Leading the World – Pork and Beef Packing in Chicago (1873)

As Chicago’s meatpacking industry grew to the largest in the world in the second half of the nineteenth century, the stockyards served as a source of civic pride and international publicity. For example, in 1873 the short-lived real-estate journal The Land-Owner gave the industry a congratulatory boost by publishing a set of engravings and statistics celebrating the scale, efficiency, and modernity of Armour & Co.’s pork processing operations. Armour had established the plant the previous year, adjacent to the Union Stockyards. The journal amplified the industry overview offered in this two-page spread with illustrations and descriptions of various cuts of meat on previous pages. In general, the pictures depict the slaughterhouse as a spacious, clean, and bloodless workplace.

The meatpacking industry and the Progressive movement both matured during the same decades, in the later years of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. By the turn of the century, reform-oriented writers and visual artists turned their attention to the less savory aspects of the business. Upton Sinclair penned the most influential expose in his muck-racking 1906 novel about stockyards laborers, The Jungle. Sinclair dramatized not only the dangers and other abuses faced by the workers, but also the poor sanitary conditions of the factories. His tales of spoiled meat and rat infestation horrified the nation and still shape our view of Chicago’s meatpacking industry in that era. The literary activism of Sinclair and Progressive journalists encouraged Congress to pass regulatory legislation, including the Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906.

The exposure and regulation of the meatpacking industry and the Plan of Chicago stood at opposite ends of the spectrum of Progressive projects. The former aimed to make meatpacking safer and cleaner to benefit workers and consumers, even if these reforms cut into the industry’s profits. The creators and backers of the Plan forged a more business-friendly brand of Progressivism, seeking to stimulate Chicago’s economy by improving the safety, cleanliness, and beauty of the city in a more general way. The latter approach held appeal for meatpacking executives as well as other business leaders. For example, J. Ogden Armour, who led the company founded by his father Philip D. Armour, was a member of the Commercial Club and one of the original subscribers to the Plan of Chicago.



Barrett, James R. Work and Community in the Jungle: Chicago’s Packinghouse Workers, 1894-1922. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987.

Jablonsky, Thomas. Pride in the Jungle: Community and Everyday Life in Back of the Yards Chicago. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.

Leech, Harper, and John Charles Carroll. Armour and His Times. New York and London: D. Appleton-Century Co., 1938.

Pacyga, Dominic. Slaughterhouse: Chicago’s Union Stock Yard and the World It Made. Chicago:University of Chicago Press, 2015.

Sinclair, Upton. The Jungle: a Norton Critical Edition ed. Clare Virginia Eby. New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2003. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/140/140-h/140-h.htm.

Slayton, Robert A. Back of the Yards: the Making of a Local Democracy. Chicago:University of Chicago Press, 1986.

Wade, Louise Carroll. Chicago’s Pride: The Stockyards, Packington, and Environs in the Nineteenth Century. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987.



“Muckraker.” In Encyclopedia Britannica. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/395831/muckraker

“Leading the World – Pork and Beef Packing in Chicago, Showing the Great Process of Curing the Great Staple for the Markets of the World,” in The Land Owner (Chicago: J.M. Wing & Co., 1873), pp. 220 – 221. The Newberry Library, Ruggles 214, vol. 5