In early November 1904, just as Theodore Roosevelt won election to the presidency in his own right, the writer Upton Sinclair traveled by train from the East Coast to Chicago, where he moved into a bare-bones settlement house, intent on researching his next novel.
The previous July, butchers had gone on a wage strike at packing-houses in nine cities, from Omaha to New York. The two-month strike failed because meatpacking firms, using a strategy developed by Chicago’s famously ruthless Armour family, hired unskilled, non-union replacements who could be paid less than the union butchers.
Sinclair, a twenty-eight-year-old son of a New York shoe salesman, was instantly sympathetic. He had barely paid for his own education at City College by writing jokes, dime novels, and magazine articles. Upon graduation in 1897, the aspiring novelist and freelance journalist had joined the worker-friendly socialist cause, partly inspired by his own struggles to make a living. He had written up a passionately pro-strike article and sent it, unsolicited, to the Kansas-based socialist newspaper, Appeal to Reason. In the same package Sinclair included a copy of his recent Civil War novel, Manassas, which had been a critical, if not commercial, success.
The combination prompted the paper’s editor, Julius Wayland, to make him an offer. He would print Sinclair’s essay on the butchers’ strike, and he would pay the writer $500 for a serialized novel telling the story of the valiant workers of Chicago’s stockyards. Sinclair quickly accepted. He then persuaded his editor at Macmillan Publishing to give him another $500 contract to turn the serialized novel into a print book.
Flush with a grubstake of $1,000 (about $30,000 today), Sinclair spent seven weeks in Chicago’s yards, living in a settlement house operated by a friend of Jane Addams’s, often dressing in the grubby clothing of a worker to blend in. He observed and interviewed, gathering notes and sketches before returning to the East Coast, where with his wife and son he moved into a New Jersey farmhouse and settled down to write the most influential book of his prolific career. The novel’s main character was a Lithuanian immigrant, carrying that familiar dream of building a good life in America. “I will take care of us,” he tells his wife. “I will work harder.”
In the end, the hardworking laborer is nearly destroyed by working conditions at the fictional “Anderson” meat-processing company. He eventually loses his health, family, and friends in the meatpacking industry but in Sinclair’s conclusion finds some hope, at least, by embracing the brotherhood of socialism.
In February 1905 Appeal to Reason began serializing Sinclair’s novel. By pure coincidence, the publication occurred just as other tales of troubled food production were unfolding in Congress, where advocates of pure-food legislation again sought to advance their cause. Both McCumber and Hepburn were still determined supporters of the proposed food and drug law, although Hepburn, as chair of the House Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce, was now mostly working with Roosevelt on railroad legislation. And a new senator from Idaho, Weldon Heyburn, had replaced McCumber as chairman of the Committee on Manufactures.
Heyburn, fifty-one, was a Republican but not in the least a Roosevelt progressive. He was an attorney who had made a living representing bankers and timber barons in his home state. During his time in the Senate, he would oppose the president on issues ranging from creation of new national forests to child labor laws. But like McCumber, he represented a frontier state—Idaho had become the forty-third state in 1890—where consumers believed, as did their counterparts in North Dakota, that their grocery stores were being treated as dumping grounds for cheap, adulterated food ginned up in the East.
He also represented one of only four states in the country that had so far granted women the vote (the others were Wyoming, Utah, and Washington). Before the 1902 election, which saw Heyburn come into office, Idaho club women had met with every one of the state’s political candidates to say that they would vote in a bloc against any who failed to support pure-food legislation.
Heyburn rose to the challenge. He found himself genuinely appalled by false claims made for mislabeled, largely useless products—especially those sold by the patent medicine industry. “I am in favor of stopping the advertisements of these nostrums in every paper in the country,” he said. When industry representatives chastised him for supporting the proposed legislation, he replied, “The object of this bill is not to protect the dealer. It is to protect the persons who consume the articles.”
The confrontational Heyburn tended to make enemies, among them Washington journalists. His press coverage was so often critical that he had fired back by describing reporters allowed into government buildings as mere guests of the state who “had no right to make disparaging remarks about senators.” He had also antagonized many of his fellow lawmakers, who often, even publicly, described him as arrogant and humorless. Still, many Capitol colleagues succumbed to the force of his determination.
By January 1905 Heyburn had a food and drug bill called up before the full Senate. Two weary veterans of the fight, McCumber and Wiley attempted to temper his expectations, suggesting strategic concessions, such as to the whiskey rectifiers. Heyburn, as was typical, refused to compromise.
Food-processing industries had hardened their opposition to reform. The National Food Manufacturers Association lobbied for Heyburn to sponsor a different Senate bill, one that permitted the use of preservatives, excluded reports from the Bureau of Chemistry, and transferred regulatory authority over food and drink from the Agriculture Department to the business-friendly Department of Commerce and Labor.
Meanwhile, the blended-whiskey interests had been outraged to learn that the straight-whiskey men had secretly given financial support to the pure-food exhibit in St. Louis. Colonel Taylor himself had delivered a $3,000 check to the Kentucky food commissioner, Robert Allen, along with several cases of good bourbon to be displayed as examples of the “right” kind of whiskey. Allen had not shared that information with the other exhibit organizers, which in turn created outrage among his allies as well as the rectifiers. Paul Pierce wrote for What to Eat several angry pieces on the corrupting influence of Taylor and his like, but rectifiers weren’t mollified.
In a story headlined labeling ruinous to liquor trade, published in the New York Journal of Commerce, a major liquor distributor declared that if rectified whiskey was fully labeled as to dyes, additives, and synthetic alcohol, it would do untold damage to businessmen and government income derived from its sale. Taxes, the distributor predicted, would “suffer to an extent never dreamed of heretofore.” The rectifiers’ chief lobbyist, the obstreperous Hough, notified every member of Congress that his members flatly insisted on removing any whiskey-labeling requirements from the legislation.
Hough further sent out a circular urging all blenders, rectifiers, and distributors to stand together against such “hostile measures” before Congress. From the baking powder producers to the patent medicine industry to the meatpackers, manufacturers joined to fight any sign of food, drink, or drug regulation.
William Randolph Hearst, publisher of the New York Evening Journal, wrote: “There is a bill in the Senate of the United States called the Pure Food Bill. Its purpose is to prevent food adulteration, the swindling and poisoning of the public. Nobody in the Senate says a word against this bill; nobody dares go on record, of course, in behalf of adulteration. Yet it is certain that the bill will not be passed.”
The business of Congress was to take care of businessmen, Hearst wrote, and even some of the country’s most “respectable” businessmen reaped huge profits by producing, misrepresenting, and selling adulterated, diluted, and downright faked food and drink. “Who is that shabby looking, patched-up individual trying to get on the floor of the House?” mused the editors of Life magazine. “O, that’s old Pure Food Bill. When he first came around here he looked pretty good, but now he has been knocked around and changed so much that his friends don’t know him at all. In a minute you’ll see him thrown out bodily again.”
As predicted, the proposed legislation collapsed in both houses within just a couple of months. “What now?” wrote the chairman of the Federation of Women’s Clubs pure-food committee to Wiley. “Does this mean the [final] defeat of the Pure Food Bill or shall we keep on with our petitions and letters?”
Wiley could almost imagine himself as the living incarnation of that shabby, patched-up bill described by Life. His advocacy for the legislation had increasingly made him a public target. An editorial in the California Fruit Grower, titled “Chemistry on the Rampage,” had demanded, “Let somebody muzzle the yellow chemist who would destroy our appetite with Borgian tales,” and the trade journal Grocery World, which represented the wholesalers, had chimed in: “The greater part of Dr. Wiley’s time seems to be taken up in the delivering of sensational lectures on food frauds and the writing of articles on such subjects” as poisoned foods. “Dr. Wiley seems to thirst deeply for notoriety. He is happiest when looking complacently into the horror-stricken eyes of women he has just scared half to death.” The journal’s editors had even recommended that Wilson officially reprimand Wiley. The secretary had not done so, but he had once again called his chief chemist into his office to recommend discretion.
Wiley—somewhat to the secretary’s frustration—instead returned to the lecture trail with renewed vigor. “I believe in chemistry and its application to the welfare of humanity,” he told students at Cornell University. “But at the same time I can’t help noticing how it is abused.”
He put the whole force of his personality behind the arguments, observed the muckraking progressive journalist Mark Sullivan: “On the platform the forcefulness and originality of his utterances gained from the impressiveness of his appearance: his large head capping the pedestal of broad shoulders, his salient nose shaped like the bow of an ice-breaker, and his piercing eyes compelled attention.”
It was a “great battle,” Wiley would later write, and any battle, he thought, needed a general, someone who could coordinate the different factions into an effective army. At this moment he seemed to be the natural, perhaps the only, choice for that role. He urged the federated women’s clubs to renew their activities, to protest the stalled legislation to every senator, every congressman, and every newspaper. His friends in the WCTU needed little urging to do the same.
The National Association of State Dairy and Food Departments returned to the issue with increased urgency. Pushing past Allen’s ties to the whiskey-distilling industry, the association joined Wiley in this new offensive push. It created a traveling exhibit, smaller but more graphic than the one at the St. Louis fair, a “chamber of horrors” that could be used to provide tangible illustration of adulterated food and drink at lectures.
The state commissioners were nearing desperation. If the legislation failed yet again, their cause might die. They feared that they’d reached the critical moment, that if they didn’t succeed now there might not be another chance for food and drug reform, or perhaps for any kind of consumer protection law, in their lifetimes.
Excerpt from The Poison Squad: One Chemist's Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century, by Deborah Blum.