The civil war had also been pivotal in the meteoric success of Alice’s maternal family, the Armours. Armour Felt Works was part of the Armour Company empire, a series of industries based around the Armour Meatpacking Company. The company had been founded by brothers Herman Ossian Armour and Phillip Danforth Armour, who had profited – and profiteered – during the American Civil War. Hungry Union Armies drove up the price of meat and PD Armour sold short pork futures in the New York Market, gambling on the end of the Civil War to drop prices. He was right. He made nearly $2 million in 90 days. The brothers were multi-millionaires by their early 30’s and Chicago replaced Cincinnati as the leading meat processing city in the US.
In 1915 poet Carl Sandburg was inspired to write a poem on the dual nature of the boom-town, with big industrial enterprises spawning a boom in desperate, crippling poverty for many and feeding a secondary boom in criminal activity. He identified the cut-throat business practices of the meat-packing barons as largely to blame when he called Chicago “Hog Butcher for the World”.
HOG Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders:
They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I
have seen your painted women under the gas lamps
luring the farm boys.
And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it
is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to
And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the
faces of women and children I have seen the marks
of wanton hunger.
And having answered so I turn once more to those who
sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer
and say to them:
Come and show me another city with lifted head singing
so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.
Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on
job, here is a tall bold slugger set vivid against the
little soft cities;
(excerpt) Carl Sandburg
The Armour brothers’ drive and ambition in pursuing the American Dream wrought social change in the lives of ordinary Americans. Their talent was to put together quite disparate resources and see the opportunity to change a production and delivery system, an opportunity that nobody else could see. The result was meat as a staple on every dinner-plate in America.
After the war, the Armours turned their attention to expanding their meat empire using the rail network to deliver meat far and wide. Previously meat had been a luxury enjoyed only by the wealthy due to the costs involved in small-scale slaughterhouse and delivery operations. Livestock tended to lose weight being herded cross-country to market restricting the markets livestock producers could access, and the animals that slaughterhouses could purchase. Preservation methods were limited to smoking and salting and meant that the meat could not be kept for long or transported far after the kill. By using the railways to buy cattle in Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas and Texas, then bringing them in by rail to central points for slaughter without the loss incurred in driving the cattle on foot, the Armours could buy cheap and minimise their slaughterhouse costs. Again using the railways, the Armour Company could establish a large market share for cheap almost-fresh meat wherever the railroad tracks went. In 1872 they installed the world’s largest cool room and began using natural ice as their preserving method, expanding the territory into which they could sell their meat. The American householder developed a taste for the luxury of meat.
Very much in keeping with the times, the Armours turned butchery from a small scale process into a production line. PD Armour’s great great grandson Jeff Armour Nelson describes the process thus: ” Hogs and steers were herded off trains and into pens, and from there into narrow chutes which led to the slaughterhouses. They were stunned by a hammer-blow to the head and quickly slung up by the hind legs to an overhead moving belt. Then they moved past long lines of men working at top speed – cutting their throats, removing their vital organs, peeling off hides and bristles, and sawing the carcases into chops, steaks and hams.” They could slaughter and process a thousand animals a day. A promotional postcard of the time shows workers standing on a floor awash with blood surrounded by carcases suspended from a conveyer belt.
The Armour empire expanded further. Refrigerated ships expanded their reach across the oceans and soon they established frozen meat works in Buenos Aires , taking advantage of the excellent fatted cattle and cheap local labour.
Armour and Company were also ruthless in selling their products, flooding new markets with below-cost products until the “mom and pop” competitors were put out of business. Then they could raise the prices to make a handsome profit.
Production line techniques had cut costs and delivered a product to many whom previously could not afford the luxury of meat. These same production line techniques later inspired Henry Ford and engineer Clarence Avery to streamline car production so that in 1913 a car could be built in 1.5 hours, reversing the process of stripping a carcase so that the car was built from the chasse up.
Armour’s other secret also revolutionised the meat-packing industry. PD Armour once wrote “waste is criminal” and he applied this principle to his meatpacking empire. He hired chemists to make sure no part of the animal went to waste, no product required another manufacturer, no profits went elsewhere. Armour and Company produced a huge range of goods ranging from prime steaks through to leather-products, glycerin, gelatine and Neat’s-foot oil made from the hooves and horns, fertiliser from the blood, felt from the fur, soap, candles and tallow from the fats, glue from the sinews and bones. PD was quoted saying “We use every part of the pig except the squeal.” No doubt if he could have found out how to harness that, he would have sold it at a profit as well.
The Armour meat-packing empire was a huge industry in Chicago and northern US, and as a large-scale employer wrought significant social and financial influence. PD Armour died in 1900, leaving what was then a massive fortune of $15 million* with rumours that he had given away $25 million. By 1918 PD Armour’s son J Ogden Armour featured in the Forbes first rich list, listed in the $125 million category. The company had a turnover listed at $600 million in 1918 and profit at $20 million per annum. At its peak its annual turnover was $961 million, and the family holdings also included bank and railroad stocks . (Armour Meats is now part of the Dial company.)
There were some problems with the Armour system. The relentless focus on profits overlooked important ethical principals such as worker safety. There was huge turn-over of staff in the slaughterhouse as workers could not cope with the screaming of the animals. Workers were constantly covered in blood and pressured to kill faster and faster. Staff turn-over was not a problem to Armour; in the poverty of Chicago’s immigrant ghettos there were always more workers to take their place in this lowest of occupations.
Even more catastrophically, food hygiene standards were ignored. The importance of food safety and hygiene was perhaps not as scientifically established as it is now but the public was aware that spoiled food could be fatal. Sawdust, rats, faeces and animals parts not usually considered for human consumption made their way into the Armour meat supply. When soldiers in the Spanish-American War died after eating the meat Armours had supplied to the War Department, the public outcry finally reached the American Congress and food safety was discussed at a legislative level. Armour finally acted to clean up the industry. By WWII Armour and Co had a Government contract to supply meat to the army again.