Swift & Company (SRLX) traces it origins back to 1855 when 16-year-old Gustavus Franklin Swift, encouraged by his father, started in business for himself as a slaughterer, packager, and distributor of beef.
Swift saw his company grow into one of the nation's main meatpacking companies, with a reach throughout the United States. By 1900, it had also reached beyond national boundaries, opening shops in London, England. At home, the efforts of Swift and others helped transform Chicago into what poet Carl Sandburg styled "Hog-butcher to the World," that is, the world's largest slaughterhouse and meat-processing center.
Modernization was one key to the company's success. For example, in 1915 Swift implemented a "safety first" campaign, reducing plant-level industrial accidents by 50 percent. By that time, the company had also developed thriving side-line businesses, and though by 1920, under a consent decree, it was forced to dispose of some of them, it still offered various meat and byproduct items at company-owned outlets across the country. Swift had also diversified, branching out from beef to other meats, notably pork. According to its own 1915 company yearbook, Swift was offering a wide variety of products, including hams, sausage, bacon, chickens, eggs, butter, lard, shortening, oleomargarine, bouillon cubes, and various soaps (including scented toilet soaps). Despite being legally required to divest some of its sidelines, in 1920 the company still had sales exceeding $1.1 billion, and by 1922 its branch houses were still selling fresh, cured, and smoked meats, meat specialties, poultry, eggs, butter, cheese, oleomargarine, lard, shortening, cooking and salad oils, and soaps.
By 1921, the Union Stockyards in Chicago employed 40,000 workers and occupied more than a square mile of Chicago's South Side; by 1926, Swift's rail carriers had grown into a fleet of over 5,000 refrigerator cars. That was at the virtual height of the industry's development in Chicago, which, during the Great Depression, started into a decline, albeit a slow one. In the worst of the Depression, in 1931, Swift was selling fresh meats under its Select, Premium, and other Swift labels to increasingly brand-conscious consumers.
The Union Stockyards remained one of the nation's great success stories. From 1893 to 1933, there was no year in which less than 15 million head of livestock were unloaded and processed there, and in two years in the 1920s over 18 million head were processed. The industry also garnered infamy during this time, however, for deplorable working conditions, as portrayed in the Upton Sinclair novel The Jungle.
Through the period of the Union Stockyards' growth and decline, Swift & Company built plants in several other locales, including, for example, in the Stockyards District of Fort Worth, Texas. The company opened a meat packing plant there in 1902, next to an Armour & Co. plant that opened in that same year. Situated on 14 acres, the Swift & Company plant was adjacent to tracks of the Fort Worth Western Railroad, which carried the plant's products to the East. In their heyday, when they were in full operation, the Swift and Armour plants between them processed up to five million head of cattle per year. In 1971, Swift closed down its operation there, just as, over time, it elsewhere closed many of its plants, partly because for a while it got out of the beef business and partly because the meat industry no longer had to depend on railroads for shipping its products. By that time, however, it had opened large plants in other locations, including, for example, a major operation in Grand Island, Nebraska, in 1965.
In the middle of the century, Swift was a huge operation, much larger than its descendant would be as a subsidiary of ConAgra at the end of the century. In 2002, while still a subsidiary of ConAgra Foods, Swift employed 4,500 workers, a significant figure to be sure, but nothing on the scale it reached when the meat packing industry was in full swing. By 1944, for example, approaching the end of World War II, the company could boast that 20,300 men and women of the Swift organization were in the military and auxiliary services. Despite the fact that many employees went into the military during the conflict, Swift's plants continued to operate at full capacity thanks to war-time demands. In 1943, the company's sales volume reached $1.4 billion.
Notable Number Series
1700-1799 -- By 1948, only four remained on the roster.
2500-2874 -- Appeared in the early 1940s; likely rebuilds from earlier classes.
3300-5199 -- Appeared in the early 1940s.
5200-5799 -- A result of renumbering and rebuilding; most retired by 1966.
15000-15392 -- All-steel cars with brine tanks and meat rails built by General American circa 1954.