The Jungle might very well be the most influential novel you probably don’t know. Written in 1906 by Upton Sinclair, the novel was intended to show the horrible conditions in America’s slums. Instead, he exposed the unsanitary conditions in meatpacking plants.
The novel first appeared in sections in a socialist newspaper. Appearing as a serial before being published as a novel was a common occurrence in 19th-century fiction.
Publishing houses rejected the work because it was deemed too shocking for audiences so Sinclair paid to have the first edition published. After that, it was picked up by Doubleday and has never gone out of print.
Chicago was King of the Slaughter House
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Chicago was the home to the United States’ meatpacking industry. Meatpacking plants became a necessity as the population grew and became increasingly urban.
Cows were slaughtered year round while hogs were killed during the winter. In addition to pork being sold, pig fat was used to make lard.
Any part of the animal that wasn’t used, like blood and entrails, was flushed into the water supply.
The stockyards just outside Chicago received, housed and slaughtered 12 million animals in 1890.
By 1900, the meatpacking plant was big business. Mechanized and refrigerated rooms and railroad cars meant meat could be kept fresh longer. Unused animal parts were used in other products including gelatin, glue and oleomargarine.
By World War One, Chicago was called Hog Butcher for the World. The meatpacking plants were sprawling complexes, slaughtering animals raised on feedlots.
You may recognize one of the companies that was in business when Sinclair wrote The Jungle – Armour and Co.
Cooking in the Early 20th Century
In the early 20th century, most cooking was done from scratch. Fresh meat was purchased at a butcher’s. Customers trusted the food was fresh.
While working as a journalist, Sinclair had spent seven weeks investigating Chicago’s meatpacking plants. He noted that work conditions were unsafe and unsanitary.
His exposé exposed consumers to the reality of what was on their dinner plate. They were eating sausage that contained rats, rat poison and rat droppings. Spoiled ham that would not be sold as is, because it was moldy and full of maggots, also was ground up into the sausage. In addition, it was common in the early 20th century to add Borax to meat to prevent spoilage.
Employees used the toilets in meatpacking plants and did not wash their hands before returning to work.
The industry, of course, claimed their products were safe.
Government Steps In
Public reaction was strong. People sent letters in droves to President Theodore Roosevelt, who really had no interest, but helped nonetheless.
Roosevelt sent U.S. government representatives to inspect the plants. However, they had been cleaned prior to the inspectors’ visits. Nevertheless, the inspectors saw enough to conclude The Jungle had been based on truth.
The government’s findings led to the creation of the Pure Food and Drug Act, and the Meat Inspection Act as well as the forerunning of the Food and Drug Administration.
The Pure Food and Drug Act made it illegal to sell adulterated food and drugs, and all foods were required to have ingredient labels.
The Meat Inspection Act placed federal inspectors in all meatpacking plants that entered into interstate or international business.
In contemporary times, the number of food inspectors employed by the FDA has been decreased, and food safety has become a political issue. Perhaps before long we will find ourselves again in a situation like those presented in The Jungle.
What are your thoughts on food safety in 1906? How about in 2015? Leave a comment below.
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