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To Sinclair: Ain't that the Dickens?!

Speaking of The Economist’s Question – "As compared to what?" – I recall a conversation I had last month with a young American college student who asked if I approve of the working conditions described in Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle. (The Jungle, you’ll recall, contains dismaying descriptions of working conditions in early 20th-century slaughterhouses in the United States.)

I granted my young friend his assumption that Sinclair’s descriptions are accurate. But I then asked: As compared to what? What were the alternatives 100 years ago for those men and women who chose to work in slaughterhouses?

Before the centralization of butchering – which was a major economic event begun in the early 1880s, made possible by Gustavus Swift’s successful development of economically efficient refrigerated railroad cars – almost all consumption of fresh meat took place within a few days and a few miles of its slaughter. Lack of refrigeration required that butchering be local. And butchering back then was real butchering – actually killing animals on the spot – rather than merely carving up carcasses delivered to local supermarkets from afar.

So any sound analysis of the work conditions of early 20th-century slaughterhouses must ask and reasonably answer these (and other) questions:

– What jobs would slaughterhouse workers perform had they not been employed in slaughterhouses? How dangerous were these other jobs?  What did these other jobs pay?

– How dangerous was butchering before the rise of the slaughterhouses? Were pre-slaughterhouse butchers less likely or more likely than slaughterhouse workers to have fingers or arms severed?

– What were other effects of slaughterhouses?

One other likely effect is that slaughterhouses made cities and towns cleaner. With butchering centralized in midwestern factories, New York, Boston, Richmond, and other cities and towns throughout America had less need of local butchering places. This fact, in turn, meant less smell (and, probably, disease) from the local slaughtering of large mammals.

While it’s hardly conclusive evidence, this quotation from Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations (1860-61) suggests that cities in pre-slaughterhouse times featured an unpleasantness that we today are thankfully unaware of. In this passage, the narrator (Pip) mentions his first encounter with London’s Smithfield area – that is, that part of London in which animals were butchered for meat:

So, I came into Smithfield; and the shameful place, being all asmear with filth and fat and blood and foam, seemed to stick to me.

Centralized butchering rescues cities and towns from this smelly and bacteria-laden "filth and fat and blood and foam."


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