Gustavus Franklin Swift

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Gustavus Franklin Swift

Birthplace: Sandwich, Barnstable, Massachusetts, United States
Death: Died in Chicago, Cook County, Illinois, United States
Place of Burial: Mount Hope Cemetery, Chicago, Cook, Illinois, United States
Immediate Family:

Son of Capt. William Swift and Sally Sears Swift
Husband of Ann (Annie) Mariah Swift
Father of Louis Franklin Swift; Edward Foster Swift; Lincoln Foster Swift; Anne May Swift; Helen Louise Neilson and 6 others
Brother of Aurelia A Swift; William Swift; Edmund Swift; Noble Parker Swift; Caroline B Hallet and 4 others

Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:

About Gustavus Franklin Swift

Gustavus Franklin Swift (June 24, 1839 – March 29, 1903) founded a meat-packing empire in the Midwest during the late 19th century, over which he presided until his death. He is credited with the development of the first practical ice-cooled railroad car which allowed his company to ship dressed meats to all parts of the country and even abroad, which ushered in the "era of cheap beef." Swift pioneered the use of animal by-products for the manufacture of soap, glue, fertilizer, various types of sundries, and even medical products.

Swift donated large sums of money to such institutions as the University of Chicago, the Methodist Episcopal Church, and the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA). He established Northwestern University's "School of Oratory" in memory of his daughter, Annie May Swift, who died while a student there. When he died in 1903, his company was valued at between US$125 million and $135 million, and had a workforce that was more than 21,000 strong. "The House of Swift" slaughtered as many as two million cattle, four million hogs, and two million sheep a year. Three years after his death, the value of the company's capital stock topped $250 million. He and his family are interred in a mausoleum in Mount Hope Cemetery in Chicago, IL.

Early life

He was the second of three boys born to William Swift and Sally Crowell, descendants of British settlers who went to New England in the 17th century. The family (which included Gustavus’ brothers Noble and Edwin) lived and worked on a farm in the Cape Cod town of West Sandwich, Massachusetts (present-day Sagamore), where they raised and slaughtered cattle, sheep, and hog. This is where he got the idea of packing meat.


As a boy, Swift took little interest in his studies and consequently left the nearby country school after only eight years. During that period he was employed in a number of jobs, finally finding full-time work in his elder brother Noble's butcher shop at the age of fourteen. Two years later, in 1855, he opened his own cattle and pork butchering business with the help of one of his uncles who loaned him $400. Swift purchased livestock at the market in Brighton and drove them to Eastham, a ten-day journey. A shrewd businessman, he purportedly followed the somewhat common practice of denying his herds water during the last miles of the trip so that they would drink large quantities of liquid once they reached their final destination, effectively boosting their weights. Swift married Annie Maria Higgins of North Eastham in 1861. Over the years Annie gave birth to a total of eleven children, nine of whom reached adulthood. In 1862, Swift and his new bride opened a small butcher shop and slaughterhouse. Seven years later Gustavus and Annie moved the family to Brighton (near Boston), where in 1872 Swift became partner in a new venture, Hathaway and Swift. Swift and partner James A. Hathaway (a renowned Boston meat dealer) initially relocated the company to Albany, then almost immediately thereafter to Buffalo.

An astute cattle-buyer, Swift followed the market steadily westward. On his recommendation, Hathaway and Swift moved once more in 1875, this time to join the influx of meat packers setting up shop in Chicago's sprawling Union Stock Yards. Swift established himself as one of the dominant figures of "The Yards", and his distinctive delivery wagons became familiar fixtures on Chicago's streets. In 1878 his partnership with Hathaway dissolved and Swift Bros and Company was formed in partnership with younger brother Edwin. The company became a driving force in the Chicago meat packing industry, and was incorporated in 1885 as Swift & Co. with $300,000 in capital stock and Gustavus Swift as president. It is from this position that Swift led the way in revolutionizing how meat was processed, delivered, and sold.

Chicago and the birth of the meat-packing industry

Following the end of the American Civil War, Chicago emerged as a major railway center, making it an ideal point for the distribution of livestock raised on the Great Plains to Eastern markets. Getting the animals to market required herds to be driven distances of up to twelve hundred miles to railheads in Kansas City, MO, whereupon they were loaded into specialized stock cars and transported live (on the hoof) to regional processing centers. Driving cattle across the plains also led to tremendous weight loss, and a number of animals were typically lost along the way. Upon arrival at the local processing facility, livestock were either slaughtered by wholesalers and delivered fresh to nearby butcher shops for retail sale, smoked, or packed for shipment in barrels of salt.

Certain costly inefficiencies were inherent in the process of transporting live animals by rail, particularly due to the fact that some sixty percent of the animal's mass is composed of inedible matter. Many animals weakened by the long drive died in transit, further increasing the per-unit shipping cost. Swift's ultimate solution to these problems was to devise a method to ship dressed meats from his packing plant in Chicago to the East.

Advent of the refrigerator car

A number of attempts were made during the mid-19th century to ship agricultural products via rail car. As early as 1842 the Western Railroad of Massachusetts was reported in the June 15 edition of the Boston Traveler to be experimenting with innovative freight car designs capable of carrying all types of perishable goods without spoilage. The first known refrigerated boxcar or "reefer" entered service on the Northern Railroad (New York) (or NRNY, which became part of the Rutland Railroad) in June 1851. This "icebox on wheels" was a limited success in that it was only able to function in cold weather. That same year, the Ogdensburg and Lake Champlain Railroad (O&LC) began shipping butter to Boston in purpose-built freight cars, utilizing ice to cool the contents.

The first consignment of dressed beef to ever leave the Chicago stockyards did so in 1857, and was carried in ordinary boxcars retrofitted with bins filled with ice. Placing the meat directly against ice resulted in discoloration and affected the taste, however, and therefore proved to be impractical. During the same period Swift experimented by moving cut meat using a string of ten boxcars which ran with their doors removed, and made a few test shipments to New York during the winter months over the Grand Trunk Railway (GTR). The method proved too limited to be practical. Detroit's William Davis patented a refrigerator car that employed metal racks to suspend the carcasses above a frozen mixture of ice and salt. He sold the design in 1868 to George H. Hammond, a Detroit meat-packer, who built a set of cars to transport his products to Boston using ice from the Great Lakes for cooling. The loads had the unfortunate tendency of swinging to one side when the car entered a curve at high speed, and the use of the units was discontinued after several derailments. Finally, in 1878, Swift hired engineer Andrew Chase to design a ventilated car that was well-insulated, and positioned the ice in a compartment at the top of the car, allowing the chilled air to flow naturally downward.

The meat was packed tightly at the bottom of the car to keep the center of gravity low and to prevent the cargo from shifting. Chase's design proved to be a practical solution to providing temperature-controlled carriage of dressed meats, and allowed Swift & Company to ship their products all over the United States, and even internationally, and in doing so radically altered the meat business. Swift's attempts to sell this design to the major railroads were unanimously rebuffed as the companies feared that they would jeopardize their considerable investments in stock cars and animal pens if refrigerated meat transport gained wide acceptance. In response, Swift financed the initial production run on his own, then — when the American roads refused his business — he contracted with the GTR (a railroad that derived little income from transporting live cattle) to haul them into Michigan and then eastward through Canada. In 1880, the Peninsular Car Company (subsequently purchased by ACF) delivered to Swift the first of these units, and the Swift Refrigerator Line (SRL) was created. Within a year the Line’s roster had risen to nearly 200 units, and Swift was transporting an average of 3,000 carcasses a week to Boston. Competing firms such as Armour and Company quickly followed suit. By 1920 the SRL owned and operated 7,000 of the ice-cooled rail cars. The General American Transportation Corporation would assume ownership of the line in 1930.

"Everything but the squeal"

In response to public outcries to reduce the amount of pollutants generated by his packing plants, Swift sought innovative ways to use previously discarded portions of the animals his company butchered. This practice led to the wide scale commercial production of such diverse products as oleomargarine, soap, glue, fertilizer, hairbrushes, buttons, knife handles, and pharmaceutical preparations such as pepsin and insulin. Low-grade meats were canned in products like pork and beans.

The absence of federal inspection led to abuses. Sausages might incorporate rat droppings, dead rodents, or sawdust, and meat that had spoiled or meat mixed with waste materials was sometimes packed and sold (Swift once bragged that his slaughterhouses had become so sophisticated that they used "everything but the squeal"). Transgressions such as these were first documented in Upton Sinclair's novel The Jungle, the publication of which shocked the nation and led to the passing of the Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906.

Vertical integration

The meat packing plants of Chicago were among the first to utilize assembly-line (or in this case, disassembly-line) production techniques. Henry Ford states in his autobiography My Life and Work that it was a visit to a Chicago slaughterhouse which opened his eyes to the virtues of employing a moving conveyor system and fixed work stations in industrial applications. These practices symbolize the concept of "rationalized organization of work" to this day.

Swift adapted the methods of the industrial revolution to meat packing operations, which resulted in huge efficiencies by allowing his plants to produce at a massive scale. The work was divided into myriad specific sub-tasks, which were carried out under the direction of supervisory personnel. Swift & Co. was broken down organizationally into various divisions, each one responsible for conducting a different aspect of the business of "bringing meat from the ranch to the consumer". By developing a vertically integrated company, Swift was able to control the sale of his meats from the slaughterhouse to the local butcher shop.

Swift devoted a great deal of time to indoctrinating employees and teaching them the company’s methods and policies. He also motivated his employees to focus on the company's profit goals by adhering to a strict policy of promotion from within. The innovations that Swift championed not only revolutionized the meat packing industry, but also played a vital role in establishing the modern American business system, with an emphasis on mass production, functional specialization, managerial expertise, national distribution networks, and adaptation to technological innovation.

Swift, Gustavus Franklin (24 June 1839-29 Mar. 1903), meat packer, was born on a farm near Sandwich, Cape Cod, Massachusetts, the son of William Swift and Sally Crowell, farmers. An indifferent student, young Gustavus worked at a variety of odd jobs during the eight years he attended the nearby country school. By the age of fourteen, he had become a full-time employee in the butcher shop owned by his older brother, Noble. Borrowing money from his father and his maternal grandfather in 1855, he opened his own business, purchasing livestock at the Brighton Market and driving them to Eastham for sale, a journey that consumed ten days. In 1861 Swift married Annie Maria Higgins of North Eastham; they had eleven children, nine of whom survived to adulthood. The following year, 1862, the young couple moved to Barnstable, Massachusetts, where Swift opened a small livestock slaughtering house and retail butcher shop. After seven years in Barnstable, they moved to Brighton, where in 1872 Swift formed a partnership with James A. Hathaway. The new firm of Hathaway and Swift moved first to Albany, New York, then to Buffalo, New York, and finally the burgeoning meat packing center of Chicago, Illinois, in 1875. Over the next three years Swift became one of the leading figures in the Union Stockyards, blanketed the streets of Chicago with his distinctive delivery wagons, and played the lead role in revolutionizing the meat packing industry. Up to that point, western cattle had been shipped "on the hoof" to the East Coast, where they were slaughtered by local wholesalers and delivered fresh to nearby retailers. Since 60 percent of the animal's weight consisted of inedible matter and a great many cattle died in transit, Swift overcame those problems with a two-fold strategy. On the one hand, he hired Andrew Chase, a prominent engineer, to design a refrigerated railroad car that would keep the dressed meat fresh for long periods of time. On the other, he built a vast network of branch houses, beginning in his native New England, that featured refrigerated storage space, a wholesale office force, and a cadré of sales personnel to sell and deliver the dressed meat to local butchers, grocers, and restaurants. Swift elaborated this network by establishing "peddler car routes," which conveyed dressed meat in smaller amounts to out-of-the-way towns and villages. By the 1890s he had constructed a nationwide system that included stockyards and packing plants in Omaha, Nebraska; St. Joseph, Missouri; Sioux City, Iowa; and other cities bordering the cattle-producing regions. Swift also pioneered the techniques of mass production within his packing plants, breaking the process down into several distinct operations and utilizing moving "disassembly lines" to convey the meat from station to station. In implementing his plans, Swift had to overcome the powerful opposition of the railroads, who so feared the loss of revenue from substituting dressed beef for live cattle that they opposed the construction of refrigerated cars and balked at carrying them when Swift constructed his own. In addition, he had to overcome the antagonism of local meat wholesalers, who formed the National Butchers' Protective Association in 1886 and sought to enforce boycotts against Swift's products. Finally, Swift had to combat the prejudice of local butchers and consumers, who retained a bias in favor of freshly killed and dressed meat. Although Swift relied partly on advertising to overcome such obstacles, his success was due mainly to his ability to supply high-quality meat at relatively low prices because of high-volume operations and the speed and scheduling of his distribution system. Dissolving his partnership with Hathaway in 1878, Swift and his brother Edwin established the firm of Swift Brothers and Company. The new enterprise expanded rapidly, even tapping some European markets, and was incorporated in 1885 under the name of Swift and Company, with capital stock of $300,000. Gustavus Swift served as the company's president until his death; he was largely responsible for raising the value of its capital stock to $50,000,000 by 1906 and its workforce to 26,000 by 1908. Swift and Company pioneered the establishment of nationwide distribution systems, often establishing partnerships with local firms in several major cities. The corporation established slaughterhouses in Omaha; Kansas City, St. Joseph, and St. Louis, Missouri; St. Paul, Minnesota; and Fort Worth, Texas. By the early twentieth century, Swift and Company was slaughtering two million cattle, four million hogs, and two million sheep annually. It also produced a variety of animal by-products, including oleomargarine, glue, soap, fertilizer, and pharmaceutical preparations, becoming an industry leader in those areas as well. The company also established distribution centers in Great Britain and in Tokyo and Osaka, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Manila, Singapore, and Honolulu. In 1902 Swift joined with packers J. Ogden Armour and Edward Morris and the investment banking firm of Kuhn, Loeb, and Company to create the National Packing Company, a venture widely denounced as "the Meat Trust." It was dissolved by court order in 1904. Especially during the last decade of his life, Swift was involved in various philanthropic enterprises, donating significant sums of money to the Methodist Episcopal church, the University of Chicago, and the Young Men's Christian Association. He died in his Lake Forest, Illinois, home. The innovations that he championed not only revolutionized the meat packing industry, but they also played a vital role in establishing the modern American business system, with its emphasis on mass production of consumer goods, managerial expertise, specialization of function, and nationwide distribution networks, and adaptation to technological innovation.

Bibliography Like most nineteenth-century entrepreneurs, Swift left no collection of personal or business papers. Insights into his personality and character may be gained from the interesting though highly uncritical The Yankee of the Yards: The Biography of Gustavus Franklin Swift (1927), written by his son Louis F. Swift and Arthur Van Vlissingen, Jr. Slightly more focused on Swift's contributions to the development of the meat packing industry, Louise Albright Neyhart, Giant of the Yards (1952), is still largely uncritical and overly folksy in style. Swift's pivotal role in the evolution of the meat packing industry is discussed in several publications: Rudolph A. Clemen, The American Livestock and Meat Industry (1923); Alfred D. Chandler, The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business (1977); H. C. Hill, "The Development of Chicago as a Center of the Meat-Packing Industry," Mississippi Valley Historical Review (Dec. 1923); and Charles Winans, "The Evolution of a Vast Industry," Harper's Weekly, 11 Nov. 1905-13 Jan. 1906. Swift's innovative role in the processing and marketing of meat by-products is recorded in Clemen, By-Products in the Packing Industry (1927). A good deal of factual information can be obtained from his obituary in the Chicago Tribune, 30 Mar. 1903.

John D. Buenker Citation: John D. Buenker. "Swift, Gustavus Franklin";; American National Biography Online Feb. 2000. Copyright © 2000 American Council of Learned Societies. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. ___________________________

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Gustavus Franklin Swift's Timeline

June 24, 1839
Sandwich, Barnstable, Massachusetts, United States
January 3, 1861
Age 21
Eastham, Barnstable, Massachusetts, United States
September 27, 1861
Age 22
Bourne, Barnstable, Massachusetts, United States
November 12, 1863
Age 24
Barnstable, Barnstable, Massachusetts, United States
April 6, 1865
Age 25
Barnstable, Barnstable, MA, USA
February 10, 1867
Age 27
March 20, 1869
Age 29
Sandwich, Barnstable County, Massachusetts, United States
December 27, 1872
Age 33
Lancaster, Worcester, Massachusetts, United States
April 1875
Age 35
Chicago, Cook, IL, USA
March 1, 1878
Age 38
Chicago, Cook, IL, USA