Chicago Meatpacking Industry in 1900: Pickled Hands, and More.

September 6, 2015

“In the beginning he had been fresh and strong, and he had gotten a job
that first day, but now he was second-hand, a damaged article, so to speak, and they did not want him. They had worn him out, with their speedin-up and their carelessness, and
now they had thrown him away!”Upton Sinclair, The Jungle (1906)
Meatpacking workers carrying their product to unrefrigerated and most likely rat infested storage areas

Newly hired children workers
Newly hired children workers.
Making link sausages in the Swift Co. Chicago,1900

The nightmare of the Chicago meatpacking industry was described as follows:

The words of the late Pulitzer prize winning author Upton Sinclair only begin to tell the story of the beginning of the Chicago meatpacking business. As the wheels of American industries began to move, so moved the meatpacking business in Chicago 1900 – and the conditions were unsanitary, unregulated, and clearly unsafe. Add into the equation long hours, low wages, and child workers, what emerges is a social nightmare.

It was January 12, 1909, and the weather in Chicago was typical – freezing cold, and the wind coming off the Chicago river was harsh. Early that morning, John Panzezyk set off from his dismal tenement home in the Stockyard district to walk the short distance to his job at a meatpacking plant. His work days were usually 12 to 15 hours, and this day, he was simply hoping to stay warm. He said goodbye to his wife and four small children. Sadly, it would be the last time they would see him alive. Later that day, John was killed at work when he got caught in the belting of a large meat machine. In a time when big business ruled, and workers had no rights, and certainly no extended benefits, it is likely that Mrs. Panzezyk and her children would soon become destitute, and possibly homeless. The reality of this terrible event offers a small window into the family tragedy that would have certainly followed. The story of John Panzezyk serves as just one example of the realities that Upton Sinclair was trying to express.

In Chicago 1900 the Chicago meatpacking industry, along with other industries, began to expand and grow. There was money to be made both at home, as well as overseas. Making profits initially relied upon two major things – – cheap labor, and the absence of any type of regulation. Fresh immigrants, many of them Polish, and an abundance of children as young as 8 years old, made up their work force.

The Chicago meatpacking business was a deadly one. As the scale and size of their facilities increased, so did the dangers. By the 1880s, the European meat markets closed their doors to imported American meat. America’s many “>stockyards were known to be filthy, and a breeding ground for diseased meat. Many of the meats were rancid, rat infested, and bacteria filled. Workers had few, if any, or no guidelines regarding the quality control of their products. Rules about their safety in the workplace did not exist. Wearing gloves or hair nets was not a consideration. In addition to being handled by unclean workers in an unsanitary environment, large volumes of meat were not always refrigerated. Despite the widespread use of brining or salting meat, some of the processed meat was not always properly preserved. The biggest concern, however, was whether or not the live cow or hog was diseased before it went to the processing plant.

It is difficult to say how many Europeans, as well as Americans, became sick, or died, because of the diseased meat. The Europeans claimed that the meat caused pleuro-pneumonia and cholera. A combination of both pleurisy and pneumonia, the nasty respiratory infection only caused vomiting, diarrhea, sometimes bloody diarrhea, chills, sweats, and intense pain in the abdomen. The not so lucky ones died. And, if you had the misfortune of dining on cholera infected meat, (massive infection of the intestines), your chances of survival were slim.

Recent science would suggest that there was a lot more going on than just cholera and pneumonia. In the days before health inspections, notwithstanding any regulations related to the quality control of both animals and the processing of meat, a number of different bacterias infected the meat. Bovine tuberculosis was usually found in raw milk, but it also showed up in infected animals, especially when the meat was undercooked. The impact on humans who ingested this meat was the passing of tuberculosis bacteria, a deadly lung infection. Brucellosis, anthrax, and the trichinosis bacteria are just a few more likely contaminants in the diseased meat.
These bacteria, along with the others, caused serious illneses, and like the others, in many cases death.

Chicago meatpackers understood that to survive they also needed to sell their products in the European market. Chicago 1900 became the central home of the American industry and small companies began merging with one another. By the turn of the last century there were only five or six mammoth meatpacking companies, and they controlled the majority of meatpacking in America. The problem was, that they still had not penetrated the European market.

The answer, of course, was that the industry needed regulation. They needed to literally clean up their processing facilities, set standards for their workers, and enlist field inspectors for the animals. It was the meatpacking industry itself which pursued the government to bring about federal legislation and regulation to their business.

Why would an industry want itself to be regulated? Did big business suddenly have a conscience and want to find some moral high ground when it came to safer ways of feeding the world? No, …, of course not! The answer was supplied by the late historian Gabriel Kolko. It seems that many small meatpacking companies were undercutting the Chicago big boys, and had been for a long time. And, they felt it was time to drive them out of business. Kolko argued that the federal legislation that the big meatpackers were pushing for was easily affordable to them, but the cost would put the little companies out of business. And that is exactly what happened. The big boys could simply increase their prices to cover the cost of the new regulations. So, it really wasn’t about the meat packers doing the right thing to make the world and their employees safe. It was about making money.

By rough estimates, thousands of children were working in the Chicago meatpacking business at the turn of the century. Because of the low wages, immigrant families, like many other familes, were forced to live on a family wage. Sometimes, children worked as long as their parents, usually 10 to 15 hours a day. Their living accommodations were essentially an extension of the hell that they endured during the day. It was also an extension of the control the meat packers had over their workers.

The Stockyard community was the residential area next to the stockyards, and the many meatpacking plants in Chicago. It was close to the Chicago river, and only minutes from work. It was convenient, and the great majority of the workers lived in this dismal, loud, and overcrowded area. Most importantly, the rent was affordable.

Sometimes as many as seven familes used one outdoor bathroom. Depending on the time of year, the streets were full of mud and excrement from overflowing cesspools. To add to the misery, the Stockyards were surrounded by the city’s dumps. The garbage stench, and the smell from the vile waste of the meatpacking plants, that floated down the Chicago river, had to be overbearing.

Workplace accidents, like John Panzezyk’s, were all too common. Additionally, there were a number of nightmare diseases connected with working in the plants. Before the age of throw-away gloves and protective clothing, skin infections were a source of chronic concern. Workers, who were unfortunate enough to be assigned to the pickle rooms (pickling meats and sausage was fashionable before freezers became widespread), many times developed a very nasty infection from constantly handling cold meat with their hands. The medical term was called dermatoconiesis; the workers, however, gave the infection a more appropriate term — pickled hands.

Pickled hands? The idea of a person’s hands actually becoming “pickled” is beyond understanding. After the skin turned red, it then hardened and cracked. The skin would split and open, sometimes all the way to the bone. Horrible sores would then develop on the workers palms and the back of their hands. It would take at least two months or more to heal; and, that was if they were allowed to work in another department so the infection could heal. Some infected workers just continued handling and contaminating the meat — despite their hands essentially being “pickled”, and, as long as they could stand it.

Another common skin infection was the tubular wart, but the yard workers called the disgusting infection cut worm. Cut worm came from handling hog intestines. Large warts grew rapidly on the workers hands and split open and developed into ulcers. Workers did not use gloves until after WWI.

Although most of the infections described were ghastly, they generally did not lead to death. Workers, however, working in the wool, hair, or the bone grinding department, stood a good chance of contracting a serious lung infection, which many times developed into chronic coughs, then pneumonia, and ultimately death.

Arguably, the job with the highest risk of death belonged to the men working in the massive carcass coolers. Imagine working 10 to 15 hours a day dragging animal carcasses in and out of warm air into refrigerated cooler units, and doing this for days, weeks. years, and even decades. It doesn’t take a big stretch of the imagination to realize that these workers would suffer, and did, a much higher rate of cardiovascular, respiratory, and many other illnesses.

Sadly, there are numerous accounts of the premature deaths of the workers. Upton Sinclair spoke to that in his novel The Jungle :

“And as for the other men, who worked in tank rooms full of steam, and in some of
which there were open vats near the level of the floor, their peculiar trouble was that they fell into the vats; and when they were fished out, there was never enough of
them left to be worth exhibiting,—sometimes they would be overlooked for days,
till all but the bones of them had gone out to the world as Durham’s Pure Leaf Lard!”

Working at meatpacking houses was dangerous because of accidents, as well as potential worker diseases. At the turn of the last century, the bosses of the meatpacking industry viewed workers as totally replaceable, expendable, and with only limited value to them.

A century, and more, has passed since these dark days of the meatpacking industry. The dark days, however, did not end. In a 1999 Bureau of Labor Statistics report, meatpacking was determined to be the most dangerous occupation in America. It also determined that at least one quarter of meatpackers suffered serious injury or illness in their careers. Injuries in the meatpacking business were five times the national average. According to historian Eric Schlosser, the meatpacking industry has a well-documented history of discouraging injury reports, falsifying injury data, and putting injured workers back on the job quickly to minimize the reporting of lost workdays.

More about Allen Cornwell

Allen Cornwell is a self-employed business owner and an adjunct American History professor at a small college. He lives in rural Virginia and enjoys history, sports, old movies and visiting all types of museums. Cornwell has had a number of American history articles published and he earned his M. A. degree in American History from Virginia Commonwealth University. He can be contacted at:

    1. One of the most influential books Zi remember reading was the book of Upton Sinclair, The Jungle. He died on November 25th 1968, st age 90.
      What an American hero.

    1. Thank you for posting this article. It has given me some much needed insight into a character I am writing.
      I agree with Karuna Saraswati in her comments on Upton Sinclair and his book The Jungle. I’m going to read it in full…very important book to understand American history and the struggle of workers and immigrant to assimilate.

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