Conditions in Meatpacking Plants (1906, by Upton Sinclair)

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CONDITIONS IN MEATPACKING PLANTS (1906, by Upton Sinclair)


The explosive growth of American industry in the late nineteenth century caused a similar expansion in the work force. Working conditions in the new urban industrial zones were wretched, and a progressive reform movement soon grew out of the need to address the health and welfare of the American worker. In 1905, Upton Sinclair (1878–1968), a young socialist journalist and novelist, received a $500 advance to write a novel about abuses in the meat processing industry and spent seven weeks investigating the subject in Chicago. His novel, The Jungle (1906), a shocking exposé of the unsanitary and dangerous conditions in the plants, was an immediate best-seller and incited President Roosevelt to enact a series of food safety laws. Though Sinclair had hoped to excite interest in the difficult lives of the workers, the public was much more interested in the disgusting details about meat production. "I aimed at the public's heart," Sinclair said, "and by accident I hit it in the stomach." He would go on to be one of the most prolific writers in American literature, publishing over eighty books, pamphlets, and studies. This selection from The Jungle provides a stomach-turning description of what exactly goes into sausage.

Leah R.Shafer,
Cornell University

See also Food and Cuisines ; Jungle, The ; Meatpacking .

It was only when the whole ham was spoiled that it came into the department of Elzbieta. 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 mouldy 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 shovelled into carts, and the man who did the shovelling 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 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.


SOURCE: Sinclair, Upton. The Jungle. New York: Doubleday, 1906.