When people reminisce about their lives, they often form a positive view. Nostalgia makes us forget about the bad things.
When looking even further back than most of us have been alive—say, the early 20th century—many people will begin fantasizing about all sorts of picturesque scenarios.
But what was the reality? Let’s answer this question from the perspective of health and safety regulations. How were health and safety regulations regarded back then?
One way to answer is to look at The Jungle, a 1905 novel by the American journalist and novelist Upton Sinclair. If you’ve read it, you know where this is going. Sinclair wrote the book to depict the harsh living conditions of immigrants in the United States, and by extension, other industrialized nations. His primary focus was on the downright brutal working conditions of the American meatpacking industry of that time.
Highlighting the health violations and unsanitary practices of that industry, The Jungle sparked public outcry, which eventually led to several reforms, including the Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906, and the Pure Food And Drug Act of that same year. Sinclair is known for saying, "I aimed at the public's heart, and by accident, I hit it in the stomach."
The Life and Working Conditions of Early 20th Century America
The novel follows Jurgis Rudkus, a Lithuanian immigrant looking to make ends meet in Chicago. He and his wife take up residence near the stockyards and meatpacking district, where most immigrants lived.
To support his wife and other relatives—women, children, and sickly old men—he takes a job at a slaughterhouse. But the working conditions were brutal, and the pay was meager. The family quickly falls into debt, becomes prey to con men, exhausts its savings, and is evicted from the slum house it could no longer afford.
As the story progresses, readers are presented with all sorts of work-related accidents that lead the family closer and closer to ruin. Jurgis' father is killed as a direct result of unsafe conditions at the meatpacking plant. One of his children dies from food poisoning, while Jurgis himself is fired because of a work-related injury. At one point, another child is locked in at work after hours and is eaten alive by rats.
Jurgis' 18-year-old wife also dies while giving birth, as they had no money for a doctor. Soon after, his first-born child drowns in a muddy street. Jurgis eventually becomes a hobo in the rural U.S.
The Jungle provides a clear picture as to the unsafe working conditions of a hundred years ago. It's safe to say that what we experience today is a significant improvement, in part thanks to required regular health and safety audits and inspections.