Bacon and the art of living 13: David Graaff’s Armour

February 1892

Dear Ava,

It is the most glorious month since I am re-united with two old friends.  Oscar Klynveld and David Graaff.  My only regret is that you are not in Copenhagen with us.

David has been regal in his appearance from the moment he stepped ashore.  It is only fitting since he is not only in his second term as honourable mayor of Cape Town, but is now also a member of the Cape Colony’s legislative council in the place of Jacobus after his sad passing.  (The Colonies and Indian, 10 October 1891, p11)  David managed to fit a short visit to Denmark in en route to Chicago for the World Exposition. (1) (2)

Drawing of David Graaff in his mayoral robes. The drawing appeared in a newspaper in Chicago on 11 April 1892 when he was interviewed at the World Exposition.

Ava, our friend has changed.  He has always been serious and driven.  There is however a confidence and focus in him, more intensity than I have noticed before.  Oscar is privileged to have accompanied him on the journey and speaks highly of him.  I am honoured for the few days we have together in Copenhagen. (2)

The most fascinating tale is told by David about how it happened in the mid 1880’s that he visited Chicago for the first time and met Phil (Philip) Armour.  This visit had a profound impact on him.  In many respects I can see it working out in his ambitions.  Drive is something we are born with.  David always had drive.  Energy.  Mentors give direction to our drive.  Phil Armour has given David this substance.  Ambitions for Combrinck & Co and for the City of Cape Town alike.

The legendary Phil Armour

Phil is a self-made millionaire who is credited for pioneered the production line processing of pork in his enormous meat packing plant in Chicago. He is credited by some as the inventor of the production line and not Henry Ford. (9)  (Wikipedia. Philip Danforth Armour)  David tells me that lest year (1890) Phil slaughtered more pigs than the combined total of all Cincinnati packers. (Horowitz, R.,  2006: 50)

This is interesting because Phil (an experienced commodity trader) and his business partner John Plankinton (an experienced butcher) set the Armour Packing plant in Chicago up in the tradition of the Cincinnati packing houses which dominated the pork packing industry until the Chicago became “hog butcher for the world.”  (Horowitz, R.,  2006: 49, 50)

It occurred to me that this was a special and important development.  Phil, like many of the great packers in Cincinnati (Horowitz, R.,  2006: 49, 50) was not a butcher but a trader and a businessman.  This seemed to have the benefit of viewing the pork trade as anticipating supply and demand, price fluctuations, business structure and processes in contrast with the German Master Butcher who is a tradesmen, narrowly focused on his trade.

Oscar has the same ability.  He is a business man through and through and listening to David talking about Phil Armour, I realise that it is a huge benefit that Oscar is not a master butcher.

The structure of Jeppe’s bacon plant in Denmark is styled after the innovation of Phillip Armour.

Phil is called the Napoleon of the Chicago capitalists, the baron of butchers, the king of pork packing and grain-shipping products of the United States.   It is reported that he has an establishment in every city of the USA and his agents are at work for him in every part of the globe.   His daily updates through telegraphs, telex and telegram are legendary.  (The Saint Paul Daily Globe, 10 May 1896, p2)

His reach is global.  Stretching from the “wheat fields of Russia, to the grain bearing plains of North India and the markets of Australia and Europe.”  Every morning he looks at the globe.  Where his products will be in demand and where prices will rise and fall.  (The Saint Paul Daily Globe, 10 May 1896, p2)  It was no doubt this global view that brought his agents to South Africa where they met David Graaff. (2) (5)

Armour applied refrigeration to meat packing

Apart from consolidating the production line, Phil’s greatest contribution to meat packing and processing is the incorporation of refrigeration into the meat packing plant which allows for curing and packing of meat all year round.  I have been writing to the kids three times now about this invention and the implications and the way that it shaped our industry can not be over stated.

In the Britain the Harris family was responsible for the construction of the first ice house for bacon curing in  their High Street factory in Calne in 1856.  Jeppe recons that this is the first time in the world when ice was used to make year-round curing possible.  It may or may not be true since this may have been used in Cincinnati before 1856.  It is entirely possible that George Harris who brought the idea back from the USA to England may have seen ice cooling in use precisely for bacon curing in the USA.  It probably developed very informally by private landowners who cured bacon year-round in private and small ice houses on their properties.  Wherever this concept may have been used first Phil is credited for incorporation large scale refrigeration into meat packing.  (Encyclopedia. Chicago history and British History)

During the time when Phil brought refrigeration to meat packing, Gustavus Swift came to Chicago to ship cattle and developed a way to send fresh-chilled beef in ice-cooled railroad cars all the way to the East Coast.  The railroads could not keep up with the supply of refrigerated cars and Phil and other large packers build their own refrigerated cars and leased them to the railroads. (Louise Carroll Wade.  Encyclopedia Chicago History.  Meat Packing)

Armour refrigeration car
Armour refrigeration car. Armour had at one point 12 000 refrigerated cars in use across the USA (

Three big meat packers would become legendary.  They were Philip Armour, Gustavus Swift, and Nelson Morris. (3)  (Louise Carroll Wade.  Encyclopedia Chicago History.  Meat Packing)

David was inspired by this and did exactly the same in South Africa when he built his own refrigerated cars.

Armour’s agents in South Africa

It was an agent of Phil Armour who visited Cape Town in the mid ’80s and called on the largest butchery in town, Combrinck & Co.  This visit  was in response to the discovery of diamond in Kimberly and the gold fields in Johannesburg. (5)

Diamonds were discovered in 1867 by a 15 year old boy, Erasmus Jacobs, near Hopetown on the Orange River. (6) (Wikipedia.  Eureka Diamond)

Gold was discovered in South Africa in 1884 by Jan Gerrit Bantjies on the farm Vogelstruisfontein.  The main gold reef was discovered by George Harrison on the farm Langlaagte in July 1886.  (5) (SA History.  Discovery Gold)

Phil Armour knew exactly what would follow these discoveries.  He made his money in the Californian gold rush as a young man, not from mining claims but by capitalizing on peripheral industries that developed.  He started a business in California, employing out-of-work miners to construct sluices, which controlled the waters that flowed through the mined rivers.  By the time he turned 24 he had a successful business that earned him enough money to move away from California and start his next venture.  (Wikipedia.  Philip D Armour)

Phil saw what opportunity would follow the discovery of gold and diamonds and true to his nature, he investigated the opportunity.  He also knew that as the states in South Africa develop, so would our importance as a grain and maize producer.  He had many reasons to be very interested in mid 80’s in developments in the sub-continent.

Mentor – protégé

Phil D Armour, 1880’s

Whatever the exact reason was behind the visit of Armour’s agents to the Cape Colony, at Combrinck & Co they met the man who has been in charge since 1881 (Dommisse, E, 2011: 31), the young David Graaff.  A bright eyed young man with black hair and a distinct black mustache.  David was born with the drive.  He had the resources of a successful business behind him which gave him the means.  What he now had was an opportunity to be exposed to the world and take Combrick & Co to the next level and create his own legacy.  This was provided by Phil Armour and started with an invitation to Chicago! (2) (4)

David spoke at great lengths about this first trip to Chicago and the meeting with Mr. Armour in his cage-like office from where he manages his considerable international interests.  (the fact of the cage like office – The Saint Paul Daily Globe, 10 May 1896, p2)  Phil have a belief to invest in young minds and even though David did not explicitly state this, I can glean from what he tells me that Phil was impressed with the young leader from Cape Town.  Phil showed his packing plant to David and especially refrigeration and refrigeration cars for the railroads. (2)

David implemented the concept of own refrigeration cars as soon as he got back to in Cape Town.  He had refrigeration chambers erected for Combrinck & Co and soon invested in its own fleet of refrigerated cars for the railways.

One day over supper, David listed some of the characteristics of Phil Armour that inspired him.

Phil is an optimist who believe in his country and in the future.  (The Saint Paul Daily Globe, 10 May 1896, p2)  He saw the end of the civil war, despite the many negative voices to the contrary.  He capitalized on low pork prices brought about by speculation that the war would continue, bought up every pig he could get hold off and made a fortune when prices rose on the realization that piece would prevail. (7)

He is not scared of a big thing.  His plans are big and bold and global.  (The Saint Paul Daily Globe, 10 May 1896, p2)

He invest in young people of character and seldom fires them.  He regularly re-deploys them in other departments in the business as young people often need some time to find their feet and where their true talents lay.

A lesson that inspired David and that I take about Phil is that he believed in obtaining a thorough knowledge of any industry that he gets  involved in.  This is why I am in Denmark and why I study as much as I can about bacon curing.

He invest frugally in education.  Mr. Armour donated funds to establish the Armour Institute of Technology in Chicago to give technical training to underprivileged boys. (8) (Ansci. PD Armour)

David then made an interesting observation.  After supper when we were having coffee, David started telling about the start of Phil’s illustrious career.

Phil was brought up in Stockbridge, Madison county, in the state of New York with six brothers and two sisters.  His formal schooling was not the best, but he learned far greater lessons.  His mother taught him thrift, energy, economy of time and speech, benevolence of heart and a strong common sense.  (The Inter Ocean, 7 January 1901, Page 2).

Gold was discovered in California in the spring of 1849.  Phil had fallen in love with a girl and became obsessed with the idea of making a fortune on the newly discovered gold fields quickly so that he could return and claim his bride.  Having secured the permission of his parents, he joined a small party and set off to the gold fields.  None of the party had the means for a sea voyage and they set out on foot.  A journey that lasted over six months and took them through rivers and deserts and over mountains with the usual dangers associated with such a long journey.  (The Inter Ocean, 7 January 1901, Page 2)  An amazing lesson I take personally from this bit of David’s story is that Phil had the respect and relationship with his parents to ask them and secondly, that his parents had the courage to allow him to go!  It seems that bold parenting creates bold men!

In the gold fields he made enough money to form the basis of his wealth.  He moved away at age 24 from California to buy a grocery store and later got involved in a meat packing venture which set him on the course of his life as we know it.

David commented that much in the life of Phil Armour resonated with him.  He has never really spoken about his time as a boy on the farm in Villiersdorp to me.  That night he did.

David’s dad, who was a blacksmith on Villiersdorp, was not a wealthy man.  There were no good roads to Villiersdorp which contributed to the general impoverished condition in the area.  People were poor in possessions, but wealthy in children and in spirit.  Kids were put to work from an early age on the farm.  Every days work was undertaken with a cape made of grain bags to serve as protection against rain and cold.  (Dommisse, E, 2011:  21)

As in the case with Phil’s school years, school education was not the best.  What they lacked in formal education, they made up in life education.  Respect was of great importance.  People stood together and supported each other in times of tribulation.  When an animal was butchered, people from the entire neighbourhood got a meat packet.  Trustworthiness in word and deed, industriousness and honesty were instilled from an early age.  (Dommisse, E. 2011:  21, 22)

One afternoon Jacobus Combrinck, a respected family member and successful butcher from Cape Town, arrived on their farm Wolfhuiskloof.  The custom was for the boys to help with the farm work after school and that afternoon was the 11 year old David’s turn to look after the pigs and stop them from going into the garden.  “However, during the hot afternoon he had fallen asleep under the fig tree.  Next thing he knew he was being shaken awake violently while his father was shouting, “Dawie, Dawie, here you are sleeping and the pigs are in the garden!”  Combrinck who had seen the whole commotion, took pity on the young farm lad, … and immediately asked if he could take him to Cape Town to have him educated properly.”  So it happened that the young David Graaff left their farm and moved to Cape Town where he would work during the day in Jacobus’ butchery and study at night.  (Dommisse, E. 2011:  24)

David commented that Jacobus himself started to work in a butchery when he was only a teen to help his mom financially after the death of his father.

David knew how to set the stage for a point he was about to make, the trait of a good communicator.  He leaned back in his chair while all of us were on the edge of our seats.  I have never heard him speak so candidly about his past.

“It occurred to me,” he started out, “that the best education revolved around values.”  “I found great value in learning, but the values that my parents taught me have always stood me in good stead.  It seems to have done the same in the life of Mr. Armour and Uncle Jacobus.”

He was ready to make his second point.  He spoke thoughtfully.  “A little bit of struggle never hurt anyone!  Look at the journey of Mr. Armour.  Myself and Jacobus working full days as children in butcheries.  What some people see as a curse can be a blessing.  It all depends on how you see it.”  He then looked at Oscar and myself and said, “The fact that this is a difficult journey is a blessing, guys!”

I will never forget that night.  His point so equivalently made.  As I have said, our friend has become a man!

Back to Chicago

David is on his way to Chicago again to meet with Phil Armour, but his focus will be on city business as he is travelling as mayor of Cape Town.  He outlined what he intends to achieve at the World Fair.  After hearing him talk, I can not wait to get back to see how his many plans unfold. (10)

Use every bit except the Squeel

When I took Oscar and David on a tour of Jeppes pork slaughtering house and abattoir the next day, David could not stop talking about the impact of Phil Armour and Gustavus Swift on pork slaughtering and how the animal is taken apart for use as primals or sides and the primals turned into bacon.

Mr. Armour insisted that every part of the animal be used, contrary to the practice in many parts of the world, including in Cape Town, to dump so called “undesirable parts of the carcass” in bodies of water, or as we do it in Cape Town, leave it on the beach in the hope that the tide will wash it away.  “They devised better methods to cure pork and used lard components to make soap and candles.”  (Encyclopedia Chicagohistory)  Armour famously said that it is only the squeele of the pig that he does not use.

Armour’s great invention – the production line

Swift & Co. Packing House, Chicago, 1905. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress
Swift & Co. Packing House, Chicago, 1905. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

It was however the consolidation of the ideas around the re-organization of workers that was the true genius of Phil Armour.  (Thomas Petraitis. Preservation research)  In a break from the concept of the German fleishmaster who process all meat, Mr. Armour’s ideas  originated in a “crude form in the packinghouses of Cincinnati (when that city was known as “Porkopolis”).”   “Mr. Armour organized his workers on a scale and in ways the world had never seen before.  He “de-skilled” the work by dividing the processing of meat into steps that any unskilled laborer could follow.”  (Thomas Petraitis. Preservation research)

This approach allowed “an animal to be killed, dismembered, cleaned and dressed at extraordinary speed. Tourists actually came from around the world to see Midwestern packinghouses in action.”  (Thomas Petraitis. Preservation research)

“The pivotal concepts of production: division of labor, mass production, standardized units of production, continuous flow, and efficiency were pioneered in these packinghouses.”  (Thomas Petraitis. Preservation research) (9)

The idea originated in the packing houses in Cincinnati where it was not not new technology, but this greater division of labour that allowed greater output.  The task of dismembering the pigs carcass was divided into small tasks, performed by different men.  (Horowitz, R.,  2006: 50)  When the American landscape designer, Frederick Law Olmsted visited Cincinnati in the 1850’s, “he observed in a cutting plant “a human cutting machine” consisting of no more than a “plank table, two men to lift and turn, two to wield the cleavers.”  The efficiency of these men were such that “no iron cog-wheels could work with more regular motion.”  As butchers separated the pig carcass into parts “attendants, aided by trucks and dumbwaiters, dispatch each to its separate destiny ,” the curing cellars below where the pork was preserved before shipment.”  (Horowitz, R.,  2006: 51)

Olmsted timed the men dismembering the pig. One carcass every 35 seconds with several parallel stations in operation, packing 15 to 20 000 hogs during the winter.  (Horowitz, R.,  2006: 51)

These methods were generally established when Phil entered the pork packing industry.  He achieved his output through year round packing made possible by refrigeration, incremental technology innovation and the consolidation of the continuous process production.   His engineers improve the “dissembly” line by  eliminating bottle necks.  Fragmenting the butchers tasks and introducing rotating wheels or conveyor tracks to bring the animal to workers performing specific cuts.  This alone improved efficiency by 25%.  (Horowitz, R., 2006: 52) (4)

These are concepts that must become part of the life of our proposed Woody’s factory in Cape Town.  Each departments tasks must be broken up into its smallest components.  It must be logically grouped.  Self regulatory systems theory that I have been learning from Andreas dictates that a continually improving, self organising system must contain in its operation feedback loops for the system to respond to as well as “pressure release” or self-regulatory mechanisms.  I will have to focus on conditions at home and the Woodys team must create its own production systems and not try and copy what is done in Denmark, England and in Chicago where different scale exist.  The approach must be the same, but the application of the principles will differ.

Building a city and civic duty

Armour Institute of Technology,  1914
Armour Institute of Technology, 1914

Another interesting result of Armours work which inspired David and set a course for his life is how he translated his success into transforming his environment.  David would be key in transforming Cape Town just as Phil was in transforming Chicago.  The “business practices that Phil pioneered had a direct impact on the skylines, not just in Chicago, but in the USA. Besides the army of workers in the packinghouses, men like Armour needed armies of clerks and managers to run their business. These employees needed office space and many of the Chicago skyscrapers were developed to house these newly created “office workers”.

It was the disdain that Chicago industrialists like Armour felt toward needless ornamentation in the workplace that led to the development of the “First Chicago School of Architecture”, a style of building that made structure and function its primary goal. Members of the first Chicago School included Louis Sullivan, Daniel H. Burnham, John W. Root, Dankmar Adler, and William Le Baron Jenney, the “father of the American skyscraper”.  (Thomas Petraitis. Preservation research)

This is a great example of the character and the spirit of Armour and Swift.  The exact same direction that was given to the enthusiasm and drive of David Graaff.  It will be wrong to credit Phil Armour entirely for David’s drive for urban development and beautifying his city.  These are after all global movements.  An almost universal drive to beautify the living environments in cities and the realisation of our collective civic responsibilities as fellow citizens on this great earth.  (Wikipedia. Built environment. History)  What is certain is that David associate himself with people with this spirit and that these concepts were part of the ether that David breathed.

He no doubt was inspired by the work of the great industrialists in Chicago.  This is clear from the fact that he now returns to Chicago, not as a butcher or a business man, but as the leader of a city with grand plans to dramatically overhaul the face of Cape Town. (The Inter Ocean, Monday, 11 April 1892. Page 9 – 12)  I did not question him about this, but this could  be the protegee returning to his mentor to show him how he has grown.

My dear Ava, please include this letter in the collection of letters that you are saving for the children.

Jeppe and Eben at the Meat Excellence awards in London. 3/6/2012
Jeppe and Eben at the Meat Excellence awards in London. 3/6/2012

David’s visit was concluded by a great banquette in the state hall in Denmark.  Christian IX  of Denmark was in attendance as were our Danish friends, Jeppe, Andreas and Martin.  Oscar and I had a suits made by a tailor in the city which Jeppe manage to arrange for us.  The dinner was a grand occasion. I will never forget it!  The only part of the afternoon that was lacking was your beauty and presence which I miss every moment!

Please send all my love to the kids!  I am counting the days to my return.  Oscar and myself had much to discuss and made many plans.  Much more about this in my next letter!

With love!



(c) eben van tonder

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(1)  David Graaff was 32 years old in 1892.   He was interviewed at the World Exposition by a journalist standing at the foot of one of the main trusses of the Liberal Arts and Manufacturers building, featured in the picture below.  (The Inter Ocean, Monday, 11 April 1892, p12)

1024px-Chicago_expo_Manufactures_bldg Wikipedia Worlds Columbian Exposition
The Manufacturers and Liberal Arts Building seen from the South West.

(2)  This visit and meeting is purely fictional.  There is no records that I am aware of that Sir David Graaff ever visited Denmark.  The content of the discourse between Eben, Oscar and David relates to David Graaff’s visit to Phillip D Armour’s company in Chicago.  The visit to Armour’s company took place in the mid 1880’s and was one of the first locations visited by David Graaff. This is historical fact.  (Dommisse, E, 2011: 32) Everything else is likely, but at best, informed speculation. There is no evidence at my disposal indicating that agents from Philip Armour ever visited Combrinck & Co or invited David to Chicago.  It is of course completely possible that a visitor or a business associate told him about Philip Armours packing plant.

Option 1 is then that an agent from Philip Armour visited the Cape Colony and met David Graaff.  Option 2 is that one of the many people who visited the pork packing plant of Armour reported it to David who then decided to visit it.  A 3rd option is that David read about it in the newspapers.  In June 1882 David Graaff took out membership to the reading room of the Cape Chamber of Commerce.  The reading room gave him access to a variety of publications on financial and economic issues (Dommisse, E, 2011:  38)

(3)  Morris & Company and Armour & Company merged in 1925.  The grandson of Morris, also named Nelson, famously survived the final flight of the Hindenburg and the fire that destroyed the air ship.   (Faces of the Hindenburg. Nelson Morris)

(4)  The labour economist John R Commons observed, related to the dissembly line in the pork packing houses of the late 1800’s that “skill has become specialized to fit the anatomy.”  (Horowitz, R.,  2006: 53)

(5)  The discovery of diamonds would have been of great interest to Phillip Armour.  Of even greater importance would have been the discovery of gold on the Rand and the subsequent creation of Johannesburg.  I have no records of Armour sending agents to Cape Town, but from everything we know about Armour and the fact that David Graaff visited Armour in the mid 80’s to investigate refrigeration and meat processing technology the tantalizing possibility exist that my theory is at least plausible.

(6)  The Eureka Diamond, the first diamond to be discovered in South Africa was found near Hopetown on the Orange river in 1867.  Its weight was 21.25 carats (4.250g). (Wikipedia.  Eureka Diamond)

(7)  David Graaff would make his fortune in part on the realization that war with England was imminent and securing supply contracts for the British army during the second Anglo-Boer war.  Both Graaff and Armour were optimists, even in the midst of dark days.

(8) The institute became the Illinois Institute of Technology.  (Ansci. PD Armour)

(9)   “Philip Armour and his colleague Gustavus Swift were true founders of some of the great modern business practices that remain in use today around the globe. (Henry Ford later used these same principles to develop an automobile industry “assembly” line and is wrongly credited for many of Armour’s ideas.)”  (Thomas Petraitis. Preservation research)

(10) This trip to Chicago actually took place and was widely reported on in newspapers in the USA.   The Inter Ocean ran a detailed article on this visit on Monday, 11 April 1892. Page 9 – 12.


Dommisse, E. 2011.  First baronet of De Grendel.  Tafelberg.

The Colonies and Indian, 10 October 1891, under the heading “Colonial, Indian and American News Items,” p 11.

Horowitz, R.  2006.  Putting Meat on the American Table: Taste, Technology, Transformation.  The John Hopkins University Press

The Inter Ocean. 7 January 1901.  Page 2

The Saint Paul Daily Globe, 10 May 1896 (Meat packing.  Louise Carroll Wade)


Figure 1:  The Inter Ocean, Monday, 11 April 1892

Figure 2:  Armour refrigeration car.  Wikipedia.

Figure 3:  Philip D Armour.

Figure 4:  Swift & Co packing line.

Figure 5:

Figure 6:  The Manufacturers and Liberal Arts Building’s_Columbian_Exposition