One hundred years ago, a battle of industrial might was being waged throughout industrial America. Oil, cars, the assembly line, steel, all battling for the title of the mightiest industry. But one, often overlooked, industry, had a bigger effect that most know. Sure, Carnegie had his steel, Rockefeller his oil, but Chicago had the meat packing industry, a gruesome, yet necessary figure in this age of industrialization. The meat-packing industry had a tremendous effect of the progressive movement, possibly much more so than the other industries of America at the time. Hazardous working conditions, low wages, and careless managers launched a bloodbath of animals, including humans. Upton Sinclair, noted socialist and author of The Jungle, was one of the first to bring this to the public eye. A book meant to focus on the workers of this industrial giant, The Jungle was used to challenge the industry’s handling of meat products, directly leading to massive reforms undertaken by the United States Government to protect workers and the consumer.
Sinclair’s book was heavily misinterpreted by the public, but still had a drastic effect. Sinclair had originally penned his book to shine a light on working conditions in plants. Instead, the public chose to focus on the disgusting product that came out of these plants called meat. According to an article by historian Robert Cherny, “The publication of… The Jungle produced an immediate and powerful effect on America… but Sinclair had hoped to achieve a very different result” (Cherny, The…Progressive Era). This distortion of Sinclair’s book had an unintended goal on political reform, leading directly to the passing of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. These reforms marked a passing of an era, one plagued by disgusting and unknown foods. Sinclair writes that sometimes people would fall into lard vats, and that “…all but the bones of them [had] gone out to the world as Durham’s Pure Leaf Lard” (Sinclair, 117). This was just one of the many ways Sinclair describes the unsanitary conditions of industrial era food and animal products.
But why does this matter, it was over a century in the past? This issue still remains important today, in many ways. Primarily, we often forget where our food comes from, and what we could potentially be putting in our bodies. In this modern, ever-transforming world around us, we must remember the work of Sinclair and of others in order to remind ourselves that we are also consumers, and that to an extent, we face the same unknown factor as those that consumed products from the industrial era. Today, much like the pre-Sinclair era, we do not question the “Artificial Ingredients” in our soft drinks or the “insert drug/preservative name here” in our factory farmed meat. As an ideal question put forth by Thomas Andrews in his article in the OAH Magazine of History “Ask students what they ate for breakfast or lunch. Then inquire about what they know about where it came from” (Andrews, 38). As consumers, over one hundred years after the publishing of The Jungle, ask yourself: Do you know what’s in that sandwich you just ate?
Sinclair, Upton. The Jungle. Cambridge, MA: R. Bentley, 1971. Print.
The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Sept. 2016.
Andrews, Thomas C. “Making Meat: Efficiency And Exploitation In Progressive Era Chicago.” OAH Magazine Of History 24.1 (2010): 37-40. Academic Search Complete. Web. 23 Sept. 2016.