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1880s Chicago’s Union Stockyards

August 2020

TAPPING THE HEART OF THE HEARTLAND

As railroads unlocked the wealth of the West, they also promoted the rise of new industries, and meatpacking was among the most significant.

The classic life of the open Western range focused on a city. Cowboys drove their livestock to railroad towns like Abilene, there to ride cattle cars to Chicago’s meatpacking district, with its excellent rail connections with the East.

The Union Stockyards, incorporated in 1865, covered 345 acres. Steers, cows, and hogs were herded into the plants of Armour, Swift, and Morris, to be slaughtered and dressed.

This industry relied on large numbers of workers performing easily learned, highly specific tasks in a monotonous routine. In essence, they worked on a disassembly line, and the meatpacking houses foreshadowed in reverse the industrial assembly lines of the twentieth century.

Refrigerated railroad cars spurred the industry by making it possible to keep beef fresh without salting it down. But stale beef proved to be the least of public concerns. When Upton Sinclair published The Jungle in 1906, a horrified nation read of poisoned rats ground up for sausage and hogs dead of cholera used for fancy-grade lard. Independent investigation confirmed these evils.

The outcry that followed brought passage of the Pure Food, Drink, and Drug Act. The new law offered protection, and it also set a precedent for future federal oversight of industry. Sixty years after Sinclair’s scalding novel appeared, the government was setting standards for auto safety.

—T.A.H.

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