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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 497

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This is the grave of Philip Armour.

Born in 1832 in Stockbridge, New York, Armour went to school at Cazenovia Academy in New York until he committed the unpardonable sin of taking a ride in buggy with a girl, after he which was expelled. He went west in 1851 to California, hoping to make it rich in the gold rush. He was investing his family’s money out there, along with a bunch of other people he was traveling with, making him a sort of financier. He figured out pretty quickly that actually mining was a sucker’s game. So he went into building sluices for the mines, which made him a lot of money very fast. He didn’t want to stay in California, so he moved to Milwaukee and started a grocery business. He moved into grain and then, most importantly, meat.

Like many postwar monopolists, Armour really took his business skills to meteoric levels by avoiding serving in the Union Army in the world and instead getting rich on government contracts, in this case, for pork. He established a large Wisconsin pork processing factory to feed the soldiers. Believing that the end of the Confederacy would lead to a rapid decline in pork prices, he locked in contracts at $40 a barrel and then the price declined to $18, meaning he made $22 for each barrel. That made him a millionaire.

In 1867, Armour and two of his brothers consolidated a bunch of operations as Armour & Company in Chicago. Until 1875, it was only a hog packing operation, but then the company diversified into food processing and chemical production. Along with a few other companies, it became central to the dominant industry of Chicago, one that fed the nation and employed hundreds of thousands of immigrants, mostly from southern and eastern Europe. Armour was one of the nation’s richest men, part of the oligopoly of the Gilded Age. He continued to build on his success by introducing canned meat and then refrigerated meat when that became available. This all took quite the marketing techniques, especially for beef. Pork was easy enough to salt that people were used to shipping it. But beef, which Armour increasingly moved into, was known for spoilage. Americans actually didn’t eat that much of it for the reason that it needed to be harvested and sold fresh. Armour helped change that, though given the terrible sanitary conditions of his workplaces, those consumers later regretted it. Wanting to maximize his efficiencies, he hired chemists to find things to do with waste meat products, including the hides and bones of the animals. He had his own glue factory, among other ventures.

Being a Gilded Age capitalist, he was also a horrible human being to his workers. He paid his workers an average of $9.50 a week at a time when the living wage for a family of five was over $15 a week. Unions were organizing around these issues and of course Chicago was a hotbed of unionism. Well, they certainly had an enemy in Philip Armour. When his butchers organized to demand better pay and job security, Armour just fired them all. He also started urging his other meatpacking colleagues to organize a private militia so they could meet future organizing with the violence he believed it deserved. Armour admitted to using the nation’s racial and ethnic divides to keep workers from organizing. He made his workers sign yellow-dog contracts, meaning that not being part of a union was a condition of employment, before hiring them. He told his fellow meatpackers in 1879, “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.” And when that independence might be threatened by workers wanting to live dignified lives, well, there was always the Pinkertons, which Armour happily used.

Then, in 1889, Armour and his fellow meatpackers began major enemies of the American people. That year, the Army accused him and the others of selling adulterated meat to the military. The resulting investigation didn’t yield a definitive conclusion, but of course it wouldn’t at a time when legally, capitalists could do basically whatever they wanted. Armour claimed he would never do such a thing, but many people believed he simply bribed his way out of it. This provided much of the raw material that Upton Sinclair later used in The Jungle.

Sure, Armour gave a bunch of his money away, but like Andrew Carnegie and other such capitalists, it is all blood money and does nothing to erase their enormous crimes against humanity. And as usual, it also served his particular interests. In 1893, he established the Armour Institute of Technology, which was a technical school for boys. He had no interest in formal or classical education at all. But he did think that he could train boys to be good engineers and maybe end up like him someday, which he constantly talked about because he was obsessed with the idea of himself as a model for the future and for why unfettered American capitalism worked. As he told a writer, the boys needed an education that “which will fit them for the active work of life.” This eventually transitioned into the Illinois Institute of Technology. He established trade courses for girls as well.

Armour died on pneumonia in 1901 at the age of 68.

Philip Armour is buried in Graceland Cemetery, Chicago, Illinois.

If you would like this series to visit other Gilded Age capitalists, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Marcus Daly, one of Montana’s Copper Kings, is in Brooklyn and Gustavus Swift, one of Armour’s meatpacking rivals, is also in Chicago. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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