Gustavus Franklin Swift was one of several pioneers in wholesale food distribution who took advantage of Chicago's railroad center and strategic location to revolutionize their various industries in the latter part of the 19th Century. Except for his family and his church, Swift was single minded in his determination and focus on improving his meat packing company and its services.
Swift was born on June 24, 1839 on Cape Cod near a town that was then called West Sandwich and is now called Sagamore, Massachusetts. In 1872 Swift became a partner in Hathaway and Swift, a butcher and slaughterhouse operation near Boston. Swift was the expert cattle buyer for the partnership and on his recommendation the company moved to Chicago in 1875 to take advantage of access to the Union Stock Yards.
In 1878 Gustavus parted with Hathaway and brought his brother Edwin Swift into the business to form Swift Brothers and Company. Then Gustavus became president of Swift and Company in 1885. After the Civil War, the stock yards of Kansas City and Chicago were key links in getting cattle from the western plains to population centers in the East.
In the 1860s, the only way to transport slaughtered cattle to preserve them was in barrels of salt. Some ordinary rail box cars were loaded with ice in another effort to preserve fresh meat that had limited success. In 1878, Gustavus Swift hired Adrew Chase to design a ventillated rail box car that was well insulated to permit a special ice compartment at the top to push cold air down on the stored meat.
The great success and launch of the refridgerator rail cars on a wide basis in 1881 enabled slaughter of cattle to take place in Chicago and the further transport of fresh meat to eastern markets on a large and efficient scale. The refridgerator car revolutionized the meat packing and distribution business. At first, some butchers in the east rejected the idea of using meat from refidgerator cars because they thought the meat could not be guaranteed as fresh. Gustavus Swift overcame these objections with a massive advertising campaign that promoted the Swift brand meats as both fresh and safe. Customers came to trust the Swift name and butchers had no choice but to follow suit and give customers what they wanted.
Swift was also a pioneer in making use of all parts of the cow for various products such as margarine, glue, soap, and fertilizer. Business rivals such as Philip Amour were matching Swift move for move in this utilization of the whole cow. In the early 1900s, socialist author Upton Sinclair alarmed the nation with his book The Jungle which made charges that meat packing and processing houses in Chicago used unsafe and unsanitary methods in preparing meat for transport. Some of the charges may have been true and in any case there was a public outcry for legislation that led to the Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906.
Gustavus Swift used a conveyor belt to move meat from one work station to another in an assembly line method that Henry Ford later wrote inspired him to adopt similar methods to the building of automobiles. Swift devoted a good deal of time to educating employees on the right way to process meat. He also rewarded employees by promoting from inside the company people who already knew a good deal about the business and the Swift way of doing things.
When Gustavus Swift died in Chicago on March 29, 1903, Swift and Company had about 21,000 employees and a capital valuation of around $35 million. In 2005, Swift and Company celebrated the 150th anniversary of the time that Gustavus Swift founded his first butcher shop in Eastham, Massachusetts. Today Swift & Company has its worldwide headquarters in Colorado and supervises beef, pork, and lamb processing plants in many countries. Due to automation, Swift today has about the same number of employees as it did when Gustavus Swift died in 1903. The annual sales are about $10 billion. Swift is today the world's second largest processor of fresh beef and pork products and is the leading beef processor in Australia.
The major non-business legacy of Gustvus Swift and his family to the people of Illinois was his generous monetary support to the University of Chicago in its first decade and the continuing support of the school from other members of the Swift family through the years.