Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle was a wake up call to many Americans. Some critics might say that his language was too graphic, or that he was perhaps going overboard with his melodrama, but there is no doubt that it had broad implications for social change. With the help of Sinclair and his colleagues, the Progressive movement of the early twentieth century actually started to see some legislation that achieved some of the movement’s goals. The Jungle had two primary social goals: to address the horror's of the Meat-Packing Industry in Chicago, and to address workers' rights in an private-owned industry dominated economy.
The Food Arena
The primary political impact that The Jungle had was in regards to the way that food was handled and even viewed in the United States. After president Theodore Roosevelt got wind of the conditions exposed in the novel, he commissioned and inspection of Chicago’s meat packing houses. When the conditions discussed in Sinclair’s novel were confirmed true in the Neill-Reynolds report—meat to be processe
d and packed lay on the floor with rat dung, poison, urine, and all other unmentionable things—the President pushed two major pieces of legislation through Congress in 1906. President Roosevelt made an official statement in a New York Times article published on June 4th 1906:
“The report shows that the stock yards and packing houses are not kept even reasonably clean, and that the method of handling and preparing food products is uncleanly and dangerous to health. Under existing law the National Government has no power to enforce inspection of the many forms of prepared meat food products that are daily going from the packing houses into inter-State commerce. Owing to an inadequate appropriation the department of Agriculture is not even able to place Inspectors in all establishments desiring them.”
A rebuttal to this appeared on June ninth in The National Provisioner , in which a statement from the stockyards and packinghouses of Chicago was released, that adamantly insisted that the government and the inspectors were the ones blatantly lying to the public about conditions in the pack houses:
“For weeks newspapers throughout the country have fairly reeked with slander, all tending to create the belief that the larger packers of this country are in the business of selling condemned and diseased meat to the public. These slanders have done incalculable harm to the meat industry, and to the general public, which has been prejudiced with suspicion of its daily food…Every pound of meat in our packing houses comes from animals which are inspected and passed by trained veterinary agents of the Department of Agriculture. This is an absolute fact.”
In a sorry attempt to save face, the statement from the Chicago meat-packing industry goes on to quote the Neill-Reynolds report and actually try and defend the sorry conditions that it exposes.
The packinghouses failed to convince the public of their innocence however, because subsequently the President pushed the Meat Inspection Act and The Pure Food and Drug Act (which established the FDA) through the legislature and were signed just twenty-one days later on June thirtieth. Even though packing houses found ways to get around the new legislation—i.e. not putting all ingredients on a label, no matter how verifiable the ingredients actually listed were—law became much more strict and it revolutionized the way that our country not only thought about regulating our big industry but it set a precedent for how the legal system approached the American food industry.
The Worker's Arena
Another social issue that Sinclair exposed was the issue of worker’s rights. Sinclair mentions workers who get sick with blood poisoning, who cut off their fingers, and even those who catch tuberculosis, but none of them dare stay home even if they are deathly ill. They know that if they do, they will be fired and have to scrounge for months for another job that will “dock an hour’s pay…be [he] a minute late.” So all of these diseased animals and workers are in constant contact and it not only negatively affects the health of the workers, but it gets into the food that the people in the rest of the country consumes. One passage from the novel puts it this way, “The great corporation which employed you o the whole country—from the top to the bottom it was nothing but one gigantic lie.”
President Roosevelt addresses this issue as well in his statement made in the aforementioned New York Times article:
“The insanitary conditions in which the laborers work and the feverish pace which they are forced to maintain inevitably affect their health…even the ordinary decencies of life are completely ignored [restrooms]…The whole situation as we saw it in these huge establishments tends necessarily and inevitably to the moral degradation of thousands of workers, who are forced to spend their working hours under conditions that are entirely unnecessary and unpardonable, and which are a constant menace not only to their own health, but to the health of those who use the food products prepared by them.”