The Visibility And Invisibility Of Pigs, Part Two: The Disappearing Slaughterhouse
By Brett Mizelle, Ph.D. (guest blogger)
Part one of this series suggested that the absence of living pigs in the urban and suburban spaces where most of us live is related to the separation of the killing of pigs and the production of meat from the point of pork consumption. As a cultural historian, I am drawn to images and texts that enable us to interrogate the many contradictions in our relationships with non-human animals and, hopefully, prompt us to think beyond ourselves to include other species in both our imaginations and material existence. In this post, I would like to continue to focus on the visibility and invisibility of food animals by briefly, selectively, and hopefully suggestively examining the changing status of slaughter and the slaughterhouse in American culture.
One way to get at change over time in our ideas about and practices toward non-human animals is to consider what is literally not imaginable any more, how what was once common sense (for better or worse) has become unthinkable. In working in the archives at the Library Company of Philadelphia this summer, one of those moments presented itself in the form of the “Grand Procession of the Victuallers” that took place in Philadelphia on March 15, 1821. William White, a prominent butcher and civic booster, took out advertisements in the papers in early March advertising an exhibition of “superior bred animals” outside of his slaughterhouse on Front Street. According to the press, “thousands of spectators” witnessed this display of the successful efforts of progressive farmers to improve livestock breeds. Given the contemporary vogue for the “improvement” of farm animals in Europe and the United States, this exhibition itself was not particularly remarkable.
What made the Philadelphia event stand out, however, was the killing of all of these animals by William White and his “Brother Victuallers” to make possible a two-mile procession of 86,731 pounds of meat from sixty-three cattle, forty-two oxen, four bears, three deer, ten goats, eight giant hogs, and numerous sheep. This parade included more than two hundred “Butchers mounted on fine horses, dressed in white frocks and Sashes,” separated from the product of their labor, which was loaded onto carts and “driven by boys with white frocks ornamented with artificial flowers and gay ribbons.” This spectacular procession drew a crowd of tens of thousands and was praised in the press and commemorated in popular prints based on a watercolor by John Lewis Krimmel. As the art historian Alexander Nemerov has noted, both the meat parade and the prints of it that circulated through the 1860s served “to dramatize, and even create, the respectable professional identity of the city’s victuallers,” helping to legitimize butchers and celebrate the men responsible for creating improved animals and the abundant meat that came from them, all of which sold in just fourteen hours on the day following the procession.
While more work needs to be done to understand the meaning of this parade of meat at this moment in both Philadelphia’s history and in the public perception of both livestock and butchers, this meat parade perhaps marks the beginning of the disconnection between the people and their meat, as thousands of Philadelphians clearly reveled in this spectacle of killing and consumption on a grand scale, done for them by others. What today seems horrific was in 1821 both a reminder and a prediction of the victuallers’ ability to provide plentiful meat to the American public through improvements in agriculture and meat processing. These improvements continued throughout the nineteenth century, both to animals’ bodies and to the production and distribution of meat. After all, the nineteenth century also saw the rise of the slaughterhouse, a centralized system for turning animals into meat that was seen as the epitome of the “civilized” and “modern.” tome of the “civilized” and “modern.”
Developments in Cincinnati, Ohio in the first half of the nineteenth century heralded the modern pork industry, as entrepreneurs pioneered the use of mass-production techniques in their famous “disassembly line” that turned pigs into pork. Visitors to Cincinnati—soon nicknamed “Porkopolis” for the hundreds of thousands of pigs that were driven to and processed in the city—marveled at this new world of animal industry. As Frederick Law Olmsted, the journalist and landscape architect, remarked in an 1857 account of what I like to call “meat tourism,”
“We entered an immense low-ceiled room and followed a vista of dead swine, upon their backs, their paws stretching mutely toward heaven. Walking down to the vanishing point, we found there a sort of human chopping-machine where the hogs were converted into commercial pork. A plank table, two men to lift and turn, two to wield the cleavers, were its component parts. No iron cog-wheels could work with more regular motion. Plump falls the hog upon the table, chop, chop; chop, chop; chop, chop, fall the cleavers. All is over. But, before you can say so, plump, chop, chop; chop, chop; chop, chop, sounds again. There is no pause for admiration. By a skilled sleight of hand, hams, shoulders, clear, mess, and prime fly off, each squarely cut to its own place, where attendants, aided by trucks and dumb-waiters, dispatch each to its separate destiny–the ham for Mexico, its loin for Bordeaux. Amazed beyond all expectation at the celerity, we took out our watches and counted thirty-five seconds, from the moment when one hog touched the table until the next occupied its place. The number of blows required I regret we did not count. The vast slaughter-yards we took occasion not to visit, satisfied at seeing the rivers of blood that flowed from them.”
Thanks to the railroads, the technology of ice packing, and the centralizing forces unleashed by the Civil War, Chicago became the nation’s pork producing center, serving as “hog butcher for the world.” Unlike in Cincinnati, where processors were scattered throughout the city, the post-war meat processing industry in Chicago was centralized on the south side at the famous Union Stockyards, separating the production of meat from urban life. While residents of and visitors to Cincinnati were shocked at the number of hogs in the city (Frances Trollope famously remarked “…I am sure I would have liked Cincinnati much better if the people had not dealt so very largely in hogs!”), in Chicago the stockyards and processing plants themselves became a tourist destination.
An indication of the appeal of a visit to the slaughterhouse can be found in a folder produced in 1903 by Swift & Company. This “Visitor’s Reference Book” served as “a Souvenir of a visit to the plant of Swift & Company at Chicago, Ill., U.S.A., and as a reminder of the modern methods and activities of the American Meat Packing Industry.” This illustrated pamphlet provided facts about the size of Swift’s operations, including the amount of meat produced, and emphasized the “close scrutiny” by both Swift and government inspectors of both the animals in the stockyards and the meat produced from their bodies for the public. The tour of the plant and the depictions of it included in this souvenir, enabled the public to observe the conversion of animals into meat, from the Visitors’ Entrance (“where the real sight seeing begins”) to the Loading Platform where dressed meat was shipped “to every part of the known world.”
Of particular interest to me are the images of the transformation of living pigs into pork, remarkable in their depiction of a well-dressed family observing the hog pens and witnessing the killing of the pigs, deaths enabled by “the skilled dispatcher who starts eight hundred an hour on the journey through the dressing and cleaning rooms to the vast coolers.” To today’s viewer, the drawing of a little girl playing on the railing as the pigs behind her are being killed seems remarkable, for it is virtually impossible to imagine that level of interest in, much less access to, today’s processing plants. As far as I can tell, no contemporary slaughterhouse offers public tours. In fact, much of what we know about the horrifying meat industrial complex comes from journalists and activists who have successfully and often surreptitiously infiltrated these operations.
The question that remains, of course, is when this happens. When did the killing of animals and processing of meat become largely invisible? As we have seen, slaughterhouses were to some degree publicly accessible and promoted themselves as such for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, marking the pride that meat-processing firms took in their modern technologies that put food on Americans’ tables. Producers turned the production of meat into a marketing opportunity, and through both factory tours and product advertising, encouraged Americans to consume both meat and the spectacle of its production at a moment marked by the expansion of industrial capitalism and increased competition for urban consumers. Through at least the early part of the twentieth century, production and consumption were intertwined as what would became known as “factory farming” initially meant something positive: the triumph of agricultural engineering and the concomitant glorification of new and more efficient means of production that reduced prices and increased availability for consumers.
While farmers and meat processors still take pride in their efficiency and their ability to feed more and more people, their means of production are much harder to see given the changes to the relationship between consumers and their food. Shifting public sensibilities, linked in part to transformations during the post-war period that saw both the growth of animal welfare and animal rights movements, concerns about the environment and sustainability, and the passage of laws like the Humane Slaughter Act of 1958, have made “factory farming” today a term that raises consumer concern, just like a century of food literature has gone from Upton Sinclair’s factory-centered The Jungle (1906) to Eric Schlosser’s consumer-centered Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal (2002).
Given this larger shift in emphasis from production to consumption, one that has intensified in postwar America, perhaps the best place to see how developments in the way pork is produced have hidden the historical connections between humans and pigs while obscuring their lives and deaths is in an industrial neighborhood in Los Angeles, where happy and healthy pigs frolic in an idyllic, rural setting. These pigs are the stars of the murals that decorate the walls of the Clougherty Meat Packing Company in Vernon, California, home of the Famer John Brand. The contradiction between the murals, with their nostalgic representations of pigs in the countryside, and the killing of pigs that takes place inside this labor-intensive factory in the industrial urban landscape is a reminder of a human-pig relationship that despite being always centered on the killing of the latter by the former, was not always so distanced, alienated, and invisible as it is in the industrial world today.
- Philadelphia Gazette, 5 March 1821; 12 March 1821.
- See, for example, Margaret E. Derry, Bred for Perfection: Shorthorn Cattle, Collies, and Arabian Horses Since 1800 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003).
- Poulson’s American Daily Advertiser, 13 March 1821; Louis Haugg, artist, “White’s Great Cattle Show, and Grand Procession of the Victuallers of Philadelphia. Drawn (after J.L. Krimmel, 1821) on stone by L. Haugg 600 Chestnut Str. Lith of F. Bourquin & Co 602 Chestnut St. Phila.” (Philadelphia, Published by A. Clement [ca. 1861], 55 x 64 cm. Library Company of Philadelphia.
- Alexander Nemerov, The Body of Raphaelle Peale: Still Life and Selfhood, 1812-1824 (University of California Press, 2001), 94. Nemerov provides one of the few discussions of the Victuallers’ Parade, using it to understand Peale’s still-life paintings of meat.
- See the essays in Paula Young Lee, ed., Meat, Modernity, and the Rise of the Slaughterhouse (University of New Hampshire Press, 2008).
- See, for example, Margaret Walsh, The Rise of the Midwestern Meat Packing Industry (University Press of Kentucky, 1982).
- Frederick Law Olmsted, A Journey Through Texas; or, A Saddle-Trip on the Southwestern Frontier: with a Statistical Appendix (New York, 1857), p. 9.
- See William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (W.W. Norton, 1992).
- Frances Trollope, Domestic Manners of the Americans  (New York, 1960), pp. 88-89.
- Swift & Company, Visitors’ Reference Book (1903). Duke University Libraries Digital Collections eaa_A0340.pdf, online at http://library.duke.edu/digitalcollections/eaa_A0340/. I am indebted to Nicole Shukin for calling this to my attention in her important book Animal Capital: Rendering Life in Biopolitical Times (University of Minnesota Press, 2009).
- See, for example, Charlie LeDuff, “At a Slaughterhouse, Some Things Never Die,” New York Times, 16 June 2000, online at http://partners.nytimes.com/library/national/race/061600leduff-meat.html, and Timothy Pachirat, Every Twelve Seconds: Industrialized Slaughter an the Politics of Sight (Yale University Press, 2012).
- According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term “factory farm” was first used in 1890 in a positive context when an economist urged experimenting with them. Critical use of the term “factory farming” seems to emerge in 1964 in the UK, tied to efforts to amend the 1911 Protection of Animals Act to cover these newly intensified postwar techniques.
- See Lizabeth Cohen, A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America (Knopf, 2003).
- For a history of the murals, see Susan Hopmans, The Great Murals of Farmer John Brand, Clougherty Meat Packing Co. in Vernon, California, photographed by Peter Kenner (Colorcraft Lithographers, 1971). Sue Coe has provided a rebuttal to this imagery that focuses on the intertwined exploitation of humans and animals at Farmer John in Dead Meat (Four Walls Eight Windows, 1996), pp. 87-88.
Brett Mizelle is Professor of History and Director of the American Studies Program at California State University Long Beach. His publications include articles, book chapters, and reviews in the fields of nineteenth-century American history and the history of human-animal relationships. His most recent article tells the story of James Capen ‘Grizzly’ Adams and his role in both the construction of knowledge about and the destruction of grizzly bears in California and the American West. His book Pig (Reaktion Books, 2011) charts how humans have shaped the pig and how the pig has shaped us, focusing on the unresolved contradictions between the fiction and the reality of our relationships with pigs. He is also a co-founder and current editor of the H-Animal Discussion Network and the recipient of the Humane Society of the United States’ “Animals and Society Course Award” for his class “Animals in American Culture.” He can be reached at [email protected].