The Man Behind The Brand – On the Can

by Doug Gelbert

published by Cruden Bay Books at Smashwords

Copyright 2010 by Cruden Bay Books

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system without permission in writing from the Publisher.

Open a copy of the Information Please Almanac and turn to the chapter on famous people. 4000 names and you won't know hardly any. But what about names everyone knows? Pillsbury, Kraft, Maytag, Hertz, Kellogg, Gerber. Nowhere to be found. How many names are more famous than Howard Johnson? Milton Bradley? Oscar Mayer? But who were these folks? Let’s take a look at the men behind the names we see when we pull cans out of our pantry...

Chef Boyardee
Van Camp's

And the man behind the brand is...

Philip Armour
Philip Danforth Armour, "Phil" until he died, grew up on a farm in Stockbridge, New York with, as one biographer dutifully noted, "no tradition of zeal for scholarship." He was discharged over a matter of discipline from the Cazenovia Academy in 1849 at the age of 17 and thrust into the working world.

Armour clerked in a store for two years until he could no longer resist the romantic tales coming east from the California Gold Rush. He set out for the West Coast on foot and by rail. When he arrived in California Armour quickly noticed that most miners never struck it rich and those that did lost their fortunes more often than not.

Rather than grab a pick and axe Armour went to work building sluiceways so the miners could have water in which to pan their gold. In five years he had saved $8000 and headed home to New York to buy a good farm. On the way home Armour stopped to visit his brother Herman in Milwaukee. He would stay for another 19 years.

Armour was impressed by the thriving community he found in Milwaukee. He established a produce and commission business and in 1863 Armour entered into a partnership with John Plankinton, a pioneer packer in the Midwest. In the winter of 1864-1865 Armour travelled to New York, then the center of the pork packing industry.

At the time pork was selling for $40 a barrel and spiraling upward. The consensus among veteran New York commodity traders was that the price was going nowhere but up. Armour saw things differently. He believed with the end of the Civil War in sight the price of pork would fall when the Confederacy did. The New York traders were eager to buy as much pork as the brash young man from Milwaukee could sell at $40 a barrel.

As Armour gambled it would, pork collapsed as Richmond fell. He filled all his eastern orders with pork he purchased for $18 a barrel. As many brokers tried to repudiate their contracts with Armour he stayed in New York for 90 days forcing his debtors to settle. Thereafter Armour's business grew with unprecedented rapidity.

In 1867 Armour and Plankinton set up a packing plant in Chicago as Armour & Company. In 1867 Chicago was a city renowned for its muddy, unpaved streets but with a bustling railroad business it began looking like the midwestern city of the future.

In the first year Armour's pork business outgrew the compay’s Bell House plant and the partners acquired the Griffith House plant. Beef and lamb were quickly added to the line. Armour's four brothers joined the business as Armour's influence spread to Kansas City and New York.

At the time meat processing was a seasonal business limited to cold weather months. There was no system other than salt cure to preserve perishable meat. In 1872 a method using natural ice in large scale coolers was devised and Armour & Company built the world's first large chill room with temperatures cooled by large blocks of ice cut in the winter and stored under sawdust through the summer.

Armour had converted the meat business into a year-round industry. He not only now offered Americans fresh meat daily but he created an ice industry and stimulated the transport of live hogs for slaughter in Chicago rather than on the farms where they were raised. He built the massive Union Stock Yards in 1872. For the first time more hogs than pork carcasses arrived in Chicago.

In 1878 the first crude refrigerator railroad cars and ships, known as reefers, began to appear and Armour's markets spread across the globe. He created an oval-shaped label bearing the legend "Armour Star Ham" which became one of the best known trademarks in the history of the American food business. The star appeared in yellow on a dark blue background and told buyers they were getting the very best ham on the market. It was the first of nearly 1000 Armour trademarks.

In 1882 Plankinton retired from the business and in 1884 Armour finally retired from his business in Milwaukee, where he had lived until 1875, to devote himself to the bustling Chicago empire. By this time Armour & Company was involved in every facet of the meat packing industry. The Armours controlled vast grain and feed interests, owned their own railroad cars, and had distribution plants across the country.

In the 1880s Armour & Company became a leader in converting by-products into useful products like buttons, combs and glue. Armour added a department to sell pepsin - a digestive aid - which became the forerunner of the Armour Pharmaceutical Company. Other industries included oleomargarine (1880), ammonia (1891), fertilizer (1894), curled hair for cushions (1895), laundry soap (1896), glycerine (1896), brushes (1897) and sandpaper (1900).

Armour was a robust man with sandy hair and red whiskers. He conducted conferences every day with one department head or another to keep reign on his wide-reaching ventures which employed 20,000 people. But one manager he made certain to meet with every day was the Reverend Dr. Frank Gunsauius, who advised Armour regarding all his charities.

The man who built one of the most splendid enterprises of the 19th century began to fade away with the end of the epoch. He became sick in 1899 and died early in 1901. He had enough time to carefully plan for the future of Armour & Company in the interim. "There's no such thing as luck," Armour said, "Brains always have and always will command the highest market value.

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