Meat Packing Blues A book examines when Chicago was the king of slaughter.

Slaughterhouse: Chicago’s Union Stock Yard and the World it Made

By Dominic A. Pacyga (2015, University of Chicago Press) 233 pages including endnotes, bibliography, index, and illustrations

Frank Sinatra put it well: Chicago is the Union Stock Yard. After 1971, when the stock yard closed for good, Sinatra often dropped his reference to the home of Chicago’s meatpacking industry when he performed “My Kind of Town.” Substituting the “Chicago Cubbies,” Sinatra effectively switched his allegiance from South side to North, and from labor to leisure. One of the many contributions of Dominic A. Pacyga’s new book, Slaughterhouse, is to demonstrate that amateur crooners can sing along with Sinatra’s original lyrics without sounding anachronistic. Chicago is, still, the Union Stock Yard, and Pacyga is an expert guide to its history.

In recent decades Pacyga has emerged as a something of a local bard, appearing around town in historical documentaries and publishing six books on Chicago history, all attuned to the Windy City as a showplace of modern industry, labor movements, and the complex communities that workers created. Pacyga’s works are distinguished by a deep, intimate knowledge of Chicago’s physical and social geography, giving them the detail and charm of local history as well as the formal analysis and attention to context of scholarly writing. Alongside learned discussions of questions like the social implications of industrialized capitalism, readers are often treated to block-by-block renderings of historical change, subtle distinctions in local lingo, and dozens of high-quality illustrations selected from the author’s personal collection—photographs, stereopticons, postcards, and advertisements.  It is saying something to note that of the nearly 50 illustrations found in Slaughterhouse, two-thirds appear over the familiar caption, “author’s personal collection,” a testament to Pacyga’s commitment to preserving Chicago’s working-class history for a broad audience.

It is saying something to note that of the nearly 50 illustrations found in Slaughterhouse, two-thirds appear over the familiar caption, “author’s personal collection,” a testament to Pacyga’s commitment to preserving Chicago’s working-class history for a broad audience.

The audience for Slaughterhouse, which includes scholars, local history enthusiasts, students, and anyone interested in the drama of industrial Chicago, may be familiar with the depiction of the Union Stock Yard in Upton Sinclair’s muckraking novel, The Jungle (1906). “North and South as far as the eye can reach there stretches a sea of pens,” Sinclair wrote of the Stock Yard. The pens held innumerable head of livestock, a number “no one had ever dreamed existed in the world.”[1]  Opened in 1865, just as Chicago started to emerge as the economic powerhouse of the mid-continent, the Union Stock Yard originally contained five hundred livestock pens, laid out in a grid pattern, and arranged over 60 acres south of the downtown. Just as the grid pattern mirrored Chicago’s streets, the physical expansion of the Stock Yard mirrored the city’s economic growth. By 1900 the Stock Yard had expanded to include five thousand pens and the combined territory of “Packingtown” (a local term for the entire complex of pens, slaughter houses, and processing plants) reached 560 acres. When the Yard finally shuttered, workers there had seen more than one billion livestock animals pass through its gates. Entire neighborhoods had quite literally grown up around it.  Millions of Chicagoans found jobs at the Stock Yard, including Pacyga himself, who worked in the hog house and as a guard at the main gate during summers home from college in the late 1960s.

Since the 1860s, Packingtown has been fertile ground for historians and other authors who sought to capture something unique about Chicago’s place in American history. The stockyards neighborhood may well be the most written about part of the city.  Pacyga offers a new take by focusing on the actual Union Stock Yard—the pens and supporting infrastructure, including railroad lines and other facilities necessary for the livestock trade. His main message is that the Yard “provided an economic and symbolic base for the neighborhoods and the city that grew around it.” Serving as the point of origin for one of the city’s largest industries, the Stock Yard employed immigrants, many of whom, like the protagonist of The Jungle, Jurgis Rudkus, came from abroad to pursue “the American Dream” of upward mobility in Chicago, an immigrant city. At the turn of the twentieth century, just before Sinclair conducted his initial research for the novel, one student of Chicago estimated that fully one-quarter of the city’s residents earned their livelihood, directly or indirectly, from the Union Stock Yard.

The meat-packing companies housed there innovated to change working conditions in ways that reverberated throughout the economy. They sped meat production by inventing the “disassembly line,” a precursor to Henry Ford’s better-known version; altered transportation and market networks with the refrigerated railroad car; invented new ways to create wealth through the meat by-products industry, and novel ways to sell such products to the mass market. 

The meat-packing companies housed there innovated to change working conditions in ways that reverberated throughout the economy. They sped meat production by inventing the “disassembly line,” a precursor to Henry Ford’s better-known version; altered transportation and market networks with the refrigerated railroad car; invented new ways to create wealth through the meat by-products industry, and novel ways to sell such products to the mass market. Here the tradition of innovation introduced workers and consumers to the modern world, including the industrial economy and mass production. Speed served as one of the distinguishing characteristics of modern production, as Jurgis, who takes a job on the disassembly line, learns well. The bloody work, Sinclair wrote, “called for every faculty of a man” to keep up, allowing “never one instant’s rest for a man, for his hand or his eye or his brain,” a freneticism that eventually saps Jurgis’s spirit and alienates him from his job and even his family.[2]

Traditional butchers might take anywhere from 8 to 10 hours to slaughter and process a steer; in Chicago it took 35 minutes. Such speed demonstrated how industrial production altered more than workplaces. Basic human pursuits like food procurement seemed on a different footing—“the frightening [modern] sense that something basic had shifted between man and nature,” Pacyga explains. Throughout the book, readers learn how the meat packing industry and the modern world fed one another: the speed of the disassembly line shrunk time; the refrigerated railroad car shrunk space; the Stock Yard concentrated productive power; the surrounding neighborhoods did the same for community, but also for pollution and poverty. All this fascinated outside observers, but it also bewildered, and raised difficult questions about what the future would look like. In this way, the Stock Yard plays its “symbolic” role as a keyhole into an uncertain and yet wondrous industrial future, much like Chicago itself.

After World War II modern meatpacking left the Stock Yard behind. In the 1950s, Charles S. Potter, the president of the company that ran the Stock Yard, the Union Stock Yard and Transit Company (USY&T), faced an exodus of the largest meat packers farther west, where the land was cheaper and widely connected to the new highway system. Bravely announcing refurbished facilities and a return to greatness for Chicago’s withering meat industry, he predicted that in the 1960s “Chicago will not only be the largest livestock market in the world, but also the most up to date in facilities for both buyer and seller.” This forecast proved manifestly false, and quickly so. The 1965 centennial celebrations took place amidst decline because of a basic capitalist logic: it was simply cheaper to slaughter livestock near where it was raised, rather than first delivering to a central, urban stockyard. The Stock Yard briefly attracted national attention as the home of the 1968 Democratic National Convention (held at the adjacent International Amphitheatre) but the industry was moribund, and death followed three years later.

After years of blight in the 1970s, the stockyards district re-remerged as a successful industrial park, in part because the city of Chicago created a special tax zone to promote light industry and commerce. Today visitors to the stockyards district can stop by Evans Pork Rinds, which claims title as the “world’s largest producer of pork rinds” as well as a factory store for Vienna Beef, Chicago’s favorite hot dog maker. If these places remind visitors of the past glories of the meat business, others underline different continuities between then and now. One example is Testa Produce, which built a state-of-the-art, environmentally-friendly plant complete with green roof, solar panels, bioswale system, and nearly 250-foot windmill turbine that marks the spot for viewers from a distance.  Slaughterhouse demonstrates how the stockyards district is once more at the forefront of innovation in food production and the use of urban space, again making Chicago a showplace for the future.

[1] Upton Sinclair, The Jungle (New York: Doubleday, Page, & Company, 1906), 37.

[2] Ibid., 67.