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Pan-American Exposition of 1901

By the Dawn of the 20th Century Meatpacking Was the Nation's Largest Industry

Pan-American Exposition Souvenir: "Swifts" pinback

In 1869 G. H. Hammond of Detroit made the first long-distance shipment of refrigerated meats — dressed beef, pork, and lamb. Gustavus Swift opened his first plant in 1875 and started sending dressed beef eastward two years later. In the early 1882 two large pork packers, Armour & Company and Nelson Morris built new plants to join the dressed beef trade.

Each company developed extensive distribution networks. In large urban areas they established "branch houses," cold-storage wholesale facilities that often included sausage-making equipment and a smokehouse. In 1888 the largest packers owned two dozen branch houses; these were so successful that by the next year they had 544 in most of the major cities in the eastern United States.

For smaller cities and rural areas, packers set up "peddler car" service along major rail lines. Salesmen took orders from small retailers or sold directly to consumers from railcar shipments made once or twice a week. Armour & Company established the first two "car routes" in 1887. By World War I this service served more than sixteen thousand small towns in the central and western United States.

Pan-American Exposition Company Advertisment for Nelson Morris & Co./Fairbank Canning Company

Meatpackers also introduced dressed beef to international markets. Refrigerated storage rooms on transatlantic steamships took the first dressed beef to England in 1875, and that year U. S. companies exported thirty thousand pounds of dressed beef to England. Two years later they shipped more than fifty-five million pounds. Profits were immense, as each carcass brought a net profit of $64 after shipping costs.

The meatpacker's rapid expansion into the dressed beef trade in the 1870s and 1880s met several obstacles, including opposition from railroad companies that had substantial investments in cars, feed yards, and pens to serve the livestock trade. In 1878 Swift improved the refrigerated car design and began constructing them for his meatpacking plants. He arranged to bypass lines that would not transport the new rail freight.

Local butchers and slaughterhouses also opposed the dressed beef trade, seeing it as a direct threat to their livelihoods. … By the late 1880s, however, most consumers concluded that dressed beef was as good or better than local sources, was wholesome, and was safe.


Encyclopedia of the United States in the Nineteenth Century, edited by Paul Finkelman. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 2001, vol. 2, pp. 276-277.