was taken out of pickle would often be found sour, and how they would rub it up with soda to take away the smell, and sell it to be eaten on free-lunch counters; also of all the miracles of chemistry which they performed, giving to any sort of meat, fresh or salted, whole or chopped, any color and any flavor and any odor they chose. In the pickling of hams they had an ingenious apparatus, by which they saved time and increased the capacity of the plant—a machine consisting of a hollow needle attached to a pump; by plunging this needle into the meat and working with his foot, a man could fill a ham with pickle in a few seconds. And yet, in spite of this, there would be hams found spoiled, some of them with an odor so bad that a man could hardly bear to be in the room with them. To pump into these the packers had a second and much stronger pickle which destroyed the odor—a process known to the workers as "giving them thirty per cent." Also, after the hams had been smoked, there would be found some that had gone to the bad. Formerly these had been sold as "Number Three Grade," but later on some ingenious person had hit upon a new device, and now they would extract the bone, about which the bad part generally lay, and insert in the hole a white-hot iron. After this invention there was no longer Number One, Two, and Three Grade—there was only Number One Grade. The packers were always originating such schemes—they had what they called "boneless hams," which were all the odds and ends of pork stuffed into casings; and "California hams," which were the shoulders, with big knuckle joints, and nearly all the meat cut out; and fancy "skinned hams," which were made of the oldest hogs, whose skins were so heavy and coarse that no one would buy them—that is, until they had been cooked and chopped fine and labeled "head cheese!" …
It was only when the whole ham was spoiled that it came into the department of Elzbieta [mother-in-law of Jurgis]. Cut up by the two-thousand-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 glycerine, 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 cartload after cartload 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 gelatine 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.
What happened next …
Just months after publication of The Jungle, federal legislation was passed mandating improved inspection of meat, as well as requiring labels listing the ingredients of canned food products. The legislation had been proposed years earlier, but a combination of business interests resisted it, arguing that it was not the business of the federal government to regulate what people ate. The Jungle demonstrated clearly that people had no way of knowing what was in canned food, and therefore needed government regulation to keep foods safe.
Although women could not vote in 1906, many women were members of clubs that were politically active. They played an important role in persuading the Congress to pass legislation to crack down on abuses in the food industry.
It took longer, however, to address the abuses suffered by workers in the stockyards. Upton Sinclair, who was a socialist, continued to write for decades, constantly promoting laws that would prevent the sort of abuses of poor, unsophisticated workers that he cataloged in The Jungle. None of his subsequent works, however, had the impact of this book.
Did you know …
Prior to the Food and Drug Act, the final passage of which was speeded by The Jungle, manufacturers regularly sold "patent medicine" containing ingredients such as opium, morphine, heroin, and cocaine—all dangerous narcotics—without mentioning their presence on product labels. There were no regulations limiting what could be bottled and sold under names such as "Kick-a-poo Indian Sagwa" and "Warner's Safe Cure for Diabetes."
For more information
Hampe, Edward C., Jr., and Merle Wittenberg. The Lifeline of America; Development of the Food Industry. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964.
Jensen, Carl. Stories That Changed America: Muckrakers of the Twentieth Century. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2000.
Miller, Walter James. Upton Sinclair's The Jungle: A Critical Commentary. New York: Monarch Press, 1983.
Sinclair, Upton. The Jungle. New York: Doubleday, Page, and Company, 1906.
Weinberg, Arthur, and Lila Weinberg, eds. The Muckrakers. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001.