What comes to mind when thinking about slaughterhouses? Meat hooks, blood, knives, animals and people engaged in a deadly spectacle and carnivore feast. Noise and the unmistakable sweet noxious smell of blood mixed with effluvia, disinfectants, and lots of steam. In the slaughterhouse flesh becomes meat in a mechanized and literally bone-chilling production. They may be vile, repulsive, and hideous, but slaughterhouses also hold great fascination. Before there were theme parks and movie theaters, people flocked to slaughterhouses in order to quench their thirst for thrills derived from horror. When the World Columbian Exposition was held in Chicago in 1893, more visitors went to the stockyards than to any of the Exposition's own attractions. In turn-of-the-century Berlin, visits to the slaughterhouse were so popular that special tour books were printed to guide visitors through the facility. Even in the 1950s, one still could take a tour through the Chicago stockyards five times a day.
Animal slaughter is entrenched in tradition, cultural determination, and historical specificity. This is readily apparent in the kinds of animals we eat and the species we avoid. Holy in India, cows qualify as prime cuts in the West, where dog meat is taboo, even though in Korea it is widely accepted. In many cultures, pork serves as "the other white meat," while Muslims and Jews reject it as filthy and unkosher. The practice of eating animals is an expression of culture, but it is also dependent on historical circumstance. In times of crisis, such as war, almost any animal can become food. For example, during the Prussian occupation of Paris in 1871, rats became a regular staple. During World War Two, most zoo animals in Berlin were slaughtered to supplement the meager scraps of available food. Slaughter is deeply embedded in history, offering a glimpse at how everyday practice has evolved and transformed.
The art of slaying and flaying a large animal is an ancient craft reaching back to the advent of civilization. Throughout history, the butchering of animals has played a crucial role in provisioning people. For centuries, meat eating was considered a symbol of status and a measure of living standards. At the same time, butchering was seen as a demoralizing practice that brutalized those who were exposed to it. Even in Thomas More's utopian society, "the slaughtering of livestock and cleaning of carcasses is done by slaves [criminals sentenced to hard labor]. They don't let ordinary people get used to cutting up animals, because they think it tends to destroy one's natural feelings of humanity." Butchering was always a somewhat tainted practice, and the level of public repugnance have risen over time. As sensibilities softened and turned bourgeois, the animalistic was banned from allegedly civilized life. Distanciation became the prevalent mode of existence. As the German sociologist Norbert Elias has argued, this distanciation occurred in the household, where the carving of meat was moved behind the scenes to the kitchen so as to avoid any reminders of the animal from which it had come. The same was true for the slaughterhouse. It, too, was absorbed by the peculiar civilizing process of the West. Slaughter reflects the course of civilization, both its continuity and change.
Are slaughterhouses the perfect embodiment of modernity, or even human civilization more generally? Especially in the modern period, abattoirs have come to signify the extent to which such distanciation has led to the rationalization of everyday life and to the instrumentalization of death. During the nineteenth century, the close relationship between consumption and death made slaughterhouses emblematic of the rise of mass-production and the amalgamation of science, technology, and state politics. The proportions of this change were nowhere more visible than in the city, and the 19th-century city in particular is unthinkable without the slaughterhouse. As Denis Hollier has put it, abattoirs are part and parcel of "the logic of the modernization of urban space." This logic is most strikingly exemplified by two very different modern cities: Paris and Chicago.
In late 18th-century Paris, animals were slaughtered right in the back of butcher shops all over the city, and especially in the city's center at Châtelet, which Louis-Sébastien Mercier, one of Paris's most avid observers, described as "by far the worst-smelling place in the whole world." And Mercier was not alone. Many Parisians complained about the pestilent stench, disturbing noises, and continuous flow of blood in the streets. Attesting to the changing sensibilities that accompanied the onset of Paris's urban growth, bystanders increasingly criticized the public display of slaughter. Mercier asked: "What can be more revolting and distasteful than the butchering of animals and the dismantling of their bodies in public view?" Most critics agreed that slaughtering needed to be removed from the streets of Paris to clean up the environment and to protect the health and morality of the public. Numerous reformers demanded that slaughterhouses be relocated, preferably to the outskirts of town. However, nothing was implemented during the ancien règime, in part because the government was unwilling to take an initiative, but also because Paris's powerful butchers guild strongly opposed any such interventions into their business. In the course of the French Revolution, all guilds were abolished to grant freedom of commerce. Yet this mandate produced unintended side effects. Meat could be sold anywhere, and animals were slaughtered right in the streets without supervision or any kind of inspection. Meat had become the domain of the people, but also the curse of the city.
When after a decade of revolutionary turmoil Napoléon Bonaparte arrived in Paris in 1799, he vowed to establish order and to rebuild the city. Napoléon initiated a staggering building program that included monuments like the Arc de Triomphe and the Place Vendôme as well as public works projects like sewers, markets, and slaughterhouses. Monuments would beautify Paris while public works projects would increase the city's utility. Reviving the reform initiatives of the 1780s, Napoléon ordered that five municipal abattoirs be built in a ring around the city. Construction began in 1810, but was quickly caught up in the financial havoc caused by Napoléon's wars of expansion. Consequently, the abattoirs, along with most other Parisian building projects, were not completed during Napoléon's reign. However, the Bourbon Restoration that followed recognized the need for such facilities, and construction continued. When they finally opened in 1818, these public abattoirs were the first of their kind in Europe. Operated by the municipality, located away from Paris's populated districts, and hidden behind walls, they provided a model for the spatial refacilitation of slaughter, a model that would be followed all over Europe in the course of the 19th century. Yet, the Napoléonic abattoirs reformed rather than revolutionized slaughter.
Although abattoirs radically altered the spatiality of slaughter, they
did not immediately alter the practice of butchering. While butchers
could no longer slaughter in their own shops, once they were at the
public slaughterhouse, where each received a separate work chamber,
they could perform their bloody craft in relative privacy and according
to their own traditions. In the 1820s, animals were killed and flayed
much as they had been 50 years earlier: "a young bull is thrown down
and his head is tied to the ground with a rope; a strong blow breaks
his skull, a large knife gives it a deep wound in the throat; steaming
blood spills out in big bursts along with the life... Bloody arms
plunge into its steaming innards, a blowpipe inflates the expired
animal and gives it a hideous shape, its legs are chopped off with a
cleaver and cut up into pieces and at once the animal is stamped and
The entire act was performed by one or two specially trained men. In
Paris and in Europe more generally, butchering retained its status as
an artisan craft throughout the 19th and most of the 20th century.
Traditions remained strong, and butchers resisted the types of
industrial automation that would typify the stockyards of Chicago.
The Parisian abattoirs, nevertheless, accomplished their two most
important objectives. They removed slaughter from public view and
placed it under state surveillance. It should be noted that the term
"public" in public abattoirs did not refer to the people of Paris, but
rather to the state and its welfare politics, which revolved around
more abstract concepts of population growth and control. Especially in
19th-century cities, the provision of growing populations posed a major
challenge to the process of urbanization. Public abattoirs were a first
step towards the establishment of a mass-society liberated from famine.
They helped to ensure the sufficient production of meat. They also
served to protect the public and contain street pollution, while at the
same time, they aided the state in its quest to gain control over its
population, modes of production, and acts of killing.
The urbanization of animal slaughter was not just a matter of politics;
it was also closely tied to the accumulation of knowledge and to
evolving conceptions of urban space, especially the emergence of the
public-hygiene movement that shaped the course of urban reforms.
Advocating a peculiar mixture of morality, social welfare, and
environmental control, public hygienists studied everything related to
the health of humans and the cleanliness of urban environments. As a
result, Paris's five public abattoirs, too, came under increased
supervision during the 1830s and 1840s. Alongside prostitution,
hospitals, and sewers, abattoirs became a central battleground in the
struggle to improve the physical and moral hygiene of Paris. Starting
with the conduct of butchers and the physical appearance of livestock,
hygienists investigated anything and everything related to the
abattoir. Some even went as far as to conduct self-feeding experiments
with rotten meat to determine its effects on human health.
Meat became a critical aspect in the discourse about and demands for
better living conditions. The growing recognition of protein as a life
sustaining nutrient enhanced the significance of meat consumption, not
least because of its potential to extend the general life expectancy of
populations, especially that of the lower classes. The tremendous
population growth of the 1850s, which brought more than 600,000 new,
mostly poor, inhabitants to the city, heightened the need for reforms,
because it further intensified the already rampant problems with
Paris's urban space and its haphazard infrastructures of provision.
With regard to meat production, the biggest problem was the continued
geographical separation of the livestock market and the abattoirs.
Since they were located in different parts of the city, livestock herds
continued to be an all-too-visible sight in the streets of Paris. By
1850, close to a million animals traversed the city annually, adding
considerably to traffic congestion and street pollution. And there was
another incentive for reforms—the invention of rail transport. The
emergence of railroads drastically altered existing infrastructures.
Among other things, it enabled the expansion of agriculture, but also
necessitated the greater concentration of markets, especially in the
It is hard to imagine that slaughterhouses could be the objects of
pride, but for Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann, probably the most famous
and arguably the most controversial Prefect of Paris, they were "one of
the most considerable works accomplished by [his] administration."
This is all the more surprising since it was under Haussmann that Paris
underwent the most dramatic transformation in its history. In 1858,
following intensive studies of the existing conditions, Haussmann
proposed the building of new slaughterhouses combined with markets and
connected to railroads. Initially his plans were rejected by the city
council, but following the annexation of numerous suburbs to the
territory of Paris in 1859, Haussmann's project was approved, in part,
because suddenly the city housed nine separate slaughterhouses.
Despite disagreements among reformers, city officials, and butchers
about the necessity for new slaughterhouses, their construction began
in 1860. The chosen site was located in one of the newly annexed
districts in the northeastern corner of Paris at La Villette. A rapidly
growing industrial district, La Villette offered a premier site with
plenty of water and a ready connection to Paris's railways. The market
was completed in 1862, and the slaughterhouses opened in 1867 during
the World Exposition that was held in Paris that year. La Villette was
instantly considered a monument to the new industrial design based on
iron and glass. The fifty-six-hectare terrain housed three market halls
for the trade of livestock, numerous stables for cattle, sheep, and
pigs, and several administrative buildings, including a police station,
post office, and stock market. The design of the grand halls followed
that of the markets at Les Halles, both of which were built by the then
prominent architect Victor Baltard. Much like Les Halles, La Villette
combined elegant form with commercial function. Many of the adjacent
buildings were built according to the neo-classical style of
architecture. Attached to the market were the new slaughterhouses just
on the other side of the Canal Ourcq, which served as the boundary not
only between the two facilities, but also between the "living" and the
The opening of Le Marché et Les Abattoirs de La Villette completed the
centralization of slaughter. Trains delivered livestock right to the
markets, where animals were traded and sent right to the
slaughterhouse. Once animals entered the abattoirs, there was only one
possible way out—as a carcass en route to a meat market. La Villette,
at least for the animals, was a one-directional enterprise. The
facility stood as an icon to the rationalization of space. By 1900, La
Villette had grown into a "city within the city." Hundreds of humans
and close to two million animals passed through its gates every year.
Apart from minor extensions and remodeling in 1904, 1920, and again in
1930, La Villette continued to operate unchanged throughout most of the
20th century, until the facility became obsolete in the 1960s, when
large urban markets no longer fit into the decentralizing postwar
economy. La Villette closed its gates in 1974.
Many European cities took a similar course towards urbanization during
the 19th century. As cities grew, new infrastructures were needed to
provide for growing populations and to accommodate the emerging dynamic
of mass society. The increasing concentration of people, goods,
buildings, streets, and factories required a new spatial order that
could support urban growth, foster mobility, heighten industrial
production, and improve living standards. The necessity of transforming
medieval towns into modern metropoles gave rise to urban planning as
well as public hygiene and welfare politics. The responsibility to
raise or at least maintain the population's prosperity increasingly
fell into the hands of the expanding European public welfare states.
Centering on a troubled politics of population, governments oversaw the
operation of numerous public facilities such as hospitals, bath houses,
parks, and sewage systems, gas works, and schools. The emergence of
public slaughterhouses in cities across Europe was part of this larger
process of transformation.
Quite a different set of forces was at work across the Atlantic in
Chicago. Just as La Villette was being built in Paris, Chicago also
witnessed the emergence of large-scale slaughter yards. The
developments on both continents were driven by similar ambitions
towards the greater rationalization and increased efficiency of
slaughter. But the particular circumstances in each city led to the
adoption of different approaches. The most visible differences were the
cities themselves. Paris had existed for centuries and its population
had risen to close to two million by 1871. Chicago, in contrast, was a
young city (growing up only in the 1830s), and in 1870 its population
amounted to a mere 220,000. Hence, unlike in Paris, the building of the
Chicago Union Stockyards was hardly about reforming existing
structures, but rather about creating new urban forms. Chicago's
slaughterhouses were not an obstacle to urbanization. Quite to the
contrary, they spurred Chicago's growth into the city that the poet
Carl Sandburg called "hog butcher to the world." By 1900, Chicago would be the second-largest city in the United States, in no small part due to the slaughterhouses.
In the early 1860s, there were only a couple of small livestock dealers
in Chicago, mainly to satisfy local demands. But with the arrival of
railroads in the early 1860s, Chicago quickly developed into an
important hub connecting the East and West. As in Europe, railroads
offered a viable alternative to the treacherous shipment of goods over
water. Yet, railroads required the centralization of markets. Thus,
several of the existing hog companies decided to unite their operations
in an effort to accommodate railroad technology and in the hope of
creating a large profitable livestock market that would upstage
Cincinnati. Consequently, on Christmas Day 1865, the Union Stockyards
and Transit Company was founded on the South Side of Chicago. Within a
few years, and especially after the arrival of Philip Armour and
Gustavus Swift in 1875, Chicago devel-oped into a leading market for
meatpacking. Whereas in the 1850s only about 20,000 hogs were
slaughtered annually, by the mid-1870s, the number had climbed to more
than three million. By the beginning of the 20th century, an average of
13 million animals came through the stockyards each year. Undoubtedly,
Chicago had turned into the largest producer of meat in the United
States and possibly the world. La Villette fed Paris, but Chicago
supplied the nation.
In 19th-century Europe, livestock, for the most part, was still
painstakingly raised in small herds, while in the US large herds grew
with minimum effort on the prairie. The stockyards were built for large
herds that were kept in open-air cattle holding pens rather than
stables. As slaughter facilities had to match this capacity, industrial
efficiency became a key factor. New technologies of slaughter were
constantly invented and old ones improved. One such invention was the
refrigerated rail car, which enabled the transport of fresh meat.
However, the most important of these inventions was the two-story
disassembly line. Invented in Cincinnati but perfected in Chicago, the
disassembly line gave Henry Ford his ideas for a prototype for car
production. It consisted of an overhead rail system by which animals
were hoisted and moved through compartmentalized workstations, where
one man would slit the animal's throat, another would tear off its
hide, a third split the carcass, and on and on until the dressed
carcass was hoisted into a rail car and sent on its way to consumers.
With this process it took less than twenty-four hours from the moment
an animal arrived until it was sold at the market, slaughtered,
dressed, and shipped off as meat. This disassembly-style production
enabled the stunning mechanization of slaughter, but it could not
supplant manual labor completely. The individuality of animal bodies
prevented the standardization of slaughter, which up to this
day—despite technological sophistication—still often requires the human
hand and its flexibility with a knife.
Such mechanization was possible because Chicago was less entrenched in
the traditions of butchering. Reforms in Paris were constantly met with
resistance by butchers intent on preserving their traditional habits.
In Chicago there was little opposition; the stockyards were built not
as a place for butchering but a factory of meatpacking. A different
work structure guided production. Not individual butchers, but an
easily replaceable manual work force arranged in a disassembly line
turned animals into meat. By the late 1870s, the stockyards already
employed approximately 2,000 workers. In the years to come this number
would rise up to 45,000. Polish, Irish, and Lithuanian immigrant labor
and African Americans from the South primarily sustained this growth.
By the turn of the century, the stockyards were surrounded by ethnic
neighborhoods that housed the workers and their families. They hardly
shared in the prosperity that the stockyards were bringing to Chicago.
Upton Sinclair powerfully captured their dire existence in his 1906
novel The Jungle.
He described how the American Dream of the young Lithuanian immigrant
Jurgis Rudkus turned into an American reality in the stockyards of
Chicago. The slaughterhouses were not only deadly for livestock, but
also horrific for workers, who had to endure bloody working and
poverty-stricken living conditions.
The stockyards certainly were the American Dream for some, most notably
for Philip Armour and Gustavus Swift, whose wealth was born amidst the
blood, noise, and stench. One could get rich in Packingtown because it
was based on private enterprise. In Europe most slaughterhouses
belonged to the city, but in Chicago, they belonged to private
entrepreneurs, whose motive was profit rather than public welfare. The
developments in Chicago were less driven by a politics of population
than by the economy of markets. The Union Stockyards illustrated how
the pull of markets initiated an unprecedented mechanization and
technological innovation. Nothing was wasted; every part of the animals
was used. Packers prided themselves that they utilized "everything but
the squeals." The primacy of profit motives also manifested itself in
the lack of concern for hygiene conditions and for the freshness of
meat. Unlike in Europe, where inspections increasingly ruled operations
in the slaughterhouse, in Chicago there were hardly any inspections or
regulations because the state could not intervene as readily as in
Europe. In Chicago, reforms were not instigated by the state but rather
by scandal—a scandal brought on by literature. Upton Sinclair's novel
was fiction, but it shocked readers into demanding change. He had
described the horrid conditions, poverty, and filth surrounding
meatpacking. As he himself stated, "I aimed at the public's heart, and
by accident I hit it in the stomach."
Like La Villette, the Union Stockyards existed well into the 20th
century. However, the postwar spread of automation increasingly
rendered the once path-breaking multi-storey system inefficient and
obsolete. Slowly the stockyards were replaced by new facilities further
west in Iowa, Nebraska, and Colorado. Moreover, another transport
innovation, the super-highway, took livestock traffic off the rails and
onto the road. Once again market demands forced changes in the process
of production. Whereas railroads had fostered centralization, now truck
transport promoted decentralization and the search for cheaper
locations in the countryside. And finally, urbanization itself was
becoming an obstacle. The stockyards' proximity to downtown was a
growing nuisance, especially in terms of smell; thus the city showed
little interest in retaining the slaughterhouses. Slowly the stockyards
closed down. Swift left in 1958, Armour the following year, and most
others followed suit. The final announcement, that after a hundred
years of operation the stockyards would shut down completely, came in
July 1971. Today there is nothing left of the former stockyards except
one entrance gate and the small family-owned packinghouse of Chiapetti
Lamb and Veal. The terrain is used as a multi-purpose industrial park
for warehouses and low-rise office buildings. By the mid-1970s, neither
Paris nor Chicago operated slaughterhouses anymore. Tucked away in the
countryside, butchering has truly moved out of sight. The
post-industrial age witnessed the demise of the modern
mass-slaughterhouse because it did not fit into the image of the
so-called postmodern city. All over the world, former slaughterhouses
are being reclaimed by the living, who are appropriating them for other
purposes. Just last year, Les Abattoirs, a museum for contemporary art,
opened in Toulouse, France, on the premises of a 19th-century
slaughterhouse. In Landau, Germany, a slaughterhouse has been put to
"adaptive reuse" as a library. Cities from Buenos Aires to Frankfurt
are partaking in the slaughterhouse revival by turning former spaces of
death into clubs, restaurants, boutiques, and other hip places.
Meat-market districts in New York and Chicago have been transformed
into trendy hangout areas and loft neighborhoods, reinventing the
slaughterhouse as an æstheticized space for consumption and
Not long ago, I was at La Villette for an outdoor screening of The Night of the Hunter.
La Villette is now a "polyvalent cultural complex" that houses a
science museum, festival space, and la Cité de la Musique. In the words
of one of its architects, Bernard Tschumi, La Villette has turned
"architecture against itself."8 Watching the film projected onto the
former cattle market, which is one of the few buildings that remain,
was an eerie experience. The park of La Villette is not just
architecture turned against itself. It is life turned on its head.
- Thomas More, Utopia (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989, o. 1516), Book II, p. 57.
- Denis Hollier, Against Architecture: The Writings of Georges Bataille (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1989), p. xv.
- Louis-Sébastien Mercier, Tableau de Paris, 5 Volumes (Paris, 1782), Vol. 5, pp. 101-103.
- Ibid., Vol. 5, p. 28.
- Ibid., Vol. 1, pp. 123–124.
- Georges-Eugène Haussmann, Memoirs du Baron Haussmann, (Paris: 1890–93), vol. 3, p. 561.
- Carl Sandburg, Chicago Poems (New York: Dover Publications, 1994), p. 1.
- Bernard Tschumi, Cinégram folie: Le parc de la Villette (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1987), p. vii.
Dorothee Brantz is writing a doctoral dissertation at the University of Chicago on the history of slaughterhouses in nineteenth-century Berlin and Paris.
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