Monday, January 29, 2018

Bad Meat: Elmira’s Time in "The Jungle"

By Kelli Huggins, Education Coordinator
I set out to write this week’s blog post about the history of vegetarianism in Chemung County, but I was having trouble finding a lot of sources that pointed me toward any specific local vegetarians or vegetarian organizations. Yes, there have been Seventh Day Adventists living here, and presumably adhering to a vegetarian diet. The newspapers ran vegetarian recipes and stories about how it was a healthy or unhealthy way of eating. When beef prices soared or when there was a meatpackers strike, reporters joked that vegetarianism was an attractive option. There was talk of vegetarianism being a patriotic sacrifice during World War I. There were also lots of jokes about vegetarians (some things never change).

But I was struggling to find a more concrete story. That is, until I got to 1906. Now, if you remember your high school history lessons, you’ll realize that this places us smack in the Progressive Era. Not only that, 1906 is also notable for the publication of Upton Sinclair’s famous meat-packing exposé The Jungle. As a result of the utter horrors of poor sanitation he described in the Chicago slaughterhouses, Congress passed the Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration was also founded that year. 

An unidentified local meat market, late 19th/early 20th century. Note the sawdust floors. Still, this has nothing on the places in The Jungle
Locally, as well as across the country, The Jungle sparked a panic. People became afraid to eat meat. Now, naturally, this was a far larger problem in cities like Elmira, where through generations of urbanization, people had become further removed from the sources of their food than their rural counterparts. In other towns around the county, where people were more likely to have their own livestock, this would have been less of a crisis. But for Elmirans, the fear of adulterated meat was real. 

Friend & Metzger Meat Market, Elmira, 1903
A June 13, 1906 article in the Elmira Gazette and Free Press  reported that because of the “meat reports,” local butchers were seeing a significant reduction in their sales and grocers weren’t selling as much canned meat, either. The report claimed that many residents were considering turning to partial or full vegetarianism out of disgust and concern for their health. Who knows if any of these people stuck with it after the panic passed, however.

Friend & Metzger Meat Market, Elmira, 1903
The increased scrutiny lead to more inspections of Elmira’s butchers and slaughterhouses. On June 12, local health official Dr. Frank Flood and State Inspector A.P Ten Broeck inspected four local meat purveyors. Three were deemed “satisfactory” and one was shut down. 

Elmira Star-Gazette, June 11, 1906
That was enough to assuage people’s fears, or at least it was for a little while. However, on October 17, 1907, the Elmira Star-Gazette ran a front page headline that certainly made the stomachs of most Elmirans churn.

The slaughterhouse in question stood “at the foot of a hill 100 yards back from the state macadam, a mile from the end of the Franklin street car line.” It was described as “a miserable hovel, a one story, rotted, blood soaked, disease contaminated building, surrounded by a sea of filth, a conglomerate mass of mud and gore.” Yum. Even more horrifying, said slaughterhouse supposedly killed 10 tons of beef, veal, and pork a week for consumption by Elmirans. The article goes on to describe more horrors than I will burden you with here. 

Processing room at Friend & Metzger Meat Market, Elmira, 1902. As you can see, this was not the business described above.
With these scares, the city leaders met to try to prevent further instances of such grossness, which seemed to have mostly resulted in increased inspections. But, people continued to eat meat, in kind of a “Feed me contaminated meat once, shame on you. Feed me contaminated meat twice, oh well, I’m going to keep eating it anyway” kind of situation. Some people did recommend moderation at the least. In a letter to the Elmira Telegram in 1910, Dr. Thomas J. Allen declared that Americans were eating way too much meat, refuting the claim of Dr. Harvey W. Wiley, the first commissioner of the FDA, that a meat-free diet would create a “race of mollycoddles.”

Elmira Star-Gazette, May 25, 1909

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