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From Butcher To Meat Retailer

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



The practical meat retailer may not be interested in the historical facts about the retail meat business. There are, however, a great many features about the meat industry of general interest to the man engaged in the retail meat business. To trace the predecessor of our present retail meat merchant, the old time "butcher," we must go back to biblical history. It will be discovered that Adam in the Garden of Eden was perhaps the first real butcher in creation.

Man Always a Butcher

Man, in the primitive age, found it necessary to be a butcher. After providing shelter for his family, food had to be secured, and there is an abundance of evidence available proving that man in the primitive age was not a vegetarian, but a heavy meat eater. While in the early stages of civilization men hunted wild animals, history also shows that oxen, sheep, goats, and other domestic animals were being raised to supply meat for food.

The practice of slaughtering has come down through the ages to our present day, and there are still thousands and thousands of farms in the United States where the crude method of slaughtering for home consumption is still practiced. In other words, the majority of farmers do some butchering, but they do not function as meat retailers.

Abraham Lincoln, a Master Butcher

It should be a source of pride to every American meat retailer to know that America's most beloved president, Abraham Lincoln, won considerable fame as a butcher when he was a lad. In Carl Sandburg's book, 'The Prairie Years of Abraham Lincoln," we read:

"He lifted the slippery 200-pound hog, head down, holding the hind hocks up for others of the gang to hook, and swung the animal clear off the ground. He learned where to stick a hog in the under side of the neck so as to bleed it to death, how to split it in two ; and how to carve out the chops, the parts for sausage grinding, the hams, and cracklings.

"Farmers called him to butcher for them, at 31 cents a day—this when he was sixteen to seventeen years of age. He could knock a beef on the head, swing a maul and hit a cow between the eyes, skin the hides, halve and quarter it, carve out the tallow, steaks, kidneys and liver."

History proves that centuries ago, farmers supplied the towns with much of their meat. The ancient Roman Forum was partly built to serve as a market place where the city people could buy food. In European countries, there still exist market places where centuries ago meats and produce were sold by the farmers and which are serving as a public market for present day meat retailers.

When the modern meat retailer is compared with the old time butcher, it is evident that our present methods of meat retailing are really an evolution or an outgrowth of the old time "butcher" and so-called butcher shop.

What Is a Butcher?

Webster defines a "butcher" as: "One whose business is to slaughter animals for market; also one who dresses and deals in meat for food ; originally a killer of he-goats for market."

To define our modern meat retailer as a "butcher" or his place of business as a "butcher shop" is a misnomer, as he does not perform the functions of a butcher.

But it is not so many years ago that in practically every city, town and hamlet one would find the butcher, the man who operated the butcher shop and had his own slaughter house. This butcher of the olden days was a skilled mechanic. He not only had to be an expert in judging livestock, but he really was a master butcher. He could slaughter, make sausage, bologna and lard ; and he used up as much of the inedible by-products as he could find a market for. The old time butcher, however, was very seriously handicapped in utilizing all of the inedible by-products of the slaughtered animals. Except the hide, tallow, and blood for making blood pudding, much of the valuable by-product had to go to waste.

Functions of Old Time Butcher

As livestock was comparatively cheap, and as proportionately very good prices were received for the dressed product, the butcher could well afford to throw away these by-products at that time. Comparing the butcher of the old days with the present day meat retailer, it is very evident that a great change in meat retailing has taken place. The efforts of the old time butcher were devoted to :

1. The locating and buying of livestock.

2. The slaughtering of livestock.

3. The manufacture of lard and sausage.

4. The selling of his products.

He bought the livestock, he slaughtered it, he manufactured lard and sausage, and he sold the finished products over the retail counter. From an economic standpoint, it was a most direct method of distributing the product.

In other words, the old time butcher performed practically all the functions of our present day retailer, meat packer, livestock buyer and commission man, who at that time were in existence only to a very limited extent.

Change from "Butcher" to "Retailer"

Generally speaking, a change from the butcher to the retail meat merchant began to make successful headway after the middle of the last century. This was not brought about by one particular reason, but rather by a combination of reasons. The principal one, however, was the constant progressive economic development of the United States in itself.

As the United States developed, and great numbers of immigrants poured into the country from Europe, hamlets soon became towns and towns became cities. Eventually the eastern butcher found it somewhat difficult to secure livestock in sufficient quantity from the farmers, who were gradually moving westward. As towns and cities increased in population, the butcher who had a slaughter house, usually in the rear of his store, was forced, for sanitary reasons, to stop slaughtering within the city limits. He was compelled to build an abattoir or slaughter house outside of the city limits, or stop slaughtering entirely and buy dressed meats from someone else.

With the constant increase in population and the rapid development of the United States, many of the old time butchers outgrew their slaughter houses, and gradually established packing plants, which were destined to grow into our present enormous system of packing houses. Practically every successful American packing plant has made its humble start in the small slaughter house. Such well-known names as Armour, Swift, and others familiar in the industry today, have as their origin the humble butcher shop and slaughter house.

Westward Movement of Livestock Production

As the great Eastern industrial parts of the United States developed rapidly, the middle and western parts of the country offered large ranches and more land for cattle feeding and farming, and livestock raising gradually moved into the West and Far West. The great corn belt of the Middle West provided good feed and the opportunity for raising hogs, while the cattle ranches in the Far West provided more open grazing spaces.

About the middle of the last century, Cincinnati, Ohio, be-came known as the first large pork packing center of the United States. It was often referred to as "Porkopolis." Pork packing houses were also established throughout the corn belt country, and on the Ohio, Illinois and Mississippi rivers. It was not long thereafter that Chicago became the largest meat packing center in the world.

As new railroads were being built, transportation had become available to ship livestock from the western farms and ranches directly to the eastern markets.

The Refrigerator Car and Mechanical Refrigeration

However, about the year 1870, perhaps the most important factor in retail meat distribution made its appearance, namely, the refrigerator car. This had a great influence upon the change in distribution methods. The former butcher was now able to buy dressed meat direct from the large packing houses, provided he did not want to buy it from his local slaughterer or packer. The problem of meat distribution became more simplified.

The old time butcher, however, did not look with very much. favor upon "western dressed" beef, and it is quite remarkable that even today, in certain eastern cities, some retailers are still prejudiced against western dressed beef. They point with pride to their signs reading that they sell only "city dressed" beef.

When the refrigerator car made its appearance, another valuable factor in meat distribution was being developed, namely, mechanical refrigeration. This enabled the large packing plants to market their products to greater advantage and it helped to equalize the great seasonal difference in supply and demand.



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