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The Self-Made Man: Philip Danforth Armour, Sr.

When you think of the Gilded Age, a few specific men come to mind: Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and so on. These men were industrialists and entrepreneurs, and some of them worked their way up from modest jobs to become the richest and most powerful men of their generation. There is much to be learned from them.

phil2Of course, nearly all of them were incredibly corrupt and cartoonishly greedy, and there are certainly lessons to be learned from that as well, which is why this week’s Self Made Man is one of the lesser-known robber barons of the Industrial Revolution, Philip Danforth Armour, Sr.

Honestly, part of the reason I picked Armour is because of his awesome name and impressive muttonchops, plus I think the ironic Armour hot dog product placement in old Simpsons episodes may have gotten in my head.

In any case, Armour grew up on a farm in New York and, after being expelled from school for taking a ride in a buggy with a girl (no, that’s not a joke), went to California during the Gold Rush and made money building sluices.

With that money, Armour settled into the meatpacking industry, and made serious bank by correctly predicting a huge drop in pork prices after the Confederacy lost the Civil War. Deborah S. Ing, who wrote a biography of Armour for the American National Biography Online, explains that Armour “made contracts with buyers at $40 per barrel before prices plummeted to $18 when the war ended in a Union victory. This deal netted him a profit of $22 per barrel or an alleged total of $1 million to $2 million.” I don’t know how much money that would be in 2014 dollars, and I hope I never find out. Numbers that big hurt my head.

Armour was an innovator, too. His was the first company to produce canned meat, and his fleet of refrigerated railway cars was the largest in the United States at one time. Armour also cut down on waste by making use of “everything but the squeal” in his hog slaughtering facilities; in addition to canned meat, pig products were also used to make fertilizer and glue, among other things. With his keen business mind and willingness to innovate, Armour became hugely successful and a veritable kingpin of the meatpacking industry.

The flipside of that, of course, is that he was a callous, union-busting jerk. He fired and blacklisted people who asked for things like livable wages or an eight-hour work day, and was fond of suggesting to his friends that they form armed militias to send after union organizers. For Pete’s sake, his employees worked in such wretched conditions that Upton Sinclair used them as the basis for The Jungle. Men like Armour were philanthropic when it suited them, but their profits-before-people philosophy left divots in America’s social fabric that have yet to be fully mended.

Luckily, today’s entrepreneurs have proven capable of decoupling business savvy from cold-heartedness, but men like Philip Armour are as much cautionary tales as they are models.

The lesson here, in short, is have fun, work hard, make money, but don’t be an asshole.

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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.

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