- Reviewed by
Talk to enough old Chicagoans and you will find someone able to remember the smell of the Union Stock Yard. Once the largest livestock market and meatpacking center in the world, the Yards (as they were popularly known) had a pungent odor that carried far across the city when the winds were right. That smell can never be recaptured, but Dominic A. Pacyga’s compelling study has brought back nearly everything else. Slaughterhouse traces the Yards’ rise, fall, and reinvention, from their 1865 opening to the present. Initially a kind of clearinghouse for Midwestern livestock, the late-nineteenth-century [End Page 103] development of refrigerated transport combined with a panoply of political, legal, and institutional changes to make the Union Stock Yard the center of the U.S. meatpacking industry. By 1922, meatpacking was the country’s “largest industry by volume,” and more than a billion animals ultimately passed through the Yards (p. 140).
Pacyga’s book is above all a “history of place” that explores the businesses located in the Yards, the social world of the workers that made it run, and the infrastructure that made it possible (p. ix). Slaughterhouse is a view from the ground; Pacyga suggests that if we can understand the local dynamics of this neighborhood, we can better understand the continent-spanning processes in which it was enmeshed. This point is brought home in the final chapters, which explore the decline of animal slaughter in Chicago and its replacement with a new climate of technological advance and efficiency, this time “with less stench” (p. 177).
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book is Pacyga’s emphasis on spectacle. He means this quite literally: tens of thousands of people visited the Stock Yard each year. Visitors could send postcards to friends, and people across the globe could scrutinize stereoscopic photographs of hogs headed to slaughter. The square mile of the Yards not only embodied a new industrialized food regime, it was a place where people confronted, pondered, or celebrated this new relationship. Pacyga’s emphasis on spectacle reveals how these changes fascinated contemporary observers as much as modern readers, and reveals the importance of spectacle to justifying and enabling industrial slaughter.
Central to Pacyga’s story is what he deems “the modern.” He uses the phrase as shorthand for an industrialized and alienated relationship between human and nature. Early in the book, Pacyga argues “the Chicago Stockyards helped drag the world into what I deem ‘the modern,’” but use of the term as both shorthand and analytic focus ultimately becomes confusing (p. 2). Phrases like “the modern came at a price” or a “sign of the rise of the modern” leave the reader wondering if the modern has taken on a little too much of [End Page 104] its own life (pp. 69, 98). Ultimately, it obscures the ways in which the Union Stock Yard helped produce that modern, or even whether “the modern” is a coherent way to understand a tangle of economic, social, and political forces.
At times the reader might want more about the world beyond the Yards, but the impulse is misguided. Pacyga shows that without understanding the neighborhood as a place with actual animals, people, and buildings, we cannot understand the broad social and economic changes to which industrial animal slaughter was central. This ground-level story raises perhaps the book’s most provocative implication: did the world the Union Stock Yard made ultimately lead to its undoing?
JOSHUA SPECHT teaches at Monash University. He is currently writing Red Meat Republic, on cheap beef and state power in the late-nineteenth-century United States.