- Slaughterhouse: Chicago's Union Stock Yard and the World It Made by Dominic A. Pacyga
Dominic A. Pacyga
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015
xvii + 233 pp., $26.00 (cloth)
The giant stockyards and packinghouses of Chicago were places, Dominic A. Pacyga writes, that "introduced Americans to the modern," where workers "ended not just the lives of pigs but the age-old relationship between meat and mankind" (x, 1). Pacyga, a longtime historian of Chicago and especially its Polish community, has produced a small but encyclopedic volume to describe this square mile where capitalists, workers, animals, and machinery together created a modern industrial food system.
Pacyga presents the managerial coordination of capital, technology, transportation, and labor as an example of modernity, not a creator of it. In his telling, to the extent the stockyards built rather than merely exemplified modernity, it was through tourism, not labor relations or altered foodways. We hear almost nothing about what it was like to work in a Chicago slaughterhouse, nor do we hear how changes in the packing industry altered Americans' meat consumption. Instead, Slaughterhouse is at its strongest when describing how the stockyards and packing plants became spectacles. In the first chapter, Pacyga introduces readers to the stockyards and packing plants as if we were visitors, quoting guidebooks and progressing geographically as would a tour. It is a clever literary device, but it is also an implicit argument that historians can understand a space only as tourists. Later in the book, he devotes considerable attention to the International Livestock Exposition, through which Chicago interests shaped the breeding and raising of cattle and "stressed the importance of modern scientific feeding and breeding practices" to farmers and ranchers (101). To Pacyga, packers and workers created modernity less in what they did or sold than in what they showed to outsiders.
It is emblematic of Slaughterhouse's strengths and weaknesses that Pacyga emphasizes the buildings in and near the stockyards and spends much space listing off their dimensions and construction prices. Rather than describing the people or work inside those buildings, the focus is on outward-facing edifices, a reminder not only of the spectacle that the packing industry provided but of how it literally shaped Chicago. But the descriptions of buildings also betray an antiquarian sensibility. Without analysis, the book feels largely like a mere series of lists of arbitrary facts, and the reader is left with no idea of why they matter. The construction prices create a different, more specific, problem. Pacyga assiduously follows every dollar amount with a translation into "2014 dollars." At best, this is a naive project, since building techniques, contractor margins, productivity, and relative prices of consumer and nonconsumer goods and services have all changed complexly since the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Worse, while Pacyga gives no indication of how he derives these numbers, it is clear he did not use the most common—although still problematic—historical index of building inflation, the Engineering News Record's Construction Cost Index. To take a random example, Pacyga describes the [End Page 137] $326,000 spent building an amphitheater for the International Livestock Exposition in 1905 as being the equivalent of $8.8 million in 2014. The Construction Cost Index would instead suggest a cost of $29 million in 2014.
The book's antiquarianism is especially frustrating because the facts Pacyga assembles sometimes hint at something more interesting. We are told early on, for instance, that the stockyards were laid out in a grid, like the city that surrounded them. Later we learn that architect and planner Daniel Burnham married the daughter of stockyard tycoon John Sherman after designing Sherman's house. We are then treated to a fourteen-line description of the neo-Gothic ornamental gate Burnham designed for the stockyard (later we get a photograph), but there is no discussion of the influence, if any, of Sherman or his stockyards on Burnham's celebrated career in the City Beautiful Movement. Likewise, Pacyga makes a throwaway comment about how Chicago became a center of the meat industry only after American settler colonists conquered the...