“Roses are red, violets are blue, the stockyards stink and so do you!” begins Dominic Pacyga’s account of Chicago’s Union Stock Yard. At the stockyard’s zenith, fifty-thousand people were employed there and in the adjacent Packingtown just south of Bridgeport. Pacyga, a historian whose Polish grandparents lived in Back of the Yards and worked in the meatpacking industry, weaves together a deft social, ethnic, business and labor history and story of the place. “The Stockyards were Chicago,” he says.
The Union Stock Yard represented modern capitalism and the industrial factory system applied to food for the first time. Companies such as Swift and Armour centralized and unified meat markets in the nation. Previously it took almost a day to butcher a steer, but Chicago’s packinghouses took only thirty-five minutes. The spectacle of killing and processing thousands of animals each day drew 50,000 tourists each year, from around the United States and around the world. Politicians included it on their campaign trails. Rudyard Kipling wrote, “They were so excessively alive, these pigs. And then they were so excessively dead, and the man in the dripping, clammy, hot passage did not seem to care.”
The book credits the business owners for their entrepreneurial thrust, while providing an unvarnished critique of labor conditions. Workers, including men, women and illegal child labor, were prone to skin infections, pneumonia, rheumatism, nervous disorders and tuberculosis. Hours were long, pay low, and the physical conditions gross and difficult. Industrialization meant that workers had fewer rights while owners made greater profits. Pacyga charts the development of unions, and the brutality of the militia and the police in smashing industrial action.
Also interesting is Pacyga’s documentation of pollution and attempts to regulate the industry. Effluent, blood and carcasses were discharged directly into the West Fork of the South Branch of the Chicago River. It was nicknamed Bubbly Creek because the decaying matter sent up massive bubbles several feet in diameter.
Pacyga reveals much of old Chicago and its working-class history and guides the reader back to the Square Mile of today. It is being invigorated as the Chicago Stockyards Industrial Park, home to new industries and urban food farms. (Toni Nealie)
“Slaughterhouse: Chicago’s Union Stock Yard and the World It Made”
By Dominic A. Pacyga
University of Chicago Press, 256 pages, $26
Dominic Pacyga and Erik Gellman discuss the history of the slaughterhouses on November 19 at 57th Street Books, 1301 East 57th, (773)684-1300, 6pm, free.
Toni Nealie is the Literary Editor of Newcity and the author of the essay collection “The Miles Between Me.” A Pushcart Prize nominee, her essays have appeared in Guernica Magazine, Rust Belt: Chicago, The Rumpus, The Offing, Essay Daily, Chicago Quarterly Review, Hobart, Entropy and elsewhere. She worked in magazine journalism, politics and PR in her native New Zealand, the United Kingdom and Singapore and now edits, writes and teaches in Chicago. Find her at toninealie.com and on Twitter @tnealie. She can be reached at email@example.com.