Thursday, January 31, 2019

It isn't the cows

Metropolitan Museum of Art
    It's amazing how long you can know something without ever thinking about it.
    For instance.
    Chicago, "hog butcher for the world," yadda yadda. Union Stockyards. We all know it. Cows to slaughter. "The Jungle." Familiar to us all.
     So what was the revolutionary part? The big breakthrough that allowed Chicago to kill all those cattle?
     The chutes? The pens? The hooks? The railroads?
     Don't feel bad if you don't get it. I'd never get it; I never even thought to ask before Tuesday, and I was reading about ...
     No, before I give away the game, lets do a thought experiment. You run a Chicago slaughterhouse. It's 1877. The cows show up, I don't know, from Kansas, and Iowa, and wherever cows come from. They're led, snorting and foaming, into your slaughterhouse. Where you have all these big Lithuanians with cleavers, Stav and Jurgis and whatever. They kill the cows, and the pigs.
     Then what? Think. It's August. You have all these dead cows and pigs in a bloody heap in your slaughterhouse. What do you do with them?
      Sell them, right? Where do you sell them? To whom? Chicagoans? It's a big city, but we can eat enough to make you a titan.
      Hint: "hog butcher for the world."
      Right. You sell your beef and pork to the world.
     How do you get it there?
     On trains, right?
     So it's August, you kill all these cows and pigs, cut them up, load the meat on trains and ship it to points East.
     Do you see a problem? What happens to the meat? It spoils, right, in about six hours. Which is why the meat slaughtering industry was seasonal. You didn't slaughter in summer. The meat went bad too fast.
     Okay, enough mystery. You need to cool the meat. Which is why, in 1877, Gustavus Swift sent an open railcar filled with sides of beef in the dead of winter back to his former home in Boston. To show it could be done. And how he shipped meat for the next five years, until contracting with the Michigan Rail Car Company to design special insulated rail cars to hold ice, yet keep it from touching the beef and turning it black. He had to set up ice depots along the way to replenish the ice, and overcome resistance from the railroads, which preferred bulkier (and more profitable) live animals, as well as public revulsion with "mummified" meat (butcher shops would display signs, "No Chicago dressed meat sold here") which he did by selling it for far less, since it cost less to ship. Swift was the Uber of his day: a big chain driving out the locals with a vast system.
     It was an enormous organizational effort. Swift "had to buy ice-harvesting rights in lakes all over northern Illinois and Southern Wisconsin so that he might have the ice for chilling his beef and loading the ice boxes of his cars at Chicago," his son recalled. "He had to develop icing stations all the way across the country to his markets in the East—the railroads would not build them. Then he had to get the ice-harvesting facilities to supply these stations. he had to build ice houses of huge capacity."
     The railroads wouldn't build them because they preferred shipping live cattle—more profit. But Swift wanted to maximize the value he was shipping. Swift also pushed other innovations: butchers did not typically display the meat they sold. Swift wanted customers to see it, which meant they came to value particular cuts and pay more. He almost didn't care what people paid for his beef, as long as they bought it and became customers. As I said, the Uber of his day.
     "Dressed beef profoundly disrupted the traditional American beef trade," William Cronon observed in"Nature's Metropolis." "Dressed beef brought the entire nation—and Great Britain as well—into Chicago's hinterland."
    But not without resistance. In 1887, the Butchers' National Protective Association was formed with the central purpose of deflecting Chicago beef.
    Not to get lost in the details. What's important to remember is, it was the ice that changed things particularly the car designed by Andrew Chase, at Swift's request: Chase used ice to chill air that chilled the beef. Suddenly slaughtering cattle was a year-round business, a round-the-clock business, since any refrigerated rail car that left Chicago with an empty cubic foot of space was wasting money. Which also led to the huge, consolidated system, because it was expensive to create and maintain this cold supply chain, first with ice, then with mechanically refrigerated cars and warehouses. Driving the small fry out of business.
     Swift's competitors leapt in. Philip Armour created the Armour Refrigerated Line in 1883, and by 1900 it owned 11,000 refrigerated railcars.
     This was supposed to go into yesterday's column. But I had that opening sentence about freezing to death, and sailed off from there, and this was all so complicated, that I never got to what I thought was the most interesting part. Just as well, because I get to tell you now. History, like life, is not fair, and it does not always emphasize the most interesting part. We think it's the cows. But it's not; it's the ice.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Fascinating stuff. I'd always assumed that mass shipments of dressed beef coincided with the development of mechanical refrigeration; I'd never have guessed that it was first done with ice.

  3. Great story. I did know this and there are some great old pictures on Google showing men harvesting ice. Looks like incredibly hard work. Thanks for talking about this, very fitting with the weather we are having.

  4. Who would have thought. I would, actually, having read John Steinbeck's "East of Eden." One of the characters makes a bundle creating refrigerated rail cars to ship California produce (I forget exactly what) out east. He then goes bankrupt when a problem with rail schedules develops.

    This real life exposition is more interesting. Nice cows.


  5. The mass shipments of dressed beef to the East also led to the mass shipments of produce from California and other parts of the West. Fresh fruits and vegetables were brought to the Midwest and the East in those big orange refrigerated cars with the double doors. The earliest types were made of wood, and had trap doors on their roofs that allowed ice into the corners of their sawdust-filled walls. and the ice was refreshed daily at icehouses along the rail lines. Later models did not use any ice, and were made of steel and mechanically cooled, much like a refrigerator or a walk-in cooler.

    Many of the newest models are still in use. They often say "Pacific Fruit Express" on their sides, and other refrigerated cars are owned by other railroads. There are about 25,000 in use today, and they are getting old and worn-out. Much of the produce now travels via refrigerated trucks.

    The earliest rail produce carriers were known as "reefers"...short for "refrigerators"--and there are a number of theories as to how that same term also came to be applied to hand-rolled cannabis cigarettes. Crewmen who did the rolling up...or "reefing"...of the sails on board their ships were known as "reefers" can look it up. Maybe they smoked them while on shore leave?

  6. The Jungle was an eye opener and ahead of it's time, especially on labor conditions. But interesting about the rail car and ice info.


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