Long before Henry Ford adapted it to automobile production, meat packers had developed the first industrial assembly line. It was more accurately a “disassembly line,” requiring nearly 80 separate jobs from the killing of an animal to processing its meat for sale. “Killing gangs” held jobs like “knockers,” “rippers,” “leg breakers,” and “gutters.” The animal carcasses moved continuously on hooks until processed into fresh, smoked, salted, pickled, and canned meats. The organs, bones, fat, and other scraps ended up as lard, soap, and fertilizer.
The conditions of workers working in the major meat processing units was recorded to be appalling.
Sinclair inspired by socialism
Born in Baltimore in 1878, Upton Sinclair came from an old Virginia family.The Civil War had wiped out the family’s wealth and land holdings. Sinclair’s father became a traveling liquor salesman and alcoholic.
As he was struggling to make a living as a writer, he began reading about socialism. He came to believe in the idea of a peaceful revolution in which Americans would vote for the government to take over the ownership of big businesses. He joined the Socialist Party in 1903.
In 1904, the meat-packer’s union in Chicago went on strike, demanding better wages and working conditions. The Big Four companies broke the strike and the union by bringing in strikebreakers, replacements for those on strike.
The Jungle is Sinclair’s fictionalized account of Chicago’s Packingtown. The title reflects his view of the brutality he saw in the meat-packing business.
Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle to expose the appalling working conditions in the meat-packing industry. His description of diseased, rotten, and contaminated meat shocked the public and led to new federal food safety laws.
The story centered on a young man, Jurgis Rudkis, who had recently immigrated to Chicago with a group of relatives and friends from Lithuania.
What impact did The Jungle create?
The White House was bombarded with mail, calling for reform of the meat-packing industry. After reading The Jungle, President Roosevelt invited Sinclair to the White House to discuss it. The president then appointed a special commission to investigate Chicago’s slaughterhouses.
Roosevelt overcame meat-packer opposition and pushed through the Meat Inspection Act of 1906. The law authorized inspectors from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to stop any bad or mislabeled meat from entering interstate and foreign commerce. This law greatly expanded federal government regulation of private enterprise.