Industry Takes Center Stage
In the summer of l877, former president Ulysses Grant was vacationing in Europe when he heard alarming news from home. A railroad strike, the Great Uprising of l877, was sweeping across the country, from Pittsburgh to Chicago. Striking workers were burning and pillaging industrial property, and fighting pitched battles with federal troops sent to crush the strike by President Rutherford B. Hayes. Hayes was acting at the insistence of some of America's leading capitalists, and Grant was puzzled by this.
During Reconstruction, Grant had been attacked by these same capitalists for using federal troops, under General Phil Sheridan, to protect black people in New Orleans against Klu Klux Klan-style violence. Now "the whole power of the government," Grant said, was being used "to suppress a strike on the slightest intimation that danger threatens." Grant wasn't the only one to note the irony.
"I wish Sheridan was at Pittsburgh," a neighbor declared to the son of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. "Indeed," Garrison shot back, "but remember how you denounced him at New Orleans." This little exchange showed how the country had changed. "The Negro issue," as one paper called it, was dead.
The Strike of l877 had pushed to the forefront the issue of "capital and labor." The strike was over in a few weeks, crushed by troops and canister shot. But it had awakened Americans to the fact that they were living in a new country where industry was the dominant force, industrialists the new American Medici, and continuing labor strife a certainty.
Following the strike, the Chicago department store magnate, Marshall Field, donated money to the city's police force to buy an arsenal that included four l2-pound Napoleon cannons. Chicago and other cities began constructing armories to house beefed up National Guard units, and General Sheridan, now stationed in the Chicago area, began issuing threats against labor agitators. "The better classes," he said, "are tired of the insane howlings of the lowest strata, and they mean to stop them."
This was indisputably a new America, and the revolution that was creating it, the Industrial Revolution, was for the next century and more the greatest agent of change in the history of humankind. The Civil War had spawned a new generation of capitalists: Andrew Carnegie in steel, John D. Rockefeller in oil, J. Pierpont Morgan in banking, and Philip Armour and Gustavus Swift in meatpacking. Working closely with inventors like Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, and George Westinghouse, they would radically transform this country and much of the world.
In these years, America came to be known to the world as a technological nation, a nation of builders and inventors: makers of roaring steel mills, long-reaching railroads, and wondrous suspension bridges. As the writer William Dean Howells declared: "It is in the things of iron and steel that the national genius most freely speaks." America's most characteristic and character-shaping achievement has been its talent for inventing and making things. And in no period was this more decisively in evidence than in the final three decades of the nineteenth century.
Chicago and the Meatpacking Industry
In this golden age of American invention, independent inventors introduced the light bulb, the telephone, the typewriter, the fountain pen, the railroad refrigerator car, the air brake, the electric trolley, the Kodak camera, the movie projector, the phonograph, and the zipper. To see this new America unfolding, there was no better place to go than Chicago, a scene of boiling industrial activity and technological ingenuity. With its far-spreading, factory-like environment, dominated by giant industrial concerns, it was the prototypical American industrial city.
Chicago hosted a myriad of industries, producing everything from straw hats to pianos. New York's small shops and factories produced more manufactured goods than any other American city. But the long, thin, crowded island of Manhattan wasn't able to support the gigantic new factories that were the mark of the age.
The sprawling, prairie-city of Chicago was, and it was the place that most foreign visitors went to see the industrial future that America, the wonder country of the world, was hammering into shape. Chicago was the international center of meatpacking. And in its vast stockyard district, it was inventing a new way of making things that would transform the world.
The Chicago Stockyards are the concentrated illustration of the industrializing process that would sweep the world. If you understand their operation, you begin to understand the magnitude and complexity, the heroism and human suffering of the American Industrial Revolution. "You shall find them about six miles from the city," wrote the visiting Englishman Rudyard Kipling, "and once having seen them you will never forget the sight." The first impression was the scent, which could be picked up six miles away, a combination of mangled meat, animal blood, dung and urine.
Then there was the scale of the place. In l890, the Chicago meatpacking industry was the greatest concentration of labor and capital in the world. More than 25,000 men, women, and children worked in this empire of blood and order, processing l4 million animals a year. The two largest packing houses, run by Philip Armour and Gustavus Swift, did a business worth $200 million a year.
The business was based, as all American big businesses were, on the railroad. Each day, acres upon acres of pens would fill with animals arriving by rail from places as far away as Wyoming and Texas. Once in the yards, the animals were bought and sold by traders on horseback and then sent to the killing floors of the packing houses. By the end of the day, almost all the pens were empty, and the ritual of collecting, selling, and killing began all over again.
The stockyards were not only Chicago's biggest industry. They were also, believe it or not, its biggest tourist attraction. On a tour of North America, the actress Sara Bernhardt said that the thing that most impressed her about Chicago was the "butchering of the hogs, a terrible and magnificent sight."
Inside the House of Blood was America's first assembly line, or, more accurately, disassembly line, for the product was pulled apart rather than put together. Here's how the procedure worked: A live hog was attached to a giant wheel by a chain around one of its hind legs. When the wheel began to rotate, the hog was jerked into the air, upside down, squealing and kicking, and was carried by the movement of the wheel to an overhead rail that ran the length of the building, on a descending angle, from the top to the bottom floor.
Then the pig's throat was cut and the carcass was cleaned, washed, and butchered by hundreds of hands as it passed along the overhead wire to the cold storage area. The entire operation, from the killing wheel to the death locker, took less than ten minutes. The killing and cutting process for cattle was different, but was performed with equal efficiency.
Foreign writers and businessmen came to Chicago to observe the operations at the stockyards. One of the most astute visitors was the French novelist, Paul Bourget. When Bourget went to the Union Stockyards in l893 with a group of his countrymen, he went with the idea of learning more about the ideas and ingenuity that would make the next century, he was convinced, the American Century, with Chicago as its vanguard city.
After touring Armour and Company's Houses of Blood, Bourget and his companions stepped into a carriage and headed back to their hotel, excitedly discussing the significance of what they'd seen. As Bourget wrote in his notebook, "We all agreed, that the first characteristic of this enterprise is the stupendousness of its conception."
But behind it all was a passion for order.
Bourget saw this union of order and vision as the key to American industrial supremacy. But he and his colleagues were surprised at how little Armour's production system depended on modern machinery. Organization, not invention, explained the amazing efficiency of Chicago's packing plants.
Meatpacking was not susceptible to mechanization because the raw materials, the hogs, and sheep, and cattle, varied greatly in size, and shape, and weight. Meatpacking, ironically, became the first assembly line industry because packers weren't able to mechanize their operations. This forced them to turn from technology to Adam Smith's concept of division of labor as a way of reducing production time and costs.