Lesson Plan - Get It!
“I aimed at America’s heart and by accident hit its stomach” (Upton Sinclair). What in the world does that mean?
Have you ever enjoyed having or doing something and then found it is was terrible for you?
For example, maybe you love eating candy bars, but found out they are full of sugar that disrupts the digestive system and can make you sick. Tell your teacher or parent about a time you found out something you enjoy is bad for you.
This example you just shared is similar to what happened to people across the United States in the early 1900s, when they learned the meat they were eating was not being packaged safely, causing it to be very unhealthy. This discovery came from Upton Sinclair.
Sinclair was a writer and a political activist, meaning he used his writing to try to bring political change to America. He was raised in a poor family and grew to hate how upper-class families were treated compared to the poor. In an effort to expose how the poor were treated at work, he began conducting research for a book that would reveal how workers were treated in meatpacking factories. Meatpacking factories are places where meat is processed and packaged before it is sold in markets.
While conducting his research, Sinclair found something very disturbing. Not only were the workers being forced to work in a harsh environment, but the conditions were not sanitary for processing food. This discovery caused the main idea of Sinclair’s book, which was titled The Jungle, to become twofold: he wanted to showcase both the harsh work environment and the unsanitary conditions of meatpacking factories.
Image by Victor Grigas, via Wikimedia Commons, is available under the CCO 1.0 Public Domain Dedication.
The Jungle was a fictional story, but many of the events in the book describe things that really happened while Sinclair worked undercover in a meatpacking factory.
The story is about a Lithuanian immigrant, Jurgis Rudkus, who moves to America with his family in search of a better life. Rudkus takes a job at a meatpacking factory in Chicago. Even though he works long hours, he is unable to support his family on the small wages he receives, and his family is forced to also take jobs at the factory.
At the factory, Rudkus is severely injured while working, his father is killed by the unsafe factory conditions, and his wife is abused by her boss. In addition to displaying how poorly the family is treated at the factory, Sinclair describes how meat was processed. Some of the descriptions include using rotten meat to make sausage, using products with mold and chemicals in the meat, dropping meat on the floor where it was covered in dirt and sawdust and then packaged, workers spitting on meat, rats in the factory crawling on the meat, and factory workers rarely washing their hands before touching the meat.
When Americans read The Jungle, they were seriously disturbed to know what had touched and what was in the meat they were eating. When President Theodore Roosevelt read the novel, he said things had to change and requested inspections of the meatpacking factories in the United States. The inspections revealed much of what Sinclair wrote about to be true. As a result, the following acts were passed by Congress in 1906:
- Pure Food and Drug Act Required active ingredients to be listed on the packaging for all medications and put measures in place to check that medications were being appropriately labeled. It also said that prescription medications could only be sold by a licensed pharmacist. Regarding food, the act prohibited the use of diseased and rotten food. Most importantly, the act started the Food and Drug Administration, a government agency responsible for testing all food and medication before they can be sold.
- Meat Inspection Act Required all meat products to be processed and packed in sanitary conditions and said meat could not be misbranded when it is sold to the public.
While Americans were upset about the way their food was being processed, they paid little attention to the way the workers were treated within the novel. Sinclair said, “I aimed at America’s heart and by accident hit its stomach.” What do you think he meant by this statement? Tell your teacher or parent.
The Jungle changed the way Americans looked at food and forced the government to put measures in place that protected Americans from food processed in unsanitary conditions.
- How would you feel if you found out the food you were eating was being packaged in a factory like the one described in The Jungle?
- Why do you think the factory owners allowed these conditions to exist?
Share your responses with your teacher or parent. Then, move on to the Got It? section to examine some excerpts from The Jungle.