“In the last analysis, ‘civilization’ is based upon food supply. The cathedral and the capitol, the museum and the concert chamber, the library and the university are the fašade: in the rear are the shambles. …behind our literature and philosophy, our ritual and art, stand the stout killers of packingtown.” [1]

“In the last analysis, ‘civilization’ is based upon food supply. The cathedral and the capitol, the museum and the concert chamber, the library and the university are the façade: in the rear are the shambles. …behind our literature and philosophy, our ritual and art, stand the stout killers of packingtown.” [1]

Between 1865-1900, my grandparents’ generation witnessed the transition between two stages of civilization from agriculture and self-sufficiency to an industrial society in which persons engage in functionally-specialized occupations making them dependent upon others. . At the same time, the white man was forcing the American Indians to evolve from the earlier stage of hunting and gathering to agriculture.

Union Stock Yard

Every form of transportation including rail , road, canal, lake, river, from coast-to-coast and north-to-south up the Mississippi River converged on Chicago making it the railroad center of the nation by mid-century. As the cattle industry grew and funneled Texas beeves through Kansas railheads to Chicago following the Civil War the meat packing industry grew commensurately.

The earliest pipeline for Texas beef was over the Illinois Central RR which ran next to my grandparent’s land in Cole County, Illinois into the Packingtown area of Chicago, home of the Union Stock Yard—a consortium of nine railroads in Chicago starting in 1865. By 1900 it would grow to 475-acre complex employing 40,000 people, having 50 miles of roads, 130 miles of tracks, a square mile of yards containing 25,000 gates, 2300 separate livestock pens accommodating 75,000 hogs, 21,000 cattle, and 22,000 sheep. Between 1865 and 1900 400,000,000 livestock were butchered there –82% of the domestic meat consumed nationally. It was torn down in 1971 and its iconic gate designated a National Historic Landmark.

The Jungle

Upton Sinclair’s classic 1906 work, The Jungle, is a novel resulting from the author’s six-week stint working in a packing plant in the Union Stock Yards. It portrayed poor Lithuanian immigrants brutalized by staff and the work in one of the many nearby private packing plants.

Henry Ford visited these plants about the same time and from it gained his ideas for the revolutionary assembly-line method of auto production e.g., moving the product past stationery work stations. Livestock were walked up chutes to top floors of plants where they were men with sledge hammers [“knockers”] hit the cattle penned tightly inside chutes. From there they were hung upside down by their legs, bled, gutted, skinned, scraped, cleaned, and dismembered.

“Bristles were cleaned and dried for making hair cushions. Skins were dried and tanned. Bones were made into fertilizer. Horns were made into combs, buttons, hair-pins, and imitation ivory. Larger bones were used to make knife and tooth-brush handles and mouthpieces for pipes. Hoofs were cut into hair-pins and buttons. Hoofs became glue. From such things as feet, knuckles, hide clippings, and sinews came such strange and unlikely products as gelatin, isinglass [early, translucent car windows], phosphorous, bone-black, shoe blacking, and bone-oil. They made pepsin from the stomachs of pigs, albumen from the blood, and violin strings from the ill-smelling entrails. When there was nothing else to be done with a thing, they first put it into a tank and got out of it all the tallow and grease, and the made it into fertilizer. [Plains Indians were driven from the Great Plains by killing the buffalo, the basis of their livelihood. An ancient civilization was exterminated to obtain bones for fertilizer!] “They don’t waste anything…They use everything about the hog except the squeal.” [2]

“Hard time’s is here

An ev’rywhere you go

Times are harder

Than th’ever been befo’

People, if I ever can get up

Off a-this old hard killin’ flo’

Lord, I’ll never get down

This low no mo”

Skip James, “Hard Time Killing Floor” [1931]

“The Jungle,” presumably a novel, was almost a documentary of conditions in the Chicago packinghouses that Republican President Theodore Roosevelt used to get Congress to enact the Meat Inspection and Pure Food and Drug Acts of 1906. [In 1930 the name was changed to the Food and Drug Administration.] He had hoped to inspire reforms in the treatment of workers, not animals e.g., “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”

Clay, Robinson & Co.

There were more people from Texas to Chicago financing and orchestrating cattle drives than there were folks actually handling cattle. A vital function was handling sales between cattlemen and meat packing firms located beside Union Stock Yards one of which was Clay, Robinson, & Co. The pictures here are from a postcard folio depicting office scenes in 1909.

Several aspects of office life stand out. Without exception, all women shown are secretaries—not executives. Second, only the three owners have telephones in a firm that boasts of its modern communication capabilities. I love the massive desks made of quarter-sawn, old- growth oak. The window is open and the ceilings are high—evidence of lack of refrigerated air conditioning. Note the spittoons., goose neck telephones, and oak hat stands. Explain to your grandkids the ‘transom’ above the doors in the Accounting Dept. Ah, the good ol days.


[1] Will Durant, “Our Oriental Heritage,” NY: Simon & Schuster, 1954, pg.7

[2] Upton Sinclair, NY: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1906, pg. 46.