The Jungle: The Horrific Conditions of Labor and Meat Production in the Meatpacking Industry

Upton Sinclair, The Jungle (link to Project Gutenberg). Appeared in Appeal to Reason in serial form between 25 February and 4 November 1905. Christopher Hitchens: “[Upton Sinclair’s] intention was to direct the conscience of [people in the US] to the inhuman conditions in which immigrant labor was put to work. However, so graphic and detailed were his depictions of the filthy way in which food was produced that his book sparked a revolution among consumers instead (and led at some remove to the passage of the [Pure Food and Drug Act] and the Meat Inspection Act of 1906. He wryly said of this unintended consequence that he had aimed for the public’s heart but had instead hit its stomach.”

Excerpts from story:

There were the wool-pluckers, whose hands went to pieces even sooner than the hands of the pickle men; for the pelts of the sheep had to be painted with acid to loosen the wool, and then the pluckers had to pull out this wool with their bare hands, till the acid had eaten their fingers off. There were those who made the tins for the canned meat; and their hands, too, were a maze of cuts, and each cut represented a chance for blood poisoning…. Worst of any, however, were the fertilizer men, and those who served in the cooking rooms. These people could not be shown to the visitor,–for the odor of a fertilizer man would scare any ordinary visitor at a hundred yards, and as for the other men, who worked in tank rooms full of steam, and in some of which there were open vats near the level of the floor, their peculiar trouble was that they fell into the vats; and when they were fished out, there was never enough of them left to be worth exhibiting,–sometimes they would be overlooked for days, till all but the bones of them had gone out to the world as Durham’s Pure Leaf Lard!…

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….

At the head there was a great iron wheel, about twenty feet in circumference, with rings here and there along its edge. Upon both sides of this wheel there was a narrow space, into which came the hogs at the end of their journey;… [Men] had chains which they fastened about the leg of the nearest hog, and the other end of the chain they hooked into one of the rings upon the wheel. So, as the wheel turned, a hog was suddenly jerked off his feet and borne aloft.

At the same instant the ear was assailed by a most terrifying shriek; the visitors started in alarm, the women turned pale and shrank back…. And meantime another was swung up, and then another, and another, until there was a double line of them, each dangling by a foot and kicking in frenzy–and squealing… It was too much for some of the visitors–the men would look at each other, laughing nervously, and the women would stand with hands clenched, and the blood rushing to their faces, and the tears starting in their eyes.

Meantime, heedless of all these things, the men upon the floor were going about their work. Neither squeals of hogs not tears of visitors made any difference to them; one by one they hooked up the hogs, and one by one with a swift stroke they slit their throats….

PBS, Now, Meatpacking in the U.S.: Still a “Jungle” Out There?, 15 December 2006.