Chicago’s Meaty History: From our Stockyards to Our Steakhouses

By Russell Lewis
Executive Vice President and Chief Historian, Chicago History Museum
Founding Member, Culinary Historians of Chicago

Do join us as the Chicago History Museum’s Russell Lewis gives us a slaughtering presentation on Chicago’s legendary Union Stockyards and its impact on the city and the nation. (Think: “Hog butcher to the world.”) And how did the stockyards help put the sizzle in Chicago’s steakhouse reputation?

Here’s what Russell has to say:

“To watch an animal from the pen to the tin is an extraordinary experience. You see it killed; it falls; a conveyor carries it away. It is flayed while you wait…. Death is so swift, the evidence of tragedy so soon gone, that one feels no shock that flesh loses its character. Cattle are being handled like brass, so swiftly that life becomes merely a raw material. That is Chicago.” British journalist Walter Lionel George’s description of Chicago’s Union Stockyards, written in 1920, captures the essence of the city’s meatpacking industry—it was highly organized and brutally efficient, and it was synonymous with Chicago’s identity. Indeed, more than any other business, meatpacking reflected how industrialization became rooted in Chicago in the nineteenth century and transformed the city and the nation.

Situated at the center of the United States and linked to every corner of the continent by a vast rail and water network, Chicago was an ideal place for industry to grow. But location alone does not fully explain the formation of America’s quintessential industrial city. Three additional factors spurred Chicago industries, particularly meatpacking: innovation, scale, and new markets. Meatpackers developed a disassembly line that altered traditional labor and made the processing of meat a highly efficient operation. The Union Stockyards was itself a powerful innovation (competing companies sharing holding pens and rail facilities was unprecedented), and it also allowed operations to take place on an enormous scale never imagined. And lastly, meatpackers, particularly Gustavus Swift, realized it was not enough for industrialists to modernize their business ventures, they also had to create new markets for their products.

The fame of the Union Stockyards as a massive modern industrial enterprise spread, attracting tourist from around the world who yearned to see this harbinger of the future. Families carrying picnic lunches, convention delegates, school children, and honeymooners all came to see what was billed as one of the wonders of the world. Amid pig squeals and bellowing cattle, animal pens as far as one could see, buildings awash in blood, and a distinct smell of life and death, tourist were not disappointed, and the Union Stock Yards became etched into their memory.
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Biography: As Executive Vice President and Chief Historian of the Chicago History Museum, Russell Lewis is responsible for the day-to-day implementation of the museum’s mission to creatively explore and showcase Chicago’s history and culture, and to preserve, manage, build, and make accessible to the public, the Chicago History Museum’s collection of more than 22 million documents and objects. He has been a member of the Chicago History Museum’s staff since 1982. He is also a founding member of the Culinary Historians of Chicago, and for many years graciously hosted our programs at his museum.

Mr. Lewis is author of Historic Photos of Chicago’s World’s Fair published in 2010, Historic Photos of Chicago published in 2006, and has published articles in the Public Historian, Science, Museum News, and Chicago History Magazine. He has been involved in the development of numerous exhibitions, including We The People: Creating A New Nation, 1765-1820, A House Divided: America in the Age of Lincoln, Chicago: Crossroads of America, Facing Freedom, and the community history initiative, Neighborhoods: Keepers of Culture. He has also led a number of digitization projects, including The Great Chicago Fire and the Web of Memory, Wet with Blood: The Investigation of Mary Todd Lincolns’ Cloak, and Studs Terkel: Conversations with America, and the online version of The Chicago Encyclopedia. He served as project director for the $27.8 million renovation of the Chicago History Museum.

Mr. Lewis has a BA in historical archeology from the University of Florida and an MA in American culture from the University of Michigan.
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Cost of the lecture program is $5, $3 for students and no charge for CHC members
and Weiss staff and faculty.

Saturday, September 15, 2018
10 a.m. to noon
At Louis Weiss Memorial Hospital
Auditorium, lower level
4646 N. Marine Drive (at Wilson), Chicago

(Signs will say “Permit Parking” and “Doctor’s Lot” but it’s OKAY for YOU to use on this Saturday!)

To reserve, please e-mail your reservation: