The coming of the railroad made it possible to ship live pigs or cattle to distant urban markets, where they could then be slaughtered and their meat sold. But that was not good enough for Chicago meat-processor Gustavus Swift. The shipping cost for livestock, done on the basis of weight, and the additional payment for in-transit feeding, added up to too much expense as far as he was concerned. By the late 1870s he was trying to develop a refrigerated railcar that would make it possible to keep meat fresh over long distances. His experiments disgusted his partner, who soon left the business. Had he stayed on just a bit longer, however, he would have been able to share in Swift's sense of triumph when in 1881 he had ten of his refrigerated railcars shipping meat from Chicago to eastern markets. Soon other meat processors were following suit, and a revolution in the American diet had begun. As one reporter put it in 1882, Swift's refrigerated railcars had ushered in the "era of cheap beef."
Ralph Elmer Clarkson (1861-1942)
Oil on canvas, 1904
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of George H. Swift Jr.