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Bring your big stick to “The Jungle”

Final page of a letter from Upton Sinclair to President Teddy Roosevelt (Records of the Office of the Secretary of Agriculture)

Final page of a letter from Upton Sinclair to President Teddy Roosevelt (Records of the Office of the Secretary of Agriculture, RG 16)

It was 1906 when Upton Sinclair made the world vegetarian, at least for a little while. Sinclair’s novel riled the United States and its President, Teddy Roosevelt, by revealing the unsanitary conditions under which food was made.

Since 1879, over 100 bills had been introduced to regulate the food and drug industry. It only took five months after the release of The Jungle for one of those laws to pass. On June 30, 1906, President Roosevelt signed into law the Pure Food and Drug Act, effectively creating the Food and Drug Administration.

Roosevelt had read an advanced copy of The Jungle. But almost before he finished reading it—barely a week after its first publication—Sinclair was peppering the President with letters and recommendations on how to regulate the industry. Roosevelt was sympathetic to Sinclair’s desire to regulate the industry but despised the man’s zealotry. In an April 14, 1906, speech loosely aimed at the author, he described “muckrakers” as the men who cause more trouble than they cure. “Tell Sinclair to go home and let me run the country for a while,” Roosevelt said to Frank Doubleday at a later date. In a letter to journalist William Allen White later that summer, Roosevelt simply called Sinclair a “crackpot.”

Still, the two shared a lunch at the White House and an extensive correspondence—possibly sharing more letters than any President with an author who wasn’t writing a biography. Sinclair’s passionate descriptions of the meatpacking industry, and Roosevelt’s pursuit of reform in the industry, led to the nation’s first consumer protection laws.

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