Introduction to Bacon & the Art of Living
The quest to understand how great bacon is made takes me around the world and through epic adventures. I tell the story by changing the setting from the 2000s to the late 1800s when much of the technology behind bacon curing was unraveled. I weave into the mix beautiful stories of Cape Town and use mostly my family as the other characters besides me and Oscar and Uncle Jeppe from Denmark, a good friend and someone to whom I owe much gratitude! A man who knows bacon! Most other characters have a real basis in history and I describe actual events and personal experiences set in a different historical context.
The cast I use to mould the story into is letters I wrote home during my travels.
David Graaff’s Armour – A Tale of Two Legends
Dear Tristan and Lauren,
Copenhagen continues to enchant us! Long afternoon walks. The many coffee shops. The friendly people. Denmark is turning into quite an education! Minette and I had the most unexpected suprise.A completely unexpected visit from our friend, David de Villiers-Graaff. It is a sad reunion as we still mourn the passing of Uncle Jacobus Combrinck last year. David is on his way to the United States and decided to look in on us to see my progress.
He was regal in his appearance from the moment he stepped ashore off the streamliner. 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 accommodate a short visit to Denmark en route to Chicago for the World Exposition. (1) (2)
Our friend changed. He has always been serious and driven. There is, however, presently a confidence and focus in him – an intensity than I have never seen before. We are honoured for the few days we have in Copenhagen. (2)
The most fascinating tale is told by David about how it happened in the mid-1880s that he visited Chicago for the first time. On that trip, he met Phil (Philip) Armour. It 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 a will to do things and energy. Mentors give direction to our drive. Phil Armour gave David a purpose and 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 pioneering the production-line processing by setting up a disassembly line in his enormous meatpacking plant in Chicago. He is the actual inventor of the production line and not Henry Ford as is widely reported. (9) David tells me that last 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), created the Armour Packing plant in Chicago in the tradition of the Cincinnati packing houses which dominated the pork packing industry until Chicago became the centre of pork processing universe in the USA and wash correctly described as “the 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 afforded him the benefit of viewing the pork trade not as an art to be mastered by himself, but as a platform to trade in. Here he is able to anticipate supply and demand, price fluctuations, business structure, and processes in contrast with the German Master Butcher who is a tradesman, narrowly focused on his trade.
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 leader of the United States. It is reported that he has an establishment in every city in the USA and his agents are at work for him in every part of the globe. His daily updates come through telegraphs, telex, and telegram. (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 de Villiers-Graaff. (2) (5)
Armour – the Applied of Refrigeration to Meatpacking
By now you should have a firm grasp of the role of nitrates and nitrites in meat curing. I suspect that Phi was involved in testing nitrites in meat curing long before it was legal to do so in the USA. This is, however, not his biggest contribution to the trade. Apart from pioneering the production line, Phil’s greatest contribution to meatpacking and processing is the incorporation of refrigeration into the meatpacking plant which allows for curing and packing of meat all year round.
In 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 reckons 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 ice houses or cellars were used in Cincinnati long 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 as private landowners created ice houses to keep perishables from going bad. Phil may have had just such an ice house on his own property. However the inspiration came to him, he is credited for the incorporation of large scale refrigeration into meatpacking. (Encyclopedia. Chicago history and British History)
During the time when Phil brought refrigeration to meatpacking, 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 cars and leased them to the railroads. (Louise Carroll Wade. Encyclopedia Chicago History. Meat Packing)
Three big meatpackers would become legendary. They were Philip Armour, Gustavus Swift, and Nelson Morris. (3) 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-1880s and called on the largest butchery in town, Combrinck & Co. This visit to South Africa was in response to the discovery of diamond in Kimberly and the goldfields in Johannesburg. (5) Diamonds were discovered in 1867 by a 15-year-old boy, Erasmus Jacobs, near Hopetown on the Orange River. (6)
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.
Phil saw what opportunity would follow the discovery of gold and diamonds in South Africa 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 the mid-1880s in developments in the sub-continent.
Mentor – Protégé
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 de Villiers-Graaff. A bright-eyed young man with black hair and a distinct black moustache.
David was born with a drive and loads of passion. 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. further 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 cage-like office is described in The Saint Paul Daily Globe, 10 May 1896, p2)
Phil invests 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 the refrigeration and refrigeration cars for the railroads. (2)
Phil employes 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. He would most certainly have been impressed by David.
David implemented the concept of own refrigeration cars as soon as he got back to Cape Town. He had refrigeration chambers erected for Combrinck & Co. and soon invested in his own fleet of refrigerated cars for the railways.
In a quint coffee shop close to the Abattoir in Copenhagen, I pressed David to list the characteristics of Phil Armour that inspired him most. I was interested, not only in the mechanics of his business model but also the qualities that the man cultivated.
David was thinking intently, stroking his mustache. “Phil is an optimist who believes 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 peace would prevail. (7)”
“He is not scared to take on large challenges. His plans are big and bold and global. (The Saint Paul Daily Globe, 10 May 1896, p2)”
“He invests frugally in education. Mr. Armour donated funds to establish the Armour Institute of Technology in Chicago to give technical training for underprivileged boys. (8)” (Ansci. PD Armour)
A lesson that inspired David and that I take from Phil is that he believes in obtaining a thorough knowledge of any industry he gets involved in. This is why I am in Denmark and why I study as much as I can about bacon curing.
David then made an interesting observation. After supper, David started telling me 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, the economy of time and speech, the 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 goldfields 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 goldfields. 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 goldfields, 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 meatpacking 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. Last week in Denmark, 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 day’s 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 of 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 neighborhood 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 revolves 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. Jacobus and I working full days as children in butcheries. What some people see as a curse can be a blessing for others. It all depends on how you see it.” He then looked at me and said, “The fact that your dreams of a bacon factory are a difficult journey is a blessing!”
I will never forget that night. His point so eloquently 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 traveling 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 Squeal
When I took 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 squeal of the pig that he does not use.
Armour’s Great Invention – the Production Line
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 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 new technology, but this greater division of labour that allowed greater output. The task of dismembering the pig’s 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 1850s, “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 was 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)
Phil 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 “disassembly” line by eliminating bottlenecks. Fragmenting the butcher’s 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 Based on Civic Duty
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”, and 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 de Villiers-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. What is certain is that David associates 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 businessman, 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) This is the protegee returning to his mentor to show him how he has grown.
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. I had a suit made by a tailor in the city that Jeppe manage to arrange for me. The dinner was a grand occasion. I will never forget it! Minette looked absolutely gorgeous. Andreas’ mom helped her to select a blue dress that suited her perfectly.
We had an amazing evening. I could feel that my time in Denmark was coming to an end and as I started thinking back over everything that I learned it is interesting that the major theme was nitrogen. Your December holidays are drawing close now. Please remember to give my Oupa and Ouma all our love when you see them! I wich I can say that I am counting the days to my return, but there is still much more to learn and new countries to visit. Off all these adventures, be assured that I will write to you often!
With lots of love!
(c) eben van tonder
“Bacon & the art of living” in bookform
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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)
The Manufacturers and Liberal Arts Building seen from the South West.
(2) This visit and meeting are purely fictional. There are 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-1880s and was one of the first locations visited by David Graaff. This is a 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 airship. (Faces of the Hindenburg. Nelson Morris)
(4) The labour economist John R Commons observed, related to the disassembly 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-’80s to investigate refrigeration and meat processing technology the tantalizing possibility exists 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 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
http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/804.html (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. https://cioccahistory.pbworks.com/w/page/34889559/Gustavus%20Swift%20and%20Philip%20Armour%20(second)
Figure 4: Swift & Co packing line. http://www.pbs.org/now/shows/250/meat-packing.html
Figure 5: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Illinois_Institute_of_Technology
Figure 6: The Manufacturers and Liberal Arts Building http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World’s_Columbian_Exposition