Gustavus Swift founded a meat-packing empire in the Midwest during the late 19th century, over which he presided until his death. He is credited with the development of the first practical ice-cooled railroad car which allowed his company to ship dressed meats to all parts of the country and even abroad, which ushered in the "era of cheap beef." Swift pioneered the use of animal by-products for the manufacture of soap, glue, fertilizer, various types of sundries, and even medical products.
Swift donated large sums of money to such institutions as the University of Chicago, the Methodist Episcopal Church, and the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA). He established Northwestern University's "School of Oratory" in memory of his daughter, Annie May Swift, who died while attending the school. When he died in 1903, his company was valued at between US$125 million and $135 million, and had a workforce that was more than 21,000 strong. "The House of Swift" slaughtered as many as two million cattle, four million hogs, and two million sheep a year. Three years after his death, the value of the company's capital stock topped $250 million. He and his family are interred in a mausoleum in Mount Hope Cemetery in Chicago, Illinois.
Following the end of the American Civil War, Chicago emerged as a major railway center, making it an ideal point for the distribution of livestock raised on the Great Plains to Eastern markets. Getting the animals to market required herds to be driven distances of up to twelve hundred miles to railheads in Kansas City, MO, whereupon they were loaded into specialized stock cars and transported live (on the hoof) to regional processing centers. Driving cattle across the plains also led to tremendous weight loss, and a number of animals were typically lost along the way. Upon arrival at the local processing facility, livestock were either slaughtered by wholesalers and delivered fresh to nearby butcher shops for retail sale, smoked, or packed for shipment in barrels of salt.
Certain costly inefficiencies were inherent in the process of transporting live animals by rail, particularly due to the fact that some sixty percent of the animal's mass is composed of inedible matter. Many animals weakened by the long drive died in transit, further increasing the per-unit shipping cost. Swift's ultimate solution to these problems was to devise a method to ship dressed meats from his packing plant in Chicago to the East.
In 1878, Swift hired an engineer to design a refrigerated boxcar that was well- insulated, and positioned the ice in a compartment at the top of the car, allowing the chilled air to flow naturally downward. The design proved to be a practical solution to providing temperature-controlled carriage of dressed meats, and allowed Swift & Company to ship their products all over the United States, and even internationally, and in doing so radically altered the meat business. Swift's attempts to sell this design to the major railroads were unanimously rebuffed as the companies feared that they would jeopardize their considerable investments in stock cars and animal pens if refrigerated meat transport gained wide acceptance. In response, Swift financed the initial production run on his own, then — when the American roads refused his business — he contracted with the GTR (a railroad that derived little income from transporting live cattle). In 1880 the Swift Refrigerator Line (SRL) was created. Within a year the Line’s roster had risen to nearly 200 units, and Swift was transporting an average of 3,000 carcasses a week to Boston. Competing firms such as Armour and Company quickly followed suit. By 1920 the SRL owned and operated 7,000 of the ice-cooled rail cars. The General American Transportation Corporation would assume ownership of the line in 1930.
“Everything but the Squeal”
In response to public outcries to reduce the amount of pollutants generated by his packing plants, Swift sought innovative ways to use previously discarded portions of the animals his company butchered. This practice led to the wide scale commercial production of such diverse products as oleomargarine, soap, glue, fertilizer, hairbrushes, buttons, knife handles, and pharmaceutical preparations such as pepsin and insulin. Low-grade meats were canned in products like pork and beans.
The absence of federal inspection led to abuses. Sausages might incorporate rat droppings, dead rodents, or sawdust, and meat that had spoiled or meat mixed with waste materials was sometimes packed and sold (Swift once bragged that his slaughterhouses had become so sophisticated that they used "everything but the squeal"). Transgressions such as these were first documented in Upton Sinclair's novel The Jungle, the publication of which shocked the nation and led to the passing of the Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906.
The meat packing plants of Chicago were among the first to utilize assembly-line (or in this case, disassembly-line) production techniques. These practices symbolize the concept of "rationalized organization of work" to this day.
Swift adapted the methods of the industrial revolution to meat packing operations, which resulted in huge efficiencies by allowing his plants to produce at a massive scale. The work was divided into myriad specific sub-tasks, which were carried out under the direction of supervisory personnel. Swift & Co. was broken down organizationally into various divisions, each one responsible for conducting a different aspect of the business of "bringing meat from the ranch to the consumer". By developing a vertically integrated company, Swift was able to control the sale of his meats from the slaughterhouse to the local butcher shop.
The innovations that Swift championed not only revolutionized the meat packing industry, but also played a vital role in establishing the modern American business system, with an emphasis on mass production, functional specialization, managerial expertise, national distribution networks, and adaptation to technological innovation.