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Chicago's Union Stock Yard and the World It Made

by Dominic A. Pacyga

Hardcover, 233 pages, Univ of Chicago Pr, List Price: $26 |


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Dominic A. Pacyga

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The famed architectural firm Burnham and Root designed the iconic entranceway to the Union Stock Yard in 1879. It quickly became the symbol of the market and the meat industry in Chicago. Courtesy of Dominic A. Pacyga/University of Chicago Press hide caption

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Courtesy of Dominic A. Pacyga/University of Chicago Press

Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Slaughterhouse



Facing the Modern World

Cosmopolitan, indeed, is the sight-seeing throng that surges through the entrances of the Chicago Stock Yards. Ruddy-faced Germans jostle globe-trotting Englishmen, and the Japanese tourist, invariably armed with a camera, is a familiar figure. Every state in the Union, as well as almost every country on the globe, contributes its quota to the tide of humanity that ebbs and flows here with unfailing regularity, for the world-famed livestock market enjoys unique distinction.

John O'Brien, Through the Chicago Stock Yards: A Handy Guide to the Great Packing Industry (1907)

* * *

High above Packingtown, on the very roofs of the slaughterhouses, visitors gathered to witness the modern in all of its terrible efficiency. Thousands of hogs waited in pens. Livestock handlers drove roughly a dozen hogs at a time onto the kill floor as fascinated spectators watched the beginning of a process that helped redefine American industry and changed interactions between animals and human beings, as well as workers and management. Swift's massive plant killed thousands of hogs a day. Here animals met their fate at the hands of workers and machinery, creating a vast "disassembly" line that ended not just the lives of pigs but the age-old relationship between meat and mankind.

The "river of blood" that flowed just below the roof pen area attracted Chicagoans and tourist alike for most of the stockyard's existence. At the turn of the twentieth century, a reported five hundred thousand people visited the Union Stock Yard annually. To modern sensibilities to take a tour of the stockyard and the packing plants — even to bring small children to the hog kill — might seem repulsive, but through most of its history the Union Stock Yard and the adjacent plants were major tourist attractions. Fascination with the new drew these visitors. Here people faced the modern head on with all its innovation and spectacle. For many people, Chicago's vast livestock market and packinghouses presented a compelling if somewhat frightening window to the future.

In this book, I explain how the Chicago Stockyards helped drag the world into what I deem "the modern": the industrial culture that appeared in the years after the Civil War, which eventually gave way to the postindustrial era we inhabit today. "The modern" is the frightening sense that something basic had shifted between man and nature. The modern was terrifying in that human beings seemed to be increasingly alienated from the age-old ways of creating goods. This was nowhere more explicit than in the changing relationship between man and food as seen in what Thomas Wilson, the president of Wilson and Company, almost lovingly referred to as the "Square Mile." All of the basic themes of modern industrialization soon played out in the Square Mile; the large corporation, the factory system with its merging of human labor and machinery, the mass marketing of goods, and a transportation system that collected natural resources from a vast hinterland and distributed goods internationally.

Machinery and the emerging factory system changed the essential relationship between people and food. People have killed animals for meat since the dawn of time. For centuries, the process was an everyday event on farms, in homes, and in butcher shops all over the world. But only in the nineteenth century did meatpacking emerge as a mass production industry. While this industry made meat more widely available and cheaper to purchase, its machinery, an enormous number of anonymous workers, and a massive marketing system came to stand between consumers and their food. The modern arrived in packing plants across the country, but especially in Chicago. Instead of taking eight to ten hours to butcher a steer, Chicago's packinghouses took about thirty-five minutes; hogs and sheep took even less time. Armies of skilled and unskilled workers, men and women, operated machines and disassembled animals as they passed by on endless chains into huge refrigerated rooms. Here carcasses waited to be shipped across hundreds and even thousands of miles. The modern sped up time. Everything seemed to move more quickly, more efficiently, even if not more naturally. This proved to be part of the spectacle, the fascination with the process as it played out in the packinghouses. The speed and efficiency of these plants provided a startling look into the future for the men, women, and children who came to see the marvel of industrialization in perhaps its rawest form.

The Square Mile, first officially mapped as Section 5 of the Town of Lake, became Chicago's entry point into both the new industrial economy and the modern world as it spurred the incredible growth of Chicago and the Midwest. It was here that the connection between meat and man was altered forever. If, as historian Perry Duis has pointed out, for many people Chicago represented a window to the future, then that future could be seen most explicitly on the kill floors of Packingtown, the western section of the Square Mile, which contained many of Chicago's major packinghouses. Over the years, this would be a contested image. Some Chicagoans looked askance at the kill floors as a symbol of their city, but in the beginning the city's boosters bragged of their speed and efficiency. Visitors agreed as they came to witness the spectacle provided by the packinghouses. The Union Stock Yard showed how ingenuity, greed, science, and industrialization created the modern world.

By the time the Union Stock Yard opened, machinery had been changing the nature of work, but mass industrialization in the form that would make over the Western world had only begun to emerge. The steam engine first altered humankind's sense of time and distance with its application to shipping and railroads. Before long, the manufacturing of cloth and clothing, shoes, and other goods still dominated by skilled artisans and their helpers felt the shift of new technological advances. Soon large factories emerged creating massive cities as rural people migrated to the emerging urban centers to seek work. The relationship between human beings and machinery quickly changed, as did that between entrepreneur and worker. The factory system emerged as workers' jobs were divided into smaller and more specific tasks. Large groups of individuals had always worked together, but now with machinery they could produce more goods and do so more quickly. Technology made everything different. Mass production and the factory system became the fascination of the age and the topic of both scientific and popular inquiry.

During the almost 106 years of its existence, the Chicago Stockyards epitomized the nation's livestock industry. Even before the market reached its centennial celebration, over one billion head of livestock had passed through its pens. The massive packinghouses transformed the industry and created modern consumer culture. In those plants, man and animal not only met the modern in the form of the factory system and technological innovation that altered the process of the killing, dressing, and marketing of meat, but also shifted the relationship between worker and owner, manufacturer and consumer.

The livestock market opened on Christmas Day 1865. As a tourist attraction, the stockyard defined Chicago to a fascinated public in the post–Civil War era. The rich and the poor, royalty and rubes traveled to see the maze of pens laid out across the prairie and then to be startled by the efficiency of the "disassembly" line of the packinghouses as they turned live breathing animals into hunks of pork, mutton, and beef in mere minutes.

Beyond the fascination with the killing floors, other marvels attracted visitors to the stockyards. The simple gathering of tens of thousands of animals to be placed on the market first insured a captivated public. Then the phenomenon of horse racing, professional baseball, the immensely popular International Livestock Exposition, and the myriad entertainment, political, consumer, and sporting events housed in the International Amphitheater all brought sightseers to the Square Mile. These marvels did not distract from the kill floors, but rather added to the attraction of the Square Mile. The yards presented "spectacle" to a city and a kind of industrial pageantry to the nation.

Visiting the Union Stock Yard

Visitors to the Union Stock Yard entered through the Stone Gate on Exchange Avenue, the main thoroughfare of the stockyard. As they proceeded west toward the Exchange Building, they passed the guardhouse and the cattle market. A guide might explain to the visitor that from midnight until eight in the morning trains unloaded livestock at the company's platforms. The animals had to be identified by owner, then yarded, fed, and watered. They would be sold, weighed, and delivered quickly in the best condition and without mistake to the buyer. As Arthur G. Leonard said in 1904:

We do not buy and sell, we merely perform a service. For this reason our work can be systemized from top to bottom. And it has been systemized so that the executive work of a corporation handling three hundred million dollars' worth of goods in a year is concentrated in the hands of half a dozen men.

The stockyard contained the makings of a city with its own water and light plants, a fire department, and a one-hundred-man police force. It had its own beltline railroad, the Chicago Junction Railway. In 1908, a branch of the South Side Elevated entered the Union Stock Yard circling the market and Packingtown creating a stockyard "Loop." On the first day, twenty-five thousand riders took the train to visit the stockyards or to work in the market and plants. In addition, the Union Stock Yard contained privately operated businesses including fruit stands; newspapers, such as the Drovers Journal; and stores. The Union Stock Yard and Transit Company (USY&T Company) was the landlord, leasing stables to horse commission merchants, and to various parties for mercantile, newspaper, and railroad purposes. It also owned the Exchange Building and rented out its offices. The company maintained the Transit House hotel and restaurant on Halsted Street, as well as various lunchrooms and a general store in the stockyard.

Guides would explain that as trains approached the Union Stock Yard they rolled up to twelve platforms behind which were long rows of chutes and holding pens. The 450 acres of the Union Stock Yards were divided into three divisions with one devoted to cattle, another to sheep, and finally a huge two-story hog division. The pen area in all three sections was laid out on a grid with alleys or streets running between them marked so that each block and pen had a number, the equivalent of a city address. In that way the USY&T Company workers as well as commission men and buyers could easily navigate the vast complex of pens. The instant the train stopped with its load of cattle, hogs, and sheep, a conductor ran from it into one of two stations to give the bill of lading to a clerk. Operatives of the USY&T Company then unloaded the railcars, moving the animals into chutes where a checker noted which carload went into which holding pen. From there, the livestock handlers drove the animals to the pens of the commission companies. Here they were watered and fed. The receiving station kept a record of each lot received, of the consignee, the consignor, the number of animals, the car number, and railroad, the chute, and pen into which it was delivered. They created a complete paper trail for the thousands of animals delivered each day.

The separation between the packers and the yards was not clear to the public, but the distinction mattered. The USY&T Company operated and maintained the actual stockyard, which included the railroad docks, pens, chutes, and other facilities. The Chicago Livestock Exchange (commission salesmen) operated and regulated the market. The packers bought animals, slaughtered them, and then manufactured and sold a vast array of products. Once the market opened each day between 250 and 400 buyers bid on the animals. They represented both on-site packers and those located in different cities, as well as shippers who wished to ship livestock to other markets or abroad, speculators who held livestock for another market day when the price might go up, or feeders who wanted to buy calves to fatten for market.

Salesmen kept close to the pens assigned to their particular commission firm as buyers went from pen to pen to make purchases. Unless otherwise specified, livestock always sold on the basis of dollars and cents per hundred pounds live weight, except for milk cows, horses, mules, and purebred feeders, which sold per head. A buyer rode up on a horse to a pen and asked the commission man if he had any cattle of a certain grade. If so, he entered the pen to look the livestock over and ask the price and, if he agreed, would simply say, "weigh them." If not, he would make a lower bid. The salesman could let the stock go to the first bidder, or he might hold them hoping to get a better price later on. The next customer might want cattle at a different weight and grade, and he would purchase anything of that sort that the commission man had or they might not come to an agreement. The third man who came down the alley could have such broad orders from his packinghouse that he might bid on everything on hand. The process of showing the stock and arguing about the price continued until the seller disposed of his holdings at what he hoped was the best possible price. While there was no public bidding, it resembled an auction, as the agent kept showing the stock until he received a satisfactory price.

Nothing occurred to bind the bargain. In what may have been seen as a rather premodern transaction, all buying and selling was by word of mouth and on the honor system; often buyers and sellers made their agreement by a nod of the head or the downward movement of a cane or whip. Such deals might involve whole trainloads of livestock costing many thousands of dollars, but rarely did either buyer or seller renege on a deal once made. Despite appearances, disputes concerning these dealings were dealt with in a modern way. If an infrequent dispute or misunderstanding occurred, it went before the Chicago Livestock Exchange for arbitration. Strict regulations guided the process from beginning to end in order to assure a fair sale. When dealing with tens of thousands of animals, these rules had to be in place in order to allow the maintenance of an effective exchange of goods and money. This was no small county bazaar where buyer and seller knew each other intimately, but rather a modern capitalist marketplace that brought producers from across the country together with buyers from large and efficient corporations. The fastidious record keeping spoke to the immensity of the yards and the complexity of the process. While the purchase agent was in the pen, the salesman could not raise the price he originally asked or refuse to sell at that price. As soon as a he left the pen, the offer was no longer valid. Later on, should the same buyer return, the seller no longer had an obligation to accept the original offer. The opposite also proved true, should the market for that particular grade of cattle slip. As a matter of courtesy — and professional gamesmanship — buyers refrained from entering a pen while another negotiated with a commission man.

The commission men drove the newly sold cattle, hogs, and sheep to the scale houses where the USY&T Company weighed the animals and delivered them to the buyers. All of these transactions were made on a cash basis; a detailed report was sent to each producer-shipper listing the price his stock sold for, detailing all charges, along with the remittance. By three o'clock in the afternoon the market closed for the day, and the process began again the next morning.

Touring the Packinghouses

After being weighed, those livestock sold to Chicago firms (like the human visitors to the stockyards) advanced to the packinghouses, driven over the huge elevated viaducts that led westward to the slaughterhouses from the pens. The French journalist Jules Huret wrote that the site of the herds of cattle, hogs, and sheep being driven to their destinies communicated "to the onlooker the melancholy like that caused by the departure of armies." The 1903 Swift & Company Visitors Reference Book informed guests that the plant covered forty-nine acres with a floor space of over ninety-two acres and employed seven thousand men and women. The complex had a daily capacity of 2,500 cattle, 8,000 hogs, and 6,000 sheep.

Excerpted from Slaughterhouse by Dominic A. Pacyga. Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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