Sunday, February 06, 2011

Chicago: Hog Butcher and Stacker of Wheat

Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West by William Cronon is a long but very readable book about the economic history of Chicago. The author documents many innovations that arose in Chicago between its founding in the 1830s and the end of the nineteenth century, with an emphasis on the interaction between the city and "the Great West." The central theme of the book is the unity of urban activities in Chicago and the agricultural development of the plains, woods, and farms that produced the raw materials.

Two sections of the book, concerning the grain trade (including the invention the grain elevator and the development of a futures market at the Chicago Board of Trade) and the meat trade (including the creation of the Chicago stockyards and the meat packing industry), were especially interesting. Railroads and the telegraph contributed to the development of nationwide markets by speeding up communication as well as transport of commodities. This discussion illuminates the early development of what's now viewed as industrialization of the food industry.

A romantic view of the life and productivity of the farmer as contrasted to the rapacious and perhaps parasitic role of wholesalers was at least as common in the nineteenth century as it is now. Cronon makes clear that the efficiency of the markets and inventions of the nineteenth century were essential to enable the farmers to get their produce to consumers. He constantly points out how the word "natural" was used to mean a wide variety of things, many of them far from the usual meaning of the word.

The railroad was one of the central enablers for this agricultural industry. Cronon writes:
"Railroads were more than just natural; their power to transform landscapes partook of the supernatural, drawing upon a mysterious creative energy that was beyond human influence or knowledge." (Kindle location 1697)
In the case of the grain trade, efficiency came from the combination of grain elevators near the lakefront where boats left for the East, railroads that stopped near to farms to pick up the grain, and the Board of Trade's development of a grading system to ensure quality of grain; these elements allowed wholesalers to combine the same grade of wheat from many farmers. Rail transport replaced wagons quickly. By 1852, twice as much wheat came by rail than by wagon.
"In 1860, Chicago received almost a hundred times more wheat by rail than by wagon; ten years later, no one even bothered to keep statistics on the latter." (Kindle location 1764)
The resulting stream of grain could be loaded from the steam and gravity-powered grain elevator onto rail or water transport with far less human labor than had been required to handle separate bags of grain. Instead of using their horses to pull wagons to market, farmers could use them to increase their production of grain. Improved communication let farmers know when the grain might more cost-effectively be fed to cattle instead of sent to market. And the cattle market, including the Chicago stockyards and meat packing plants also emerged with added efficiencies due to rail transport. Cronon documents the changing meat trade just as interestingly as he did the grain trade.

Of course I was thinking of the Carl Sandburg Poem:
HOG Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,

Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders...

Paul Krugman recommended this book; in fact, he mentioned that he was reading it on a Kindle, as I did. I'm glad I took his advice. However, the Kindle edition has quite a few unfortunate errors in the text due to (I suspect) careless checking after it was scanned. Also, the Kindle edition retains the placement of illustrations in two groups as is always done with hardcopy books; the handling of the captions for these illustrations was also very awkward. Maybe eventually electronic books will take advantage of their potential to more logically arrange illustrations.

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