Meatpacking industry Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

From its earliest beginnings during colonial times to the second half of the nineteenth century, the meatpacking industry in the United States underwent steady development, always moving westward along with shifting human settlement. During the 1860’s, it underwent rapid expansion into a highly centralized, highly industrialized system that offers a prime example of late nineteenth century economic growth.

The processing and packing of meat for commercial purposes in the United States began in colonial times. Animals, primarily hogs and cattle, were either driven alive to urban centers or killed and processed at the place where they were raised. Local processing was done chiefly during the winter months, and the meat was transported in the spring, since no method of refrigerated storage existed. Meat intended for export or intercolonial shipment was placed in barrels filled with brine for preservation.Meatpacking industry

Workers knocking cattle before slaughter at Swift & Co.’s packing house in Chicago around 1906.

(Library of Congress)

As settlement spread westward into the Ohio River Valley during the early years of the nineteenth century and agricultural production expanded, the meatpacking industry also grew in significance. Hogs raised on corn became a major commodity, and Cincinnati, often referred to by the nickname “Porkopolis,” became an early meat-processing center. Animals continued to be driven overland to processing centers, where they were then slaughtered, and the salted meat was shipped by river or canal to the East. During the second quarter of the nineteenth century, railroads also began to be used as a means of shipment.

By the second half of the nineteenth century, as the nation’s rail system grew, cities further west began to replace the earlier processing centers. Following the U.S. Civil War, Chicago became a major rail and meat-processing hub. This development coincided with a rapid growth in beef production, in an era sometimes called the Cattle KingdomCattle Kingdom. Cattle raised on the open plains of the West were driven along cattle trails to shipping points on the newly constructed western railroads. They were then loaded into railroad cars and carried to Chicago, where the slaughtering and processing took place. The Chicago Union Stock Yards, which opened in 1865, eventually became the largest livestock-receiving center in the world, and around it a new, more industrialized system of meat processing developed.

The Industrial Age

Among the pioneers of the new system were Philip Danforth ArmourArmour, Philip Danforth and Gustavus Swift, GustavusSwift, both of whom opened meatpacking plants in Chicago after the Civil War. Both introduced new industrial techniques, especially the use of the assembly line, into meat processing. In this method, the meat was moved by a conveyor system from the point of initial killing to the product’s final stage, while workers remained at fixed positions along the line, performing the same task over and over again. Nearly all parts of the animal were utilized, creating smaller, subsidiary industries that produced such items as leather, fertilizer, soap, and glue. Refrigerated railroad cars, introduced during the 1870’s, further revolutionized the industry, allowing fresh meat to be transported over greater distances.

Armour’s, Swift’s, and several of the other large Chicago-based packing plants of the period eventually opened other regional processing centers at places such as Kansas City, Missouri; Sioux City, Iowa; and South St. Paul, Minnesota. By the late 1880’s and early 1890’s, the scale of the industry had grown to nearly monopolistic proportions, with several large companies–known variously as the Big Five or the “beef trust”–meeting secretly to fix prices and divide up territory and business. Although the government made periodic efforts to break up these large concentrations, its efforts were never completely successful. The major packers also led in the development of modern management structures. Swift, for example, developed a vertical organization of his company, creating a series of divisions based on primary functions–a stockyards division, a meatpacking division, a sales division, and so forth–each of which was overseen by a manager who reported directly to corporate headquarters.

Regulation and Unions

Regulation in the area of consumer protection proved more successful than antitrust action against the big companies. A scandal following the Spanish-American War, in which several packers were accused of selling tainted meat to the government, along with the publication in 1906 of Jungle, The (Sinclair)>The Jungle, Upton Sinclair’s fictionalized (but thoroughly researched) exposé of the industry, eventually led to the passage of the Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906. This legislation, which required the Department of Agriculture to inspect all meat processed for interstate shipping, stands as one of the earliest examples of consumer-protection legislation undertaken at the national level.

Although Sinclair’s novel had also documented the desperate state of packinghouse workers–low pay, long hours, and dangerous working conditions–the attempt to improve the lot of these individuals involved a long, difficult struggle. With the growth of the United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA) during the 1930’s and early 1940’s, major gains were eventually made in wages, hours, benefits, and workplace safety. By this time also, large numbers of African American workers had replaced the European immigrant workers of the earlier period.

During the 1950’s and 1960’s, a major change occurred in the meatpacking industry. Cost considerations and the rise of interstate trucking led to growing decentralization, with smaller processing plants being located closer to the centers of beef production. During the 1950’s, both Swift and Armour closed their Chicago plants, and in the years that followed, most of the large regional processing centers were also shut down. During this time, the composition of the workforce shifted once again, with growing numbers of Latino workers finding employment in the smaller rural processing plants. With these changes, an epic period of the industry had come to an end.

Further Reading
  • Halpern, Rick. Down on the Killing Floor: Black and White Workers in Chicago’s Packinghouses, 1904-1954. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1997. Focuses on the issue of race and its impact on efforts to organize packinghouse workers during the first half of the twentieth century.
  • Magoc, Chris J. Environmental Issues in American History: A Reference Guide with Primary Documents. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2006. Chapter 9, “Progressive Women and ’Municipal Housekeeping’: Caroline Bartlett Crane’s Fight for Improved Meat Inspection,” offers an excellent case study in the role of women in this important area of Progressive reform.
  • Skaggs, Jimmy. Prime Cut: Livestock Raising and Meatpacking in the United States, 1607-1983. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1986. Historical overview of meatpacking in America from colonial to modern times.
  • Wade, Louise Carroll. The Stockyard, Packingtown, and Environs in the Nineteenth Century. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987. A history of the meatpacking industry in Chicago in its early years with special emphasis on the community life of packinghouse workers.
  • Walsh, Margaret. The Rise of the Midwestern Meat Packing Industry. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1982. Examines the growth of pork packing in the Midwest prior to the rise of the meatpacking giants of the late nineteenth century.

U.S. Department of Agriculture

Beef industry

Dairy industry

Food and Drug Administration

Food-processing industries

The Jungle

Pork industry

Poultry industry

United Food and Commercial Workers

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