the american meat colossus -- 7/19/17

Today's selection -- from Cattle Kingdom: The Hidden History of the Cowboy West by Christopher Knowlton. In the mid-to-late 1800s, the meat industry -- from the cowboys and cattle drives to the Chicago slaughterhouses to the refrigerated railcars delivering steaks to New York's finest restaurants -- was the largest industry in America. At the heart of this industry were entrepreneurs like Philip Danforth Armour and Gustavus Franklin Swift, who pioneered business practices later adopted by the automobile industry and whose company names survive to this day:

"[In the meat industry in the mid-1800s], automation was the secret ingredient. Overhead wheels were introduced to carry the hog or the steer from one fixed worksta­tion to the next. Before long, this approach evolved into an over­head trolley system driven by steam engines and industrial belts. Specific repetitive tasks were assigned to each worker along what became, in effect, the first assembly line, although the actual work was disassembly. It was from studying this process in the Chicago slaughterhouses that Henry Ford came up with his own method for assembling automobiles -- a development that would revolutionize mass manufacturing.

Panoramic picture illustrating the beef industry. Click to view detail.

"Meat was becoming big business. By the late 1860s the value of meat-animal production amounted to $1.4 billion, or 20 percent of the country's $7.8 billion gross domestic product. Add in the meatpacking component and you exceeded 22 percent of the GDP, mak­ing meat -- primarily beef, pork, and lamb -- by far the largest in­dustry in the United States at the time. The industry would double in size by 1900, but its percentage of the GDP would shrink to 16.6 percent, a testament to how rapidly other components of the indus­trializing economy were growing.

Gustavus Swift, 1903

"Gustavus Swift, driven, obsessive, and relentless, proved to be one of the country's greatest business innovators, earning a place in the American Business Hall of Fame. Not only did Swift give the auto titan Henry Ford the idea for the mass assembly line; the man­agement practices that Swift developed and pursued so ruthlessly formed the beginnings of the American system of business proce­dures and management practices, which largely accounts for the country's rise to industrial preeminence. As William Cronon has written in Nature's Metropolis, 'However impressive individuals like Swift or Armour might be, their real achievement was to cre­ate immense impersonal organizations, hierarchically structured and operated by an army of managers and workers that would long outlive their founders.'

"These were corporations 'on a scale never before seen in the history of the world.' Swift was the first to pur­sue vertical integration and functional specialization and the first to develop a culture that promoted from within and developed mana­gerial expertise. He was also the first to create a national, and then a global, distribution network, and the first to encourage the rapid adoption and deployment of advanced technology. He was, at once, daring in his use of leverage and exemplary at maintaining his good credit. In short, the meatpacking industry, as gruesome, violent, and inhumane as much of the actual work was, became an academy of best practices for business. It was the Harvard Business School of its day, with Gustavus Swift, the thrifty Yankee butcher from Cape Cod, as its first dean."

Excerpted from
Cattle Kingdom: The Hidden History of the Cowboy West
by Christopher Knowlton. Copyright © 2017 by Christopher Knowlton. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.



Christopher Knowlton


Cattle Kingdom: The Hidden History of the Cowboy West


Houghton Mifflin Harcourt


Copyright 2017 by Christopher Knowlton


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