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'The Jungle' — Published as a Book 110 Years Ago Today — Still Resonates

By Justin Breen | February 18, 2016 5:42am | Updated on February 26, 2016 6:51am

"The Jungle," 1906 novel written by the American journalist and novelist Upton Sinclair, is on display in the Chicago History Museum’s exhibition "Chicago: Crossroads of America." Right: "The Sheep Department, Armour" Great Packing House, Union Stock Yards. [Chicago History Museum (l.); Flickr Creative Commons/depthandtime]

CHICAGO — Every time you take a bite of meat, you can thank the author of arguably the most famous book ever written about Chicago.

This month marks 110 years since Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle" — documenting the absolute horrors of Chicago's meatpacking industry — was published in book form. The instant hit, published on Feb. 26, 1906, led to the June 30, 1906 passing of the Food and Drugs Act.

"'The Jungle' is probably the most well-known book in the world written about Chicago," said Peter Alter, historian and director for the Chicago History Museum's Studs Terkel Center for Oral History. Alter's Twitter handle coincidentally is @JurgisJungle, a nod to the book's main character — a Lithuanian immigrant named Jurgis Rudkis who believes hard work will lead to a successful life but soon undergoes a series of tragedies.

Many think Sinclair spent years in Chicago researching material for the book, but he actually lived here less than two months. While in Chicago, Sinclair lived in the University of Chicago Settlement House in Back of the Yards; he occasionally ate lunches and discussed socialist ideals with Jane Addams at Hull House on the Near West Side.

"He was only here for a short amount of time," Alter said. "Some people think he was a Chicagoan."

Sinclair's main goal for "The Jungle" had been to champion socialism, but readers and politicians — including President Teddy Roosevelt — focused on its horrifying portrayal of Chicago's meatpacking industry. Particular graphic passages in the book includes the descriptions of workers falling into pickling vats and becoming part of the products for human consumption.

Like the Chicago History Museum, Alter has a first-edition copy of the book, ahe he said it still resonates today. Issues workers faced in the early 1900s are still present, Alter said.

"The book echoes through our own day — with working conditions, working wages and immigration issues," Alter said. "It touches on some interesting themes that are common in Chicago, in other urban centers in the U.S. and also in the current primary races on the Republican and Democratic sides.

"And what the book does well is look at Chicago as an industrial city and immigrant city, and that's a good thing."

Bird's-eye view of pens with cattle at the Union Stock Yards. [Chicago History Museum]

Image of a man with a raised cane herding sheep down a ramp leading from a Wisconsin Central railroad car at the stockyards in the New City community area of Chicago in 1904. [Chicago History Museum]

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