People & Events: Philip Danforth Armour (1832-1901)
Philip Danforth Armour was born in 1832 on the family farm in upstate New York. At 19, he left for the California gold rush and had made $8,000 by the time he was 24.
During the Civil War, he started a grain business in Chicago, and then opened a meat packing business, Armour and Company, near the Union Stock Yards. His brother Joseph ran the business until his health failed, and then Philip took over, moving to Chicago. Armour's headquarters were in the Home Insurance Building, built by William LeBaron Jenney, the first iron skeleton skyscraper in Chicago.
Armour and Company owned fourteen acres in the stockyard with rail lines and refrigerated cars bearing the phrase: "We Feed the World." Among Armour's marketing ideas was his suggestion that ministers would preach better "If they included more of Armour's sausages in their diet."
Philip Armour's packing house employed an efficient new killing and cutting line. Rather than have one man butcher one hog, each worker stood in one spot and completed one task. The animals, hanging from a line by their legs, would proceed from one workstation to the next, until every saleable piece was separated for the market.
And every part of the animal was sold. Along with meat, Armour sold glue, oil, fertilizer, hairbrushes, buttons, oleomargarine, and drugs, all made from animal by-products. Low-grade meats were canned in products like pork and beans. This efficiency reduced the pollution that the factories created. Yet, operating without strong federal inspection standards, the meatpackers sometimes caused pollution within the meat itself. Sausages incorporated rat droppings, dead rodents, or sawdust. Spoiled meat or meat mixed with waste materials was packed and sold.
The slaughterhouses of Chicago became tourist attractions and made meatpackers like Armour and his competitor Gustavus Swift world famous. The actress Sarah Bernhardt remembered her visit to the hog butchers as "a horrible and magnificent spectacle." Henry Ford was inspired by the "disassembly line" to created his Model T's on an assembly line. Rudyard Kipling said of the stockyards, "You will never forget the sight." Visitors to the World's Columbian Exposition took day excursions to see the Union Stockyards on the southern rim of the city.
Whereas some observers felt sympathy for the animals, others were appalled at the conditions of the workers. The work was fast and hard, and involved sharp knives and struggling animals. Accidents were inevitable. There were plenty of new immigrants who needed work, and so Armour and the other industrialists had no incentive to improve conditions. The men who worked in the yards lived in the neighborhood called Packingtown, also known as the "Back of the Yards." There, the smoke and stench were constant, as was the spread of tuberculosis and other diseases. Upton Sinclair's exposé, The Jungle (1906) raked through the muck that was nineteenth century meat processing and inspired better federal inspection standards.
A study in 1911 determined that the average weekly wage at Armour was $9.50, whereas the living wage for a family of five was $15.40. No wonder there were three major strikes at his factories. Armour didn't give an inch. "As long as we are heads of our own houses, we shall employ what men we choose, and when we can't, why, we'll nail up our doors -- that's all." Armour broke all three strikes and blacklisted known union leaders.
Although his workers lived and worked in squalid conditions, Armour was known as a philanthropist. His favorite charities were the Armour Mission, established by his brother and offering a kindergarten, library, and free medical care, and the Armour Institute, providing technical education, often on scholarship, for black and white boys, and trade courses for girls. At the institute, children of the Chicago elite were schooled with their servants' children. Armour visited often, dispensing advice to the students, "Always keep at it. Don't let up. Let liquor alone, pay your bills, marry a good wife and pound away at whatever you want -- and sooner or later you'll make good."
Philip Armour died in 1901 from pneumonia.
previous | return to people & events | next