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Tied to the Great Packing Machine: The Midwest and Meatpacking

Author(s):Warren, Wilson J.
Reviewer(s):Maloney, Thomas N.

Published by EH.NET (May 2009)

Wilson J. Warren, Tied to the Great Packing Machine: The Midwest and Meatpacking. Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa Press, 2007. xii + 317 pp. $40 (cloth), ISBN: 978-1-58729-536-9.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Thomas N. Maloney, Department of Economics, University of Utah.

Few people would choose to spend long hours in a meatpacking plant if there were any alternative uses of their time available. Nonetheless, the meatpacking industry has held the gaze of many scholars in history and historical economics as well as novelists and journalists from Upton Sinclair through Eric Schlosser. Important themes in labor relations, technological change, and government regulation are played out in dramatic ways in the history of this industry. In his new book, Wilson J. Warren, a professor of history at Western Michigan University, provides a wide-ranging account of the development of the industry from the mid-1800s through the late 1900s. Warren?s work uses Sinclair?s The Jungle as something of a starting point (all of his chapter titles are quotes from Sinclair?s book). One of his primary goals, though, is to broaden our view of the industry beyond Chicago, bringing in discussions of other large cities such as Milwaukee and Indianapolis, as well as smaller locales like Sioux City, Cedar Rapids, and Fort Dodge, Iowa. His book is divided into three main parts: ?Economics,? ?Culture,? and ?Environment.?

The two chapters on ?Economics? develop a framework for describing the evolution of the meatpacking industry through four overlapping eras, from the early ?merchant wholesaling period? of 1820 to 1865, through the ?terminal marketing? era (1865-1950), to ?early direct buying? (the 1920s through the 1950s) and ?modern direct buying? (1960 to 2000). Warren emphasizes that the concentration of the industry in massive plants located in large cities began to diminish soon after 1920. Packers developed more dispersed plants and bought directly from local suppliers, in part because animals would lose less weight on shorter truck trips than on long rail rides to terminal markets. ?Single species? plants became increasingly common, as this specialization simplified mechanization of the production process.

Warren places most of his discussion of labor markets and labor relations in the ?Culture? section. In large terminal market cities, meatpacking plants shaped the local demographics by drawing in a succession of immigrant groups and African Americans. In the more dispersed direct-buying towns, smaller plants drew on the work force that had already developed in these places, including railroad workers as well as farmers. Most recently, meatpacking has become an important employer of new waves of Mexican and Asian immigrants. Warren notes that the industry?s recent reliance on rural-origin whites as well as immigrants has coincided with weakened union representation and declining working conditions. Injury rates in the industry rose in the 1980s and remain about double the manufacturing average.

In his ?Culture? section, Warren also provides a very interesting history of ethical concerns about slaughtering and meat consumption. He notes that butchers were in some communities excluded from jury duty out of a sense that they became numbed to pain and death over time or that they were naturally vicious, and he traces the evolution of ?anti-meat?/animal-rights thought, from Seventh-Day Adventist Ellen Gould Harmon White to philosopher Peter Singer. He also comments on the speeding up of the production process in recent years, which has resulted in increased abuse of animals, with related psychological effects for workers.

In the final section, ?Environment,? Warren examines some of the negative externalities associated with meatpacking, including unpleasant odors (?hog manure has four times the odor intensity of cattle manure? (p. 170)) and water pollution at large livestock-confinement facilities. He also comments on the industry?s success in fighting new initiatives to test meat for harmful microbes, even in the aftermath of concerns about mad cow disease.

Warren is successful in getting the reader to think about the meatpacking industry more broadly, beyond the standard Chicago Back-of-the-Yards image that first comes to mind. The chapters on ?anti-meat? thought and changing patterns of meat consumption are particularly well-written and vivid. In many chapters, though, we are given a great deal of detail without extensive analysis. For instance, the short chapter on female labor in meatpacking describes the concentration of women in particular departments and their exclusion from others, but it does not investigate the causes of these patterns. Was gender segregation in meatpacking driven by the kinds of forces that researchers have identified in other industries ? differences in training requirements, payment method (e.g., piece rate vs. time rate), or mechanisms for promoting work effort (seniority-based pay increases vs. monitoring)? Or were these tendencies driven by cultural norms regarding the proper nature of women?s work? These kinds of questions are not engaged in detail. Similarly, we are given discussions of the production process and of product demand in separate sections, but we are not given much integration of these topics across chapters.

This work will serve as a useful reference for scholars who want to build their understanding of the meatpacking industry beyond its most celebrated (or infamous) episodes and actors. It also begins to touch on important new controversies, including the reliance of the industry on immigrant labor, sometimes undocumented, as well as the potential exposure of the food supply to tampering due to the success of meatpackers in limiting regulation. Warren is to be commended for the skill and care with which he has pulled this descriptive base together.

Thomas N. Maloney is an Associate Professor in the Department of Economics and an Investigator in the Institute of Public and International Affairs at the University of Utah. He has written on the integration of African American workers into meatpacking and other Northern industries in the interwar period. He is also co-editor, with Kim Korinek (University of Utah), of the book Migration in the Twenty-First Century: Rights, Outcomes, and Policy (forthcoming, Routledge).

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII