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Philip Armour and Packing House Working Conditions

Philip Armour, like Carnegie, waged incessant warfare on waste and inefficiency. He used every part of the slaughtered hog, he said, except the squeal. Armour created an entire business from animal parts, among them glue, fertilizer, lard, gelatin and margarine production, making a fortune on animal parts that other packers just dumped into the Chicago River.

But the size and speed of his operations led to scandalously lax health standards, as Upton Sinclair vividly documented in his novel The Jungle. Carcasses infected with parasitic worms, or contaminated by sawdust, were turned into sausage; and canned meat was sold with droppings of rats, and even parts of rats, in it. But Armour ignored these practices until the government, under President Teddy Roosevelt, forced him to do something about them.

Armour was a typical American capitalist of his time. Work was his life and he couldn't wait to get to it. He walked to his office and was there by six in the morning. The big deals were usually made early, he said, "before the boys with polished nails show up." Workers arriving at the office a little after seven were greeted by Armour with a booming, "good afternoon."

His only relief from work, aside from time with his family, was his regular visits to the Armour Institute, an excellent technical school he established for boys, white and black. Armour had come up the hard way, leaving his home in Oneida, New York at age nineteen for the gold fields of California, where he dug sluice ways for miners. And he wanted to give the scrubbed and brushed children who eagerly greeted him at the Institute a good start in life.

Armour lived unpretentiously for a man worth 25 million dollars, preferring to spend his evenings at home with his wife. "I am just a poor butcher trying to go to Heaven," he described himself. "I do not love the money," he told Theodore Dreiser. "What I do love is making it."

By staying in business through ruthless cost cutting, Armour claimed he was doing the only two things he could do for American workers: providing them jobs and affordable, mass-produced meat for their families. What Armour ignored, or chose to put out of his mind, was that he ran a business that treated its workers like industrial slaves. In winter, the unheated packing houses were so cold that workers would stick their feet inside the hot carcasses of freshly slaughtered cattle.

Foremen barked at the workers as if they were galley slaves to keep them moving, for in this business, speed was everything. And to keep down labor costs, packers hired hundreds of workers for only as long as they were needed, for a week or a day or even a few hours. The unemployed showed up at the plant gates every morning at dawn, and the strongest-looking ones, or the ones with a little money to shell out for bribes, were picked out by company guards and ushered into the plant. Then a policeman would wave his club, and the rest of the men would go dejectedly home.

With this system, it was easier to keep down complaints. There was always a hungry man waiting at the gate to take your job. And because your job was so simple, because most of the skill had been taken out of it, the guy at the gate could learn it in a few hours. At Armour and Company, almost every worker was a disposable product.

Paul Bourget was too caught up in the splendid efficiency of the operation to take notice of the workers. But another foreign observer, the Italian journalist, Giuseppe Giacosa, gave a hair-raising report of packinghouse work. The workers on the cutting line, he wrote, "have neither the body nor the face of humans." A mixture of animal grease and blood stained their faces, and blood hardened in their hair and beards, and on their overalls, forcing them "to walk," he said, "with long stiff strides."

But it was not that clear-cut, as Giacosa learned, to his amazement, when he walked past the packinghouse gate at closing time. Out through the portals came the blood-soaked men he had seen an hour earlier. They were now, he wrote, "a lordly collection of gentlemen whom our country ladies would take as models of sporty elegance. They are often tall, young, blonde, with well-trimmed mustaches and polished shoes. They wear handsome ties, and plaid jackets, and little hard hats."

Then, in a remarkable passage, Giacosa caught the central paradox of American mass production. "The Americans," he said, "accept the inequality of labor in order to attain a relative equality of goods." Pride and self-esteem used to come from the kind of work a person did. With physical work degraded, self-esteem came from what workers could purchase.


Giacosa was describing the best-paid workers in the plant, the semi-skilled butchers, most of them Irishmen and Germans, who lived in well-kept cottages in the neighborhoods not far from the yards. But in the year he visited the yards, 1898, these butchers were being rapidly replaced by miserably paid, unskilled Eastern European immigrants. By then, these immigrants made up almost two-thirds of the industry's work force.

They moved into the decaying neighborhood just behind the yards that the butchers were abandoning. The place was called Packingtown, and it was the vilest slum in Chicago. Packingtown was a fortress of oppression, a place of stench and disease, smoke and slime. The unpaved streets were lined with acid-eaten wooden shacks, and in front and back of them were creeks and drainage ditches so packed with decaying animal matter that carbolic acid bubbled to the surface.

Children and drunken men drowned in these garbage ditches, which were hard to spot because layers of hard brown scum settled on the surface. Polish and Italian immigrants could be seen in Packingtown, picking around the local dump for kindling for cooking, for old mattresses, and even for edible pieces of food. One of the worst places to work in Armour and Company was the paint room. There, Polish girls inhaled so much paint their sputum was blue.

One year, a crusading woman reporter, Nell Nelson, took a job in the paint room to see how Armour, a civic hero in Chicago, treated his workers. "It was good of Armour to build Sunday schools and schools for boys," she wrote after finishing her investigation. "But it would not be wasted charity, to give a little consideration to the working conditions of thirteen year old girls."

But it was Dr. Caroline Hedger, a courageous physician who gave her life to these people, who put it all into one sentence: "It must be realized in Packingtown," she said, "that workers are human beings." Yet these immigrants kept coming, like the trainloads of the cattle and hogs they were paid to slaughter. Cattle and hogs coming from the west, Poles and Italians from the East; that was Chicago.

When these workers tried to organize unions, Armour crushed them, with the help of strikebreakers, state militia, and Pinkerton detectives. These packing concerns, you have to remember, were family businesses, built from the ground up by the men who ran them. There was a deep feeling among these men that no one but ownership should have a voice in how things were done.

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