Monday, March 16, 2015

Gustavus Swift: A Revolution in the American Meat Industry

Gustavus Swift
The industrial revolution in the United States became home of some of the greatest innovation that made the modern world. From electricity to automobile, Americans used their curious mind to solve challenges and create solutions that make the world better. The food industry also got a share of some of innovations. Among the men that profited from it was the founder of one of the most famous food meat processing companies in the United States – Gustavus Swift.

Gustavus Swift (June 24, 1839 – March 29, 1903) headed one of the most acclaimed meat processing company in the United States Swift & Company. His company grew because of Swift’s investment to the creation of refrigerated railroad cart, which allowed long distance and cheap distribution of meat. For his support, Swift benefited from the innovation, which led to the growth of his company.

Gustavus Swift, born on June 24, 1839, came from Sandwich, Massachusetts. His parents, William and Sally Swift, worked as farmers and butchers. Already, Gustavus’ family had a background in agricultural and meat industry. His parent’s work allowed him to earn education for the next eight years. After his study, at the age of fourteen, he decided to work for his brother, Noble’s, butcher shop.
It became a path for him to enter the industry. After two years working for his brother, he decided to establish his own business career. Using his earnings and money that he borrowed from his father, he moved to Eastham and became a livestock grower. He raised cattle, pigs, and sheep. His business flourished and he continued to earn more. In 1862, he began to operate his own slaughter house and his own butcher shop in Brighton. His butcher shop became well known. Gustavus sanitation practices of keeping his shop clean earned him consumer confidence, which translated to customers and profits. Gustavus also managed parts, which were not popular to customers, by placing them in centers of attraction. For another decade, his enterprise continued to bloom and by 1872, he owned another butcher shop in Barnstable.

From his success as a sole business owner, he decided to expand and entered into a partnership with James Hathaway and formed the Hathaway & Swift Company. The partners divided their tasks. Hathaway went to cities and towns in order to promote their product and attract customers. Swift, on the other hand, handled the raising of the livestock and their slaughtering. In 1873, he moved to different places in New York – Albany and Buffalo. Then, in 1875, with the development of railroads to connecting the East Coast to the hinterlands, Gustavus decided to move to the center of American livestock and meat industry – Chicago.

In Chicago, however, Swift and Hathaway decided to dissolve their partnership and Gustavus Swift joined his brother to form the Swift Brothers & Company. Swift and his brother continued to operate their business in Chicago. There, they discovered the problems of distributing livestock to the East Coast via railway – it was expensive, inefficient, and wasteful. Livestock owners had to ship their cattle via railroad alive. En route to their destination, they had to be fed while on the way. Upon arriving to the destination, some of the livestock either loss weight, became sickly, or dead already. In addition to the inefficient transportation, Livestock owner paid high for the freighting of their livestock. Thus, with money losing on high freight rates and the high possibility of loss of profit from sickly or dead livestock, it resulted to low profit margins for livestock owners.

Gustavus Swift looked for ways to solve the problem. A year before the dissolution of his partnership with Hathaway, Swift already had experimented ways to efficaciously and cheaply ship meat from Chicago to the East Coast. He found a solution to ship more beef in fewer carts by sending the meat chopped and processed already. The shipping problem remained his next problem. In this aspect, his experimentation, however, achieved limited success. He shipped meat during the winter from Chicago to Boston. He had the doors of the cart open so that cold winter winds could enter and provide a refrigeration effect to the meat inside the cart. However, the system had flaws. It could only work for cold winter areas of the United States. It also limited the time of distribution in winter. It opened the meat to dangerous elements that might affect sanitation and health. Lastly, if a cart moved to different temperature, the cooling might led to discoloration and decrease in the quality of the meat. Nevertheless, from his experiment, Swift conceived the idea of making refrigerated railroad carts.

In 1878, he worked to make his idea realized. He hired a refrigerator engineer named Andrew Chase to design the cart. After Chase completed the designs he had the Michigan Company to build the railroad cart. When Swift had his refrigerated railroad carts, he faced a problem of finding a line to operate it. Railroad companies refused to allow the railroad carts because it would cause a loss in freight. By the 1870’s freight became a huge source of income for railroad operators as the United States overbuild railroad lines and the market became saturated. If railroads used the refrigerated carts, they would lose huge loads of freight because sending process meat rather than living livestock cost less meaning less profits for railroad companies. Many railroad companies refused to give in to Swift even he himself negotiated furiously. But then, he managed to contract that relied less on livestock freight – the Grand Trunk Railway. The Railway company operated lines between Michigan, Canada, and then to the East Coast of the United States. In 1882, Swift finally shipped his first batch of dressed meat to the east coast.

His shipment of dressed meat in refrigerated carts, however, led to another conflict in 1886. He faced opposition from butcher shops, who knew that they could lose their livelihood because of Swift’s innovation. Butchers from northern states form the National Butcher’s Protective Association and they launched a campaign to smear the reputation of Swift’s products. They issued bans on the selling of Swift’s dressed meat. They also launched black propaganda campaigns that informed consumers that Swift’s products had terrible taste and cause different health problems. Swifts fought back with more intensity. He launched advertisement campaigns promoting his products as high quality and safe to consume meats. Swift eventually gained the upper hand. His products tasted better and cheaper than those from the butchers. After the conflict, Swift Brothers & Company grew.

Swift’s refrigerated carts created an impact in the American meat industry. For the next decade, shipment of live cattle decreased and by the 1900, it ceased completely. Shipping cost for meat companies decreased from 10% up to 20%. Companies like Hormel and Armour used refrigerated carts which led them to become major players in the industry and even equaled Swift. Eventually, the idea of refrigerated carts later became applied in ships. The used of refrigerated storage in ships allowed American processed meat companies to export their products across the globe, hence expanding their market.

For Swift, the company continued to prosper. They expanded to Kansas and St. Louis. They built refrigerated warehouses for storage. They underwent a vertical integration where Swift controlled the raising of the cattle, slaughterhouses, processing or dressing, and owned also butcher shops. They even controlled their own advertisement and marketing. In 1885, decided to incorporate the company under the new name, Swift & Company and Gustavus became the president. By 1890, Swift & Company became famous throughout the United States. In 1892, Columbian World Exposition in Chicago, Swift & Company became a sponsor and in the event, he displayed his products. Swift had a refrigerated cart placed in his booth in the expo and studded it with different meat and parts. After the expo, the company continued to expand. By the time the 20th century dawned, Swift had operated 200 butcher shops, 6,000 refrigerated railway cars, and 6 packaging houses in Western United States that had the capacity of processing 8 million livestock annually. Not to mention, Swift also became a significant exporter of meat products to other parts of the world like Singapore and Manila.

Nevertheless, the growth of the Swift & Company came without issues. He did not like unions and subdued them, sometimes harshly. He also faced public criticisms because of animal waste coming out from his plant and polluting rivers and surroundings. Swift solved this by starting to produce goods made out of animal waste like hides and fats. He began to produce lards, bags, belts, wallets, etc. Swift even displayed these products in 1892 World Expo. But the most well-known criticism of Swift and other meat companies as well was Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, which criticized the unsanitary condition that American meat passed through in the meat packing facilities in Chicago. Also, in 1902, Swift & Company faced investigation from the Federal Government that pointed Swift & Company along with other meat companies engaged in pricing and other illicit business practices. Eventually, the Swift & Company survived after it joined forces with other meat packing companies like Armour.

Gustavus Swift passed away on March 29, 1903 in Lake Forest Chicago. His wealth amounted about $50 million. His legacy became embodied in the change of the American meat packing industry his support and idea of a refrigerated cart translated to the growth the American meat packing and processing industry. It also made Chicago a center of the meat packing industry for quite some time. Gustavus Swift left a changed meat packing industry, different from the once he saw first.

See also:

Carey, C. American Inventors, Entrepreneurs, and Business Visionaries. New York: Facts On File, 2010.

Dobson, J. Bulls, Bears, Boom, and Bust: A Historical Encyclopedia of American Business Concepts. California: ABC-CLIO, 2007.  

Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. Britannica Concise Encyclopedia. Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 2006.

Rosenberg, C. America at the Fair: Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. South Carolina: Arcadia Pub., 2008.

“Gustavus Swift and the Refrigerator Car,” Annenberg Learner, Accessed on Novermber 8, 2013,  

“Gustavus Franklin Swift,” The Robinson Library, Accessed on November 8, 2013,


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