From Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In the 1906 novel The Jungle, novelist and journalist Upton Sinclair describes the success of Chicago’s meatpacking industry in hiding unsanitary factory conditions, as well as the dangers of working in such facilities. Sinclair also comments on the political forces at play, telling the story of a Chicago meatpacker’s union that helps decrease the political influence of the factory owners by voting sympathetic candidates into power. The novel was based on Sinclair’s own experiences investigating Chicago’s meatpacking industry, and his findings would inspire the passage of new food safety laws in the United States.

Summary Overview

In the 1906 novel The Jungle, novelist and journalist Upton Sinclair describes the success of Chicago’s meatpacking industry in hiding unsanitary factory conditions, as well as the dangers of working in such facilities. Sinclair also comments on the political forces at play, telling the story of a Chicago meatpacker’s union that helps decrease the political influence of the factory owners by voting sympathetic candidates into power. The novel was based on Sinclair’s own experiences investigating Chicago’s meatpacking industry, and his findings would inspire the passage of new food safety laws in the United States.

Defining Moment

Throughout the nineteenth century, the meatpacking industry was one of the largest employers in the Midwest. In the years leading up to the Civil War, this industry employed thousands of Americans, most of whom were located in Cincinnati, Ohio, and other parts of the Ohio River Valley. During and after the Civil War, the meatpacking industry shifted to Chicago, Illinois, a hub of the nation’s growing railway system.

In 1865, the establishment of the Union Stock Yards, a meatpacking district just south of Chicago, bolstered Chicago’s position as the nation’s leader in meatpacking. The stockyards were tremendous, using fifteen miles of railway track to deliver livestock to the slaughterhouses and transport the final products throughout the nation. They also relied on the Chicago River for water, using 500,000 gallons per day, and sent contaminated wastewater back into a river fork. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the Union Stock Yards covered 475 acres, with fifty miles of roads and 130 miles of railway track servicing them.

The industry was highly lucrative, with a growing service area. During the Civil War era, the Cincinnati- and Chicago-based industries were focused on servicing the Midwest. However, the advent of the refrigerated boxcar made it possible to send fresh meat throughout the country, and even around the world. By 1900, the Union Stock Yards employed more than 25,000 people. The meatpacking companies wielded tremendous political and financial influence over the areas in which they operated, and government oversight was limited.

In light of the high degree of economic prosperity the Union Stock Yards brought to the Chicago area, as well as the insular manner in which the meatpacking industry managed itself, few people outside of the industry knew the realities of working at that massive complex. The thousands of workers there, mainly Eastern European immigrants, worked exceptionally long hours in unsanitary and highly dangerous conditions. It was not until the beginning of the twentieth century, when novelist and social activist Upton Sinclair published his novel The Jungle, that the nation as a whole began to pay attention to the harsh and unsanitary environment that was the meatpacking industry. The novel inspired the passage of the Federal Food and Drugs Act of 1906, which regulated the manufacture and sale of various foods and medicinal products.

Author Biography

Upton Beall Sinclair was born on September 20, 1878, in Baltimore, Maryland. He and his parents moved to New York City when he was ten. At the age of eighteen, he graduated from what is now the City University of New York and continued his education at Columbia University. Having developed an interest in writing as a teenager, Sinclair published short stories and dime novels throughout his time in college and continued to publish fiction after completing his education. He also became a socialist, and in 1904, embarked on an investigation of the meatpacking industry for the socialist newspaper Appeal to Reason. Sinclair traveled to Chicago and remained there for several weeks, observing the life of meatpacking workers and the conditions that surrounded them. These observations became the basis for The Jungle, serialized in Appeal to Reason in 1905 and published in book form in 1906. Sinclair wrote numerous novels after The Jungle, some of which, including the 1927 novel Oil!, also proved influential. In 1934, Sinclair unsuccessfully ran for governor of California. Afterward he returned to the private sector, writing a number of historical novels. He died on November 25, 1968, at the age of ninety.

Document Analysis

The Jungle tells the story of a Lithuanian immigrant, Jurgis Rudkus, who arrives in Chicago in search of work. He and his family settle in an area known as Packingtown, where they experience a wide range of hardships. Jurgis finds work in the meatpacking industry but continues to struggle with poverty and crime in addition to the physical dangers of his work environment. He eventually becomes interested in socialism and labor unions, seeing them as a possible solution to the rampant corruption of the meatpacking industry. Though The Jungle is a work of fiction, the novel is a thinly veiled commentary on life at the Union Stock Yards and expresses Sinclair’s positive views of unionization and socialist ideals.

Throughout The Jungle, Jurgis witnesses firsthand many of the unsanitary conditions and unhealthy products being assembled in Packingtown. Some departments within the facility in which he works use dye and other chemicals, parts of older and unused meat segments, and even diseased animal corpses in the creation of household food products. The production of sausage continues even after rat droppings as well as cleaning chemicals, dirt, and sawdust have fallen into the openly stored piles of meat. Sinclair’s descriptions of these unhygienic conditions are graphic and clearly demonstrate that meat products produced in such conditions are unfit for human consumption.

Sinclair likewise uses the novel to draw attention to the corruption of the meatpacking industry as well as its human cost. Government inspectors visit Packingtown but accomplish little, as the companies pay or otherwise influence the inspectors to sign off on their unsanitary practices. Workers, such as Jurgis, are unable to improve the sanitary conditions of their work environment; in fact, the plants of Packingtown are even said to lack hand-washing facilities. Workers returning home carry germs and harmful substances on their hands and clothes, exposing their families to those environmental conditions as well. Furthermore, Sinclair, through Jurgis, emphasizes the extreme dangers associated with working in Packingtown. Picklers, boners, butchers, and other workers are said to be at constant risk of injury, and thanks to the unsanitary working conditions and numerous hazardous substances around them, even the smallest cut has the potential to develop a terrible infection. Other workers, such as those responsible for operating hoisting machinery, spend so much time bent over that they walk around “like chimpanzees.”

After experiencing the hardships of meatpacking work, Jurgis eventually meets Dr. Nicholas Schliemann, a Swiss native whose socialist views appear to provide a solution. Schliemann convinces Jurgis of the value of unions, which could allow the meatpackers to unite and speak with one voice. Jurgis realizes that unionization could empower the people of Packingtown and give them the ability to take control of Chicago politics and put an end to the harmful and exploitative practices of the meatpacking industry.

Essential Themes

In The Jungle, Jurgis Rudkus arrives in the United States in search of opportunity, but he instead encounters hardship, crime, corruption, and danger in a large system of slaughterhouses known as Packingtown. The story is fictional, but Sinclair’s novel is heavily based on his experiences and observations at the very real Union Stock Yards outside of Chicago. Sinclair believed that the secrets of the meatpacking industry–then hidden from the prying eyes of critics, activists, and the public at large–needed to be revealed to all Americans, and the novel form allowed him to do so in an accessible manner, presenting a depiction of the meatpacking industry that resonated with readers on several levels.

In the novel, it is common for workers to be injured, maimed, or even killed while working in Packingtown. Death can be immediate, Jurgis learns, or it can be long and painful due to infection. Sinclair calls attention to the terrible human cost of the meatpacking industry, presenting in unflinching detail the amputations, mutilations, and deaths that commonly occur in a work environment that favors production over worker safety. In addition, the meatpacking industry is shown to use extremely unsanitary and unhealthy practices in the production of its products. Chemicals, animal waste, and other foreign substances are commonly dumped into the meat, and expired and even rancid byproducts are packaged and sold to customers. The government is shown to monitor these practices, but, as Jurgis learns, government inspectors are on site as a service to the companies themselves rather than the public. By describing the unsanitary production of food products in detail, Sinclair made it clear to his readers that poor working conditions in meatpacking facilities affected not only the people who worked there, but also the unsuspecting consumers who ate the contaminated products–perhaps including the readers themselves.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Barrett, James R. Work and Community in the Jungle: Chicago’s Packinghouse Workers, 1894–1922. Champaign: U of Illinois P, 1990. Print.
  • Halpern, Rick. Down on the Killing Floor: Black and White Workers in Chicago’s Packinghouses, 1904–1954. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1997. Print.
  • Stromquist, Shelton, and Marvin Bergman. Unionizing the Jungles: Labor and Community in the Twentieth-Century Meatpacking Industry. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1997. Print.
  • Warren, Wilson J. Tied to the Great Packing Machine: The Midwest and Meatpacking. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 2007. Print.
Categories: History Content