1906 | Chicago

Cutting-Room Floor

Red cattle, black, white, and yellow cattle; old cattle and young cattle.

A group of visitors to Packingtown passed down the busy street that led to the yards. It was still early morning, and everything was at its high tide of activity. A steady stream of employees was pouring through the gate—employees of the higher sort, at this hour, clerks and stenographers and such.

For the women there were waiting big two-horse wagons, which set off at a gallop as fast as they were filled. In the distance there was heard again the lowing of the cattle, a sound as of a far-off ocean calling. The group followed it, as eager as children in sight of a circus menagerie—which, indeed, the scene a good deal resembled. They crossed the railroad tracks, and then on each side of the street were the pens full of cattle; they would have stopped to look, but their guide, Jokubas, hurried them on, to where there was a stairway and a raised gallery, from which everything could be seen. Here they stood, staring, breathless with wonder.

There is over a square mile of space in the yards, and more than half of it is occupied by cattle pens; north and south as far as the eye can reach there stretches a sea of pens. And they were all filled—so many cattle no one had ever dreamed existed in the world. Red cattle, black, white, and yellow cattle; old cattle and young cattle; great bellowing bulls and little calves not an hour born; meek-eyed milch cows and fierce, long-horned Texas steers. The sound of them here was as of all the barnyards of the universe; and as for counting them—it would have taken all day simply to count the pens. Here and there ran long alleys, blocked at intervals by gates; and Jokubas told them that the number of these gates was twenty-five thousand.

Now the pens were full; by tonight they would all be empty. The party went across the street to where the workers did the killing of beef—where every hour they turned four or five hundred cattle into meat. All this work was done on one floor; there were fifteen or twenty lines, and the men moved from one to another of these. This made a scene of intense activity, a picture of human power wonderful to watch. It was all in one great room, like a circus amphitheater, with a gallery for visitors running over the center.

Along one side of the room ran a narrow gallery, a few feet from the floor, into which gallery the cattle were driven by men with goads that gave them electric shocks. Once crowded in here, the creatures were prisoned, each in a separate pen, by gates that shut, leaving them no room to turn around; and while they stood bellowing and plunging, over the top of the pen there leaned one of the “knockers,” armed with a sledgehammer and watching for a chance to deal a blow. The room echoed with the thuds in quick succession and the stamping and kicking of the steers. The instant the animal had fallen, the “knocker” passed on to another, while a second man raised a lever, and the side of the pen was raised, and the animal, still kicking and struggling, slid out to the “killing bed.” Here a man put shackles about one leg and pressed another lever, and the body was jerked up into the air. There were fifteen or twenty such pens, and it was a matter of only a couple of minutes to knock fifteen or twenty cattle and roll them out. Then once more the gates were opened, and another lot rushed in; and so out of each pen there rolled a steady stream of carcasses, which the men upon the killing beds had to get out of the way.

The manner in which they did this was something to be seen and never forgotten. They worked with furious intensity, literally upon the run—at a pace with which there is nothing to be compared except a football game. It was all highly specialized labor, each man having his task to do; generally this would consist of only two or three specific cuts, and he would pass down the line of fifteen or twenty carcasses, making these cuts upon each. First there came the “butcher,” to bleed them; this meant one swift stroke, so swift that you could not see it— only the flash of the knife; and before you could realize it, the man had darted on to the next line, and a stream of bright red was pouring out upon the floor. This floor was half an inch deep with blood, in spite of the best efforts of men who kept shoveling it through holes; it must have made the floor slippery, but no one could have guessed this by watching the men at work.

The carcass hung for a few minutes to bleed; there was no time lost, however, for there were several hanging in each line, and one was always ready. It was let down to the ground, and there came the “headsman,” whose task it was to sever the head, with two or three swift strokes. Then came the “floorsman,” to make the first cut in the skin; and then another to finish ripping the skin down the center; and then half a dozen more in swift succession, to finish the skinning. After they were through, the carcass was again swung up; and while a man with a stick examined the skin, to make sure that it had not been cut, and another rolled it up and tumbled it through one of the inevitable holes in the floor, the beef proceeded on its journey. There were men to cut it, and men to split it, and men to gut it and scrape it clean inside. There were some with hose that threw jets of boiling water upon it and others who removed the feet and added the final touches. In the end the finished beef was run into the chilling room, to hang its appointed time.

The visitors were taken there and shown them, all neatly hung in rows, labeled conspicuously with the tags of the government inspectors—and some, which had been killed by a special process, marked with the sign of the “kosher” rabbi, certifying that it was fit for sale to the orthodox. And then the visitors were taken to the other parts of the building to see what became of each particle of the waste material that had vanished through the floor, and to the pickling rooms and the salting rooms, the canning rooms and the packing rooms, where choice meat was prepared for shipping in refrigerator cars, destined to be eaten in all the four corners of civilization. Afterward they went outside, wandering about among the mazes of buildings in which was done the work auxiliary to this great industry. There was scarcely a thing needed in the business that Durham and Company did not make for themselves. There was a great steam power plant and an electricity plant. There was a barrel factory and a boiler-repair shop. There was a building to which the grease was piped and made into soap and lard; and then there was a factory for making lard cans and another for making soap boxes. There was a building in which the bristles were cleaned and dried, for the making of hair cushions and such things; there was a building where the skins were dried and tanned; there was another where heads and feet were made into glue and another where bones were made into fertilizer. No tiniest particle of organic matter was wasted in Durham’s. 

The body says what words cannot.

—Martha Graham, 1985

Out of the horns of the cattle they made combs, buttons, hairpins, and imitation ivory; out of the shinbones and other big bones they cut knife and toothbrush handles, and mouthpieces for pipes; out of the hooves they cut hairpins and buttons, before they made the rest into glue. From such things as feet, knuckles, hide clippings, and sinews came such strange and unlikely products as gelatin, isinglass, and phosphorus, bone black, shoeblacking, and bone oil. They had curled-hair works for the cattle tails, and a “wool pullery” for the sheepskins; they made pepsin from the stomachs of the pigs, and 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 then they made it into fertilizer. All these industries were gathered into buildings nearby, connected by galleries and railroads with the main establishment; and it was estimated that they had handled nearly a quarter of a billion of animals since the founding of the plant by the elder Durham a generation and more ago. If you counted with it the other big plants— and they were now really all one—it was, so Jokubas informed them, the greatest aggregation of labor and capital ever gathered in one place. It employed 30,000 men; it supported directly 250,000 people in its neighborhood, and indirectly it supported 500,000. It sent its products to every country in the civilized world, and it furnished the food for no less than 30 million people!

To all of these things the visitors would listen openmouthed—it seemed to them impossible of belief that anything so stupendous could have been devised by mortal man.


Upton Sinclair

From The Jungle. At the age of five, Sinclair wrote his first story, about a family that loses a pin, which is eaten by a pig; when the pig is later served as sausage, the family finds the pin. He intended for The Jungle to raise awareness about the exploitation of immigrant workers; instead, its lurid portrayal of the meatpacking industry in Chicago led to a furor about the need to regulate food production and the passing of the 1906 Food and Drugs Act. Sinclair died in 1968 at the age of ninety.