March 2, 1827 -- September 8, 1901
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
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
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
By the turn of the century, the Armour brothers were meat barons.
March 8, 1842 – December 28, 1870
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.
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."
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."
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."
End of excerpt.
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.
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, and our involvement with EarthSave
International. Between the two, we'll have a veg world yet!
Some material drawn from "Armour
and his Times", Leech 1938.