Philip Danforth Armour

Philip Danforth Armour (1832-1901) was a typical American industrial capitalist of the period following the Civil War. He helped build meat-packing into a great industry by using new technology and working out distribution methods for domestic and foreign markets.

Philip Armour was born on May 16, 1832, at Stockbridge, N.Y. His father was a farmer of Scotch-Irish and Puritan origins. Young Armour went to a district school, then to the nearby Cazenovia Academy, from which he was dropped. In 1852 he left for California and worked as a miner and, more successfully, as a contractor selling water and digging water ditches for miners. After 4 years— during which he accumulated some $6,000—he returned to the family farm but soon left it permanently. He became a provisions and grain dealer in Cincinnati and then in Milwaukee, two early hog-packing centers.

Meat-packing (largely of hogs) was a wintertime farm industry: slaughtering took place after the first frost; then the hog products were moved to local markets by commission men or dealers. Armour joined forces with Frederick B. Miles and later, in 1863, with John Plankton. As the Northern armies of the Civil War demanded more and more salt pork, the firm of Plankton, Armour and Company became one of the important suppliers. After 1875 Armour made Chicago his base; by this time his brothers were in partnership with him and were located in Kansas City and New York.

Armour was a leader in modernizing the meat-packing industry. Among new technological devices he introduced were the conveyor-belt system and the use of natural ice, which made continuous operations possible; live animals could be brought to city plants for slaughter and dressing. The early 1880s saw the installation of ice-making and cooling machines and the adaptation of these devices to refrigerate railroad cars and ships. Thus, transportation was revolutionized, making it possible to move dressed meats (and also fruits and vegetables) to branch offices, eastern markets, and Europe.

Armour blazed trails in two ways: his companies owned and operated their own freight cars, forcing special, lower carload rates from the carrier railroads; and he aggressively entered English, German, and French markets, breaking down local resistance to American hog and beef products. Other innovations in which Armour led were the imaginative use of animal by-products (in making soap, glue, fertilizer, neat's-foot oil, and pharmaceuticals) and the use of tin cans for vacuum-packing beef.

At its peak in the 1890s Armour and Company controlled 6,000 refrigerator cars moving over 150,000 miles of railway. This, curiously, was the chief reason for reformer Charles Edward Russell's hostility to the industry; his influential book, The Greatest Trust in the World (1905), accused the packers of terrorizing the railroads as well as defying Wall Street. Armour was attacked because he operated family-owned companies rather than publicly owned ones and because he got his working capital from local (Chicago and Kansas City) banks and his investment capital from the plowing back of profits.

Armour also figured prominently in the activities of the Chicago Board of Trade as a trader in grain and pork products, helping establish orderly futures markets. Thus, he broke a bear raid on pork in 1879 and prevented a corner in wheat in 1897-1898. In this connection his system of grain elevators was considered the largest and best in the world.

During the 1890s Armour gave large sums of money for the construction of low-cost housing for his workers and for the establishment of the Armour Institute of Technology and of a preparatory scientific academy. He died on Jan. 6, 1901. Reputed to be worth $50,000,000, he left an estate of $15,000,000.

Further Reading on Philip Danforth Armour

There is a good biography of Armour by Harper Leech and John Charles Carroll, Armour and His Times (1938). See also Rudolf A. Clemen, The American Livestock and Meat Industry (1923; abr. 1966) and By-Products in the Packing Industry (1927); and Louis F. Swift and Arthur Van Vlissingen, Jr., The Yankee of the Yards: The Biography of Gustavus Franklin Swift (1927).