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U.S. History/The Jungle by Upton Sinclair


QUESTION: Do you have any knowledge about that book? I just want a better analytical view of it on such topics about immigration, working conditions, living conditions, and sanitation. Also, why did they come to Americas? Did the american dream come true in any way? Thank you so much for your help :)

ANSWER: Hi Georgia,

Sinclair was a socialist who wrote The Jungle to expose the terrible working immigrants faced in early 20th Century America.  Without any regulations, employers forced employees to work long hours under terrible conditions.  They could sexually harass employees, fire them for no reason, and make all sorts of demands on them that would be illegal today.  Because there were more workers than jobs, employers could demand more work at lower pay and still find people willing to do the job.  This led to terrible living and working conditions.

Ironically, his book became popular, but not for the reason he thought.  The public did not care as much about the terrible working conditions as they did about the unsanitary conditions of the slaughterhouses that made their food.  Uproar over the book eventually led to the first federal regulations on the preparation of meat sold to the public.

Immigrants came to America despite the difficulties because life in Europe was even worse.  Lack of jobs in Europe and government corruption which favored the elites made life unbearable for European peasants, where death by starvation, disease, or exposure were common.  As difficult as life was in America, it was often still better than where they came from.  Still, most immigrants had a hard life.  It was difficult to get ahead and become financially independent.  Many immigrants were able to raise families under the difficult conditions.  While many suffered and died, others became successful, or at least their children became successful.  America did not guarantee success.  But unlike many other countries, it at least offered a chance at success.

I hope this helps!
- Mike

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: Thank you so much! That helps a lot :) Can you please break down more about the living condition and sanitation during the time from the book? Like how they were like and dealt with? I just know that foods weren't processed well, that's why some died from food poisoning, and also that the house that they bought were poorly maintained..

At the time, there were virtually no health laws for food processing and almost no laws with regard to residential buildings.  It is also important to remember that scientists had only discovered germs in the 1870s.  There was not a well established tradition that understood how unsanitary conditions could lead to disease.  Of course, people had long understood that spoiled meat could make you sick.  But because there was not a strong system of legal liability, meat packers really did not worry about sanitary conditions that could increase their costs and make their product less competitive on price.  As a result, meat packing plants, often processed already dead animals, let carcasses spoil and still be butchered, and failed to clean up waste from the butchering process.  

As far as living conditions, remember that this was before most people had cars.  Horse manure was a major problem in cities.  It was often piled several feet high on the side of the road.  The stench was terrible, especially in the summer.  Also, many horses were worked to death.  If a horse dropped dead on the side of the road, it was often simply left there to rot.  Some cities had developed sewer systems, but many people still simply dumped their waste in the streets, to mix with the animal waste.

Housing was also expensive.  Poor people often lived in small apartments that were tightly packed with many people.  There was no air conditioning, so things could get quite uncomfortable in the summer.  There were fore fire codes or safety codes, so dangers were quite common.  In many immigrant neighborhoods, the continuing influx of people looking for room kept demand high.  Many landlords did not bother to keep their buildings in good repair or condition.  That was an unnecessary expense since tenants could be found as is.

- Mike  

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Michael Troy


I can answer just about any question on early American History. My specialties are the American Revolution through the Civil War/Reconstruction. I also have greater expertise in matters relating to military, political or legal history.


I have lectured at George Washington University regarding the Civil War, as well as several elementary school Civil War demonstrations. I was also a member of a Civil War reenactment group for about 10 years.


J.D. University of Michigan B.A. George Washington University

Awards and Honors
Truman Scholar

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