Welcome to The Jungle

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Not every novel leads to legislation. Upton Sinclair took an undercover job in the Chicago Stockyards to research his expose of the meatpacking industry, The Jungle. The first installment was published in the newspaper Appeal to Reason on February 25, 1905. Released as a novel on February 26, 1906, it inspired the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906.

The Jungle tells the story of the Lithuanian immigrant Jurgis Rudkus. It shows the degradation and dissolution of Chicago’s working class.

Chapter 4 previews the workplace conditions that Jurgis would face. ‘He donned the working clothes he had bought in a secondhand shop and brought with him in a bundle; then he [the boss] led him to the “killing beds.” The work which Jurgis was to do here was very simple, and it took him but a few minutes to learn it. He was provided with a stiff besom, such as is used by street sweepers, and it was his place to follow down the line the man who drew out the smoking entrails from the carcass of the steer; this mass was to be swept into a trap, which was then closed, so that no one might slip into it. As Jurgis came in, the first cattle of the morning were just making their appearance, and so, with scarcely time to look about him, and none to speak to anyone, he fell to work. It was a sweltering day in July, and the place ran with steaming hot blood—one waded in it on the floor. The stench was almost overpowering, but to Jurgis it was nothing. His whole soul was dancing with joy—he was at work at last! He was at work and earning money! All day long he was figuring to himself. He was paid the fabulous sum of seventeen and a half cents an hour, and as it proved a rush day and he worked until nearly seven o’ clock in the evening, he went home to the family with the tidings that he had earned more than a dollar and a half in a single day!’

The pay would not keep with Rudkus’ family debts. In Chapter 6, his wife’s 14-year-old stepbrother Stanislovas forged documents in order to work. ‘Meanwhile Teta Elzbieta had taken Stanislovas to the priest and gotten a certificate to the effect that he was two years older than he was, and with it the little boy now sallied forth to make his fortune in the world. It chanced that Durham [a fertilizer plant] had just put in a wonderful new lard machine, and when the special policemen in front of the time station saw Stanislovas and his document, he smiled to himself and told him to go—“Czia! Czia!” pointing. And so Stanislovas went down a long stone corridor and up a flight of stairs, which took him to a room lighted by electricity, with the new machines for filling lard cans to work on it. The lard was finished on the floor above, and it came in little jets, like beautiful, wriggling, snow-white snakes of unpleasant odor. There were several kinds and sizes of jets, and after a certain precise quantity had come out, each stopped automatically, and the wonderful machine made a turn, and took the can under another jet, and so on, until it was filled neatly to the brim, and pressed tightly, and smoothed off. To attend to all this and fill several hundred cans of lard per hour, there were necessary two human creatures, one of whom knew how to place an empty lard can on a certain spot every few seconds, and the other of whom knew how to take a full can of lard off a certain spot every few seconds and set it upon a tray.’

Things get worse in Chapter 7, their winter of discontent. “There was no heat upon the killing beds; the men might exactly as well have worked out of doors all winter. For that matter, there was very little heat anywhere in the building, except in the cooking rooms and such places—and it was the men who worked in these who ran the most risk of all, because whenever they had to pass through ice-cold corridors, and sometimes with nothing on above the waist except a sleeveless undershirt. On the killing beds you were apt to be covered with blood, and it would freeze solid; if you leaned against a pillar, you would freeze to that, and if you put your hand upon the blade of your knife, you would run a chance of leaving your skin on it. The men would tie up their feet in newspapers and old sacks, and these would be soaked in blood and frozen, and then soaked again, and so on, until by nighttime a man would be walking on great lumps the size of the feet of an elephant. Now and then, when the bosses were not looking, you would see them plunging their feet and ankles into the steaming hot carcass of the steer, or darting across the room to the hot-water jets. The cruelest thing of all was that nearly all of them—those who used knives—were unable to use gloves, and their arms would be white with frost and their hands would grow numb, and then of course there would be accidents. Also the air would be full of steam, from the hot water and the hot blood, so that you could not see five feet before you; and then, with men rushing about at the speed they kept up on the killing beds, and all with butcher knives, like razors, in their hands—well, it was to be counted as a wonder that there were not more men slaughtered than cattle.”

Life for the family in Chicago led to begging, prostitution and death. For Jurgis, there was no respite from the daily horrors…until he happened upon a Socialist lecture! The Jungle exposed the shocking conditions in immigrant factory life in the Bad Old Days, but it kind of descended into a pro-Socialist screed.

However, the novel led to public uproar and consumer protection laws. The Meat Inspection Act ensured sanitary conditions and proper labeling of meat products; the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 established purity levels for drugs and the labeling of active ingredients.

In a 1906 Cosmopolitan Magazine interview, Upton Sinclair responded, “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”

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