BEFORE THE CIVIL WAR the fresh meat that the city dweller ate had to come into his city on the hoof. Since there was no way of preventing spoilage of meat while it was brought in from the outside, each city had its own slaughterhouses, which produced piles of offal and an offensive odor. For long-distance shipment, meat had to be preserved by salting and smoking and then be packed in barrels. When fresh meat was costly and was available only at certain seasons, the social class and income of an urban American could be gauged by the quantity and quality of fresh meat found on his table.
There is no better illustration of the American paradox—of how the very extent of the nation encouraged the finding of new ways to make life more uniform—than the story of meat. There came into being a national, even an international, market for the fresh meat raised on the Western plains.
TO EXTEND THE MARKET for fresh meat, there had to be a practical refrigerator car. Such cars would make it possible for meat packers in the West to do their own slaughtering out there for the fresh-meat market in Eastern cities. By shipping dressed beef, they would save freight on the 35 percent of the animal’s weight that was unsalable. Incidentally they would save the cost of feeding live cattle in transit; they would also avoid the loss of weight, and sometimes of whole animals, from overcrowding. Naturally enough, the railroads, with their large investments in loading docks and feeding stations for shipping live cattle, feared the refrigerator car. In Eastern cities, local butchers and slaughterers spread propaganda against the “poisonous” meat that had been carried for long distances on the rails. The railroads charged an especially high rate on dressed meat so it would yield them as much profit as if the animals had been shipped on the hoof; they could hardly have been expected to take the initiative in building refrigerator cars.
The stage was set for a Go-Getter to organize railroad refrigeration and bring fresh meat to the growing Eastern cities. The leading roles were played by two Americans, a Swift and an Armour, who became household names in every corner of the continent, and in the far corners of the world. Their two careers were intertwined, not only as competitors, but as boosters and builders of Chicago.
Gustavus Franklin Swift at the age of fourteen went to work for his brother, the village butcher in Sandwich on Cape Cod. And he went into business for himself when he had saved enough money to buy a heifer, which he slaughtered and sold as dressed meat from door to door. He began dealing in cattle and gradually moved westward with the cattle market, from Cape Cod to Albany, then to Buffalo, and finally to Chicago in 1875. He began to imagine how much more beef could be sent out from Chicago if only it could be slaughtered and dressed before shipping. There had been occasional shipments of this sort, but always in winter, when cold weather kept the meat from spoiling. Swift foresaw a year-round trade.
When he first decided to ship dressed beef year-round, it seemed as risky a project as Tudor’s plan, seventy-five years earlier, to send ice to the Indies. But Swift had some advantages over his well-established Chicago competitors in the business of shipping beef on the hoof, for he personally knew the meat business in New England. When none of the railroad lines that were already carrying large numbers of cattle would help, he finally turned to the Grand Trunk Railway, which agreed to carry refrigerator cars if Swift himself would provide them. Swift then boldly invested his limited capital in ten new refrigerators cars and in experiments for their improvement. By 1881 Swift had found a refrigerator car that would deliver his Chicago-dressed meat in good condition to the Eastern butchers. When the railroads realized that carrying dressed beef might actually increase their business, they began to compete for the traffic. The Eastern butchers, too, now saw their chance to sell more meat, and several actually went into partnership with Swift. Swift’s shipments brought down the price of meat so that by 1882 Harper’s Weekly in New York heralded “this era of cheap beef.”
WITHIN A FEW YEARS Swift built a new giant industry, a response to peculiarly American opportunities—to vast American spaces, to the extreme contrasts of newly congested cities and still-empty Western prairies. Space and contrast offered openings for organization. Just as the annual fur-trade rendezvous meant timing the movements of men thousands of miles apart, and their coming together at an agreed-on day, so now the transporting of fresh meat from the far West to the eastern seaboard required practice and elaborate organizing
After collecting his cattle in Chicago, Swift had to devise a way to slaughter them quickly for loading into his refrigerator cars. Then, to avoid the need to transfer the meat from one car to another en route, the cars had to be sent over railroad lines of a common gauge, and that still required planning in the 1870’s. To avoid spoilage when the refrigerator car arrived at its destination, in New York for instance, the car had to be brought to a halt with its doors precisely opposite those of the cold-storage building. Then the overhead rails which Swift had constructed inside each car, and on which the sides of meat were hanging, were connected to those within the building. “The meat is easily transferred to the storage room,” Harper’s Weekly marveled, “which is of the same temperature as the car, without loss of time and without being removed from the hook on which it was hung when killed.”
This was only the middle step in a still more remarkable organization that reached back to the processing and slaughtering and finally to the cattle producers, as well as out from the cold-storage building to a world of consumers. Swift’s knowledge of the feed business and his skill as a cattle appraiser helped him round up the animals.
But to get the most out of a carcass required a newer kind of organizing ability, and the boldness to do things in ways never tried before. To separate out all the several parts of a hog quickly and economically so that each could be sold for its own purpose required the invention (in Sigfried Giedion’s phrase) of a “disassembly line.” These decades of experience in disassembling hogs would prepare the way for Henry Ford’s new way of assembling automobiles. What was new was working on objects while they moved, objects which were made to move so they could be better worked upon. It would no longer be possible for a man to describe his job by how long he took to do it.
The key to organizing production was, of course, to simplify. The American system of interchangeable parts had meant breaking down a product into its individual pieces and then making each separately; Swift’s meat-packing house used a similar techinique. The slaughtering of the hog and the cutting of the carcass were broken down into numerous single operations. What this meant to workers on the line Upton Sinclair described in 1906 in The Jungle:
The carcass hog was then again strung up by machinery and sent upon another trolley ride; this time passing between two lines of men … upon a raised platform, each doing a certain single thing to the carcass as it came to him. One scraped the outside of a leg; another scraped the inside of the same leg. One with a swift stroke cut the throat. . . . Another made a slit down the body; a second opened the body wider; a third with a saw cut the breastbone; a fourth loosened the entrails; a fifth pulled them out. . . . There were men to scrape each side and men to scrape the back; there were men to clean the carcass inside, to trim it and wash it. Looking down this room one saw creeping slowly a line of dangling hogs … and for every yard there was a man working as if a demon were after him. At the end of this hog’s progress every inch of the carcass had been gone over several times.
Nearly a century after Americans had begun to apply their revolutionary technique for putting together objects of their own creation, they applied a similar simplifying, organizing technique to taking apart a complicated living organism. The most difficult single problem was how to get the live hogs into the production line, for each hog tended to go its own way. The solution was to use one live hog as a decoy: when it was penned on the moving disassembly line, the other hogs followed in good order and in a posture where they could be snagged and hoisted for the slaughter.
Swift had a genius for this kind of organizing, and an eye for detail. In the middle of the night he could be seen going down to the cold-storage rooms to check the thermometers. He organized the slaughtering so that parts that were formerly discarded could be made into marketable products, such as brushes, oleomargarine, glue, pharmaceuticals, or fertilizer. Swift spread out his production centers westward to Minnesota and Nebraska, and southward to Texas.
The increasing meat production of the Western prairies and of the packing houses far exceeded the needs of the American market, even with the rising American standard of eating. Soon after the Civil War, Chicago was processing about as much as Paris, although it had only about one-tenth the population of the European capital. Swift began selling his dressed meat in France and England, and he crossed the Atlantic twenty times to perfect these arrangements; he then added distributing branches in Tokyo, Osaka, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Manila, Singapore, and Honolulu. By 1912 Swift and Company, employing more than thirty thousand men and women, had outlets in four hundred cities on four continents.
The enterprise of Swift was matched by that of Philip Danforth Armour, who had been raised in Connecticut and also answered the lure of the West. With money he had made in the California Gold Rush, Armour entered the grocery business, first in Cincinnati, then in Milwaukee, and then he went into meat packing. Unlike Swift, he had a talent and a taste for speculation. In the last days of the Civil War, when pork was selling for $40 a barrel and going up, Armour foresaw that a Union victory would soon bring pork prices down. He went to New York to sell pork futures, and found many takers; when Union victories sent pork prices plummeting, Armour was able to buy the pork for $18 a barrel, which he had already sold for more than $30. So he was well rewarded for his patriotic confidence in the Union.
The $2 million Armour made on this deal became the foundation of his meat-packing fortune. Armour, like Swift, came to Chicago in 1875, and thereafter their careers were remarkably parallel. Armour, too, pioneered in organizing slaughterhouse disassembly lines, in finding uses for every shred of the carcass. He too was a leader in constructing refrigerator cars. His reputation, like Swift’s, was not improved by the scandal of “embalmed beef,” a supply of bad beef sent to troops in the Spanish-American War. Armour and Swift both became generous philanthropists. Armour’s faith in education led him to found the Armour Institute of Technology. “I like to turn bristles, blood, bones, and the insides and outsides of pigs and bullocks into revenue now,” he declared, “for I can turn the revenue into these boys and girls, and they will go on forever.”
THE MARKET FOR FRESH MEAT which was rapidly increased by refrigeration was matched by a similar increase in the market for preserved meat. Now the most popular mode of preservation was no longer salting, spicing, or smoking, all of which had been known from ancient times, but canning. Still, ingenuity was required to adapt the can to the peculiar requirements of meat.
The market for canned meat had at first been limited by the fact that meat which was packed in ordinary cans always came out as stew. Then a new process was used for cooking the meat before it went into the can so that there would be no shrinkage. And a clever Chicagoan, J. A. Wilson, designed a can shaped like a truncated pyramid; when the housewife opened the can at the larger end, as the instructions explained, a tap on the other end “will cause the solidly packaged meat to slide out in one piece so as to be readily sliced.” By 1878 a Chicago factory was turning out Wilson’s cans by the thousands, and for the first time housewives could serve their canned meat in attractive slices.
“Corned meat,” which English dictionaries in 1858 had described as “flesh slightly salted, intended for early use, and not for keeping for any time,” took on a new American meaning. “Corned beef” was the name for the new dish which came in cans and which enriched the diet of soldiers and civilians all over the world. Meat “compressed in cans clear of all bones or gristle” weighed only one-third what the same meat weighed unboned and packed in barrels, an economy comparable to that of shipping dressed meat instead of livestock. As canned meat became more attractive, it ceased to be merely an emergency dish and was found on American tables every day.
This widening of the market for canned meat had widespread indirect effects on the American diet. Since canned meat did not require refrigeration, fewer refrigerator cars were needed to transport the output of the slaughterhouses. And the great Chicago packers who by then had invested heavily in refrigerator cars for shipping meat went desperately in search of products that could use their expensive equipment. Armour sent his agents to the South to encourage the raising of large quantities of perishable fruits and berries that would require refrigerated shipping to Northern cities. In Georgia, for example, his agents encouraged the growing of peaches.
Canning, a new source of everyday miracles, would make prose out of many an old poetic metaphor. By 1924 a historian of American canning could boast:
Canning gives the American family—especially in cities and factory towns—a kitchen garden where all good things grow, and where it is always harvest time. There are more tomatoes in a ten-cent can than could be bought fresh in city markets for that sum when tomatoes are at their cheapest, and this is true of most other tinned foods. A regular Arabian Nights garden, where raspberries, apricots, olives, and pineapples, always ripe, grow side by side with peas, pumpkins, spinach; a garden with baked beans, vines and spaghetti bushes, and sauerkraut beds, and great cauldrons of hot soup, and through it running a branch of the ocean in which one can catch salmon, lobsters, crabs and shrimp, and dig oysters and clams.
The canning industry of the United States was now packing more food, and more different kinds of food, than that of all other countries combined.