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VegSource and the Meat-Packers

Jeffrey Armour Nelson, Founder VegSource.com | 11/04/09

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"Behind every great fortune there is a crime."
-- Honore de Balzac

My great-great-grandfather would probably detest what I stand for and want to accomplish. His goal was to turn more and more people into meat addicts; mine is to help people kick that habit.

I come from a long line of pig butchers and meat-packers: the Armour family. My not-too-distant relatives were responsible for such ingenious inventions as the refrigerated train car and the "kill floor," and ultimately the meat-oriented status of the modern American diet.

In the late 1850's, my great-great-grandfather Herman Ossian ("H.O.") Armour and his brother Phillip Danforth ("P.D.") Armour owned a business which bought hogs from local farmers for delivery to slaughterers and packers. The demands of the hungry Union armies during the Civil War created a boom in pork and the Armour brothers prospered -- and profiteered. In a business move that might land you in jail today, and even then was considered "immoral" by his partners, P.D. took advantage of artificially swollen food prices toward the end of 1864 and sold futures to pork barrels he did not possess for delivery in the spring of 1865 when, he gambled, the War would be ending and prices would have fallen. His gamble paid off, and netted a $2,000,000 profit at the expense of disgruntled traders and government merchants.

 


H.O. Armour
March 2, 1827 -- September 8, 1901

P.D. and H.O. became multi-millionaires in their early thirties. But P.D., a "King Midas of Meat," had even bigger ideas. He had a vision for the future of America and meat production.

Up until the time of the Civil War, meat as a daily staple of the American diet was a luxury pretty much confined to the wealthy. The slaughter of animals for food was a purely local business, mostly because the animals could not travel far without suffering serious loss of weight. Cattle and hogs were driven in herds to local butchers, who killed them by crude hand methods. Once killed, their flesh could only be preserved by salting and smoking. Since, even in that form, it could not keep long, each slaughtering center could serve only a small territory. In most parts of the world, the availability of meat was unpredictable and seasonal; the average man lived on a diet consisting chiefly of bread, home grown potatoes, corn, or other vegetables from the garden.

P.D. was clever enough to recognize the connection between some remarkable resources: the railroad network that had developed by the Civil War's end, and the vast amount of land and grain in Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas and Texas available to support hundreds of thousands of hogs and steers. If large herds could be produced and raised on that land, they could be brought by train to central points to be slaughtered in large numbers at high speed and low cost; if the beef and pork could be preserved for rail shipment to the east, then meat packing could be a national industry, an empire. And the Armours could be its rulers.

With the wealth already amassed from the Civil War, P.D. and H.O. set out to pursue the dream of creating mass production of meat. The common man would be able to have meat on his table every day, and could grow as portly and plump as the richest and most prosperous banker in town.

Like an unstoppable general, P.D. commanded his armies of buyers, workmen, and salesmen from a Chicago office in which he worked from 7 A.M. until late at night. P.D. was a familiar sight in the Chicago plant as he checked up on countless small details. Many employees worked as much as 18 hours a day in dangerous, unclean, unsanitary conditions. He was quick to discharge a workman for a task poorly done.

The Armours succeeded in turning meat packing into an assembly-line operation. Hogs and steers were herded off trains and into pens, and from there into narrow chutes which led to the slaughterhouses. There they were stunned by a hammer-blow on 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 carcasses into chops, steaks, and hams.

The financial costs were kept to a minimum in the Armour production line, and there were few problems which the hired experts couldn't solve. The persistently vexing one, however, was the high employee turnover rate in the positions that were in closest proximity to the constant screaming of the animals during the actual slaughter, and in those that had to work in the astounding quantities of blood, and smell the pervasive stench of feces and carcasses. These were also the areas where the injury rate was highest. But there always seemed to be another new young man available and willing to step in and take the hammer, knife or saw whenever an employee would lose a finger, hand, eye -- or stomach for the job.

The organized teams in the Armour plants could slaughter and process thousands of animals a day -- the product of a hundred farms or an entire ranch. A steer, raised for two years in far-off Texas, driven hundreds of miles by cowboys to Abilene or Dodge City, then shipped further hundreds of miles by cattle car to the Union Stockyards, could be turned into prime beef, ready for the oven, in less than an hour. They were able to slaughter pigs at the rate of 20 per minute.

"Waste is criminal," P.D. Armour once wrote. He hired chemists who were able to find dozens of ways to use what had once been waste products to produce soap, glue, glycerine, and fertilizer. Once asked what parts of a pig he used in his business, P.D. replied, "Everything but the squeal." It became a popular saying at the plants.

The Armours financed experiments with refrigerator cars. Early models were crude ice chests on wheels, but as time went on, better methods of insulation and of making artificial ice were introduced. Since the railroads were reluctant to invest in building such cars, the Armours built their own; by 1890 they had 6,000 refrigerator cars in service, and were shipping dressed beef and pork to markets thousands of miles away. Refrigerated ships gave Armour meat an international market, too. By the early twentieth century the poet Carl Sandburg could properly refer to Armour Meat's Chicago as "Hog butcher for the world!"

By the turn of the century, the Armour brothers were meat barons.


Mary Armour
March 8, 1842 - December 28, 1870

H.O. and P.D. and their brothers Joseph, Simeon and Andrew had long since merged their individual companies into a mega-corporation that was generating over two hundred million dollars a year (over 10 billion in today's dollars). Like field generals, my great-great-grandfather, H.O., had taken over the Eastern front, purchasing banks and handling financial contacts in New York; Simeon and Andrew commanded the Kansas City outpost, raising and/or purchasing and transporting millions of head of cattle and pigs; Joseph and P.D. controlled the Chicago and Milwaukee operations. The Armours bought banks, and then used the banks to provide the family business with money to buy gigantic herds of animals whenever opportunity beckoned. They were heavy traders in feed grains. Their refrigerator cars tied them to the country's railroad empires.

The Armours were ruthless competitors; they would open a retail outlet in every city and flood the market with their products, selling them at such ridiculously low prices the local butchers and outlets could not compete. Townsfolk took to Armour meat products with the intensity of addicts to heroin. When the local competition was forced to close their doors and leave their business because they could not match Armour's prices and sell at a loss -- Armour could (and did) then raise prices and control completely the availability and pricing of the city's meat and related products. Using this technique, Armour was successful in his efforts to deny opportunities in the meat business to thousands of smaller operators, and many who had been in the butchery business for years found themselves driven to bankruptcy and ruin.

The Armour clan flourished into the early twentieth century, with an annual turnover during World War I of 500 million to one billion dollars (comparable to annual revenues of 25 billion dollars today). The Armours' monopolistic business practices, the tumult caused when U.S. soldiers in the Spanish-American War died from eating meat Armour sold to the War Department, and food scandals of the early twentieth Century (wherein Armour and their competitors permitted sawdust, rats, animal feces, and portions of animals heretofore considered inedible to be used in the production of "meat" products), eventually got the attention of the Congress of the United States. The Sherman Anti-Trust Act and other legislation was enacted to protect the public from the unscrupulous business practices of the Armours and their fellow "robber barons."


Armour Mausoleum
The mausoleum was designed by James Renwick, who also designed the Smithsonian Castle in Washington D.C and Saint Patrick's Cathedral in New York City.

Years after its enactment, the Armours were indicted for violations of the Sherman Act based on testimony they gave before Congress in which they revealed the very incriminating details of their business practices. A brilliant, silver-tongued lawyer of the day retained by the Armours argued that they should be able to invoke --retroactively -- their Fifth Amendment right not to implicate themselves, and thus prevent the introduction at trial of their own previous damning testimony before Congress, and prevent the introduction of all the evidence procured as a result of that testimony. On the eve of trial, after a jury had been empaneled, a judge accepted the lawyer's argument and dismissed the case against the Armours. The newspapers of the day proclaimed derisively that the Armours' lawyer had given them an "immunity bath."

To provide better oversight of the industry, the National Livestock and Meat Board was subsequently formed under the aegis of the AMA to review certain of the meat packers' practices. This Board, of which Armour and rival packers were members, was able to deal peacefully with a number of issues in the packing business and, according to a 1933 report issued on the Board, "...the spirit of combat arises now only when its members hear the wolfish howl of the vegetarian pack in the legislative halls or on the lecture platform."

The Armours of the Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century were living on the frontier of capitalism, trying like so many others to create a fortune and a family dynasty. They succeeded. Their methods may have been a bit heartless at times, but I don't believe my great-great-grandfather or his offspring ever contemplated that their "breakthroughs" in industrializing the meat industry might end up having some seriously negative consequences on the planet. At the time, meat was thought to be "healthy" and a symbol of affluence. It is only during the past half century that repeated research has revealed the many problems associated with meat-based diets, such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, environmental distruction, and ultimately a great inequity in food supply around the world, as more and more land which could be used to grow food for starving third world people, is instead used to grow crops to feed to 'food animals' so that wealthy countries can have steaks and burgers.

I want to do my part in contributing a new chapter to the Armour history. Part of this new legacy includes the founding of VegSource Interactive by my wife, Sabrina, and me, to encourage others to shift toward plant-based eating. Sitting in our kitchen operating this website as we are, we can do our small part to help heal the Earth, and everyone on it.

Welcome to VegSource.

Some material drawn from "Armour and his Times", Leech 1938.



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