What economic impacts did Upton Sinclair's The Jungle have on the meatpacking industry?
This was a paper topic I researched for Associate Professor Lucas Davis at UC Berkeley's Walter A. Haas School of Business in 2009, and I continued research on my own two years later for a term paper.
The Jungle was published on February 26, 1906 and exposed the unsanitary practices and health violations occurring in the meatpacking industry at the time. The book is widely regarded as one of the most important social justice novels of the early 20th century and is notable for bringing to light the concept of consumer protection, directly leading to the establishment of the Food and Drug Administration. However, evidence regarding the book's economic impacts on the meatpacking industry are unclear, though a PBS article claims that "domestic and foreign purchases of American meat fell by half." The available evidence largely suggest The Jungle had little to no economic impact on the meatpacking industry, though several factors make it difficult to confidently draw this conclusion:
Below are snippets from my term paper.
Federal & Public Response
Despite being published on February 26, 1906, The Jungle was not discussed much by the media and the public until the late spring and early summer of 1906, when wider circulation of Sinclair’s novel coupled with increased corporate and political interest in the novel’s contents brought The Jungle to widespread, mainstream prominence.
The federal policy response to the meatpacking uproar happened very rapidly, with a critical industry report released and two groundbreaking legislations passed within 4 months of The Jungle’s publication. President Theodore Roosevelt was highly critical of Sinclair’s work, believing that over 75% of the novel’s claims were outright fabrications (Morison, v.5 p.340). Nevertheless, he commissioned the Neill‐Reynolds Report, sending Commissioner of Labor Charles Neill and social worker James Reynolds to investigate Sinclair’s claims and examine meatpacking plants themselves. The resulting report instantly changed Roosevelt’s opinion and convinced him to take immediate action against the meatpacking industry (Morison, v.5 p.282). Nevertheless, he was hesitant to immediately release the report, as several European countries had already announced bans on American beef (Cooper, p.96), so Roosevelt instead chose to work behind the scenes and pressure meatpacking industry leaders before releasing the Neill‐Reynolds Report to the press on June 4, 1906. The resulting maelstrom of public and political pressure on the meatpacking industry and legislators brought about the passing of the Food and Drug Act and Meat Inspection Act on June 30th.
The public response to the novel followed a similar trajectory. Searching through the New York Times Online Archives reveals that the earliest mentioning of The Jungle in the newspaper occurred five days after the book was published, in the form of a book review. Yet, only a few sparse articles mention either Sinclair or his novel until May and June of 1906, when increasing public and political discourse ignited more investigations and inquiries into the meatpacking industry. Around this time, five meatpacking‐related articles were published on the front page of the New York Times, and about 33 other meatpacking‐related articles were found within the paper. Even articles expressing foreign views of American meatpacking practices appeared, with a notable example being a front‐page article titled, “Argue Against Our Meat: German Butchers Quote Accusations of Lax Inspection Methods,” published on the day before the Neill‐Reynolds Report was released by the President and covered by the New York Times. Even foreign newspapers, such as the weekly Illustrated London News, were following the American meatpacking developments. Despite mentioning Sinclair’s novel in their “At the Booksellers” section in their March 24, 1906 edition, the Illustrated London News does not mention the novel or American meatpacking again until June 23, when they dedicate a prominent portion of their “World News” section to the meatpacking scandal.
It thus makes sense to examine the available monthly data from May 1906 onwards.
Industry & Economic Response
An analytical analysis of The Jungle’s direct impact on the meatpacking industry is mostly inconclusive, though the evidence largely seems to suggest little to no economic impacts.
The monthly data tables below largely show insignificant variation in prices of various meatpacking products from May to December of 1906. While some industry products do appear to experience dips in prices in the latter half of the year, note that products not related to the meatpacking industry, such as corn and wheat, experienced slight drops in prices as well.
The weekly data below also shows that, with the possible exception of sheep, meatpacking products as a whole don't seem to show any significant drops in prices from May onwards, even following the publication of the Neill-Reynolds Report on June 4th. Simple supply-demand economics suggest that PBS's claim of plummeting domestic and foreign purchases should be reflected in the product prices as severe drops, but we simple don't see that in the available data.
Table 1 shows that the values per cattle and per hog were both increasing from 1905 to 1907 before falling in 1908 (most likely due to the lingering economic contraction and panic). The changes in value per animal from 1906 to 1907 are positive increases, so it is difficult to determine if The Jungle had any impact on these values or stifled further potential growth in any way.
From examining Table 3, it is apparent that prices of various cattle and hog products steadily increased in price from 1905 to 1908. This is notable because the steadily‐ increasing prices imply increasing demand, so there do not appear to be any consumption declines or substitution effects occurring.
From 1906 to 1908, all four principal markets experience decreases in total cattle receipts, increases in total hog receipts, and mixed results in total sheep receipts. St. Louis is especially interesting as its receipts for hogs declines by nearly 1 million from 1906 to 1907, yet increases by over double from 1907 to 1908. These general trends in cattle, hog, and sheep receipts indicate that there may be a substitution effect occurring, as consumers are substituting towards pork and away from beef. It is difficult to tell if this substitution effect is due to The Jungle, however, as Sinclair’s novel examines the meatpacking industry as a whole. While promising, there are too many confounding variables in this data to help us determine the impact of The Jungle.
Table 5 proves to be very interesting as several unusual trends occur with the data. From 1906 to 1907, there is a very sharp drop in canned beef but a spike in canned pork, very likely indicating a substitution effect. Within 1906, there appear to be spikes in bacon, lard, cured beef, and poultry exports. Meanwhile, items such as fresh beef and sausages remain relatively constant or demonstrate steady growth throughout the time range. The diverse array of export trends, and in particular the unusual fluctuations in canned beef and pork, strongly imply that very specific substitution effects were occurring that did not impact the entire meatpacking industry. The substitution effect may very well have been caused by The Jungle combined with the media, as cattle was more widely reported and associated with the meatpacking industry than pork. Furthermore, as will be discussed in our narrative analysis, several European countries already announced bans on U.S. beef imports, thus increasing the likelihood that The Jungle served as a final push for more countries to refuse imported American beef.
Altogether, The Jungle was a milestone in American history, published in the perfect political atmosphere of the Progressive Era. Although the direct impact of its publication on the meatpacking industry remains unclear and befuddled, the novel had a very clear impact on federal policy and public discourse. The Jungle permanently solidified the role of the government in protecting consumer safety, and forever brought to public consciousness the need to discuss and address consumer rights. Future work on this topic can further explore the available microdata on the meatpacking industry and more closely examine the interrelation between the narrative events of the time and the meatpacking microdata.
Cooper, John Milton Jr.. Pivotal Decades: The United States, 1900‐1920 (New York, 1990), p. 98.
Regier, C.C. (1933). “The Struggle for Federal Food and Drugs Legislation.” Law and Contemporary Problems, Vol. 1, No. 1.
Roberts‐Dobie, Susan (2007). “Past Perfect: Out of ‘The Jungle.’” The North American Review, Vol. 292, No. 3⁄4, p.84.
Schlosser, Eric. Fast Food Nation. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 2001.
Statistical Abstract of the United States (1912). Department of Commerce and Labor, no. 35.
Statistical Abstract of the United States (1913). Department of Commerce and Labor, no. 36.
Theodore Roosevelt to James Wadsworth, May 26, 1906, in Morison, ed., The Letters of Theodore Roosevelt, vol. V, p. 282‐283.
Walker, Francis (1906). “The ‘Beef Trust’ and the United States Government.” The Economic Journal, Vol. 16, No. 64.
Wholesale Prices. United States Bureau of Labor. U.S. Government Printing Office, 1906.