GREENWICH, N.Y. — Each city has certain characteristics that make it famous. Cincinnati, Ohio has several features that make it stand out. For some it is its German heritage which remains prevalent today or the city’s unique Cincinnati chili. The Pete Rose-led Cincinnati Reds baseball teams of the 1970s made the city a household name when they won several World Series titles. Nowadays the name perhaps brings Joe Burrow and the Cincinnati Bengals to mind. However, before any of these indicators came about the city was known for one thing: pigs. Throughout the 19th century Cincinnati was the nation’s predominant pork processing site that earned it the nickname “Porkopolis.”
Located in southwest Ohio, the city of Cincinnati was founded in 1788. The city grew as more settlers from states along the east coast began moving westward. Due to its position on the Ohio River, Cincinnati became an important trade center. Beginning in Pennsylvania, the Ohio River flows westward and eventually empties into the Mississippi River. This made Cincinnati a place where goods flowing from eastern and western regions and northern and southern regions would pass through. The construction of canals made Cincinnati an even greater crossroads of trade in the young United States. One of these goods that established itself in the city was pork.
Hog meat was a staple food in America at the time coming in the form of bacon and salt pork. Pigs were prevalent on American farms, especially for settlers moving westward as they were adaptable creatures that required relatively little care to rear. At first hogs would be let out to roam the largely forested lands of Ohio to feed on masts, the fruits and nuts produced by trees and shrubs. Yet as more settlement occurred and more forests were cut to create farmland corn became the main feed source for hogs.
As these changes were occurring in the landscape of early Ohio, Cincinnati was beginning to invest in meat packing. A man by the name of Elisha Mills opened the city’s first meat packing plant in 1818. In the subsequent decades more facilities sprang up in the city. In the mid-1820s Cincinnati processed 25,000-30,000 hogs each year and was making a name for itself as a packing site. By 1833 this number had increased to 85,000 pigs each year. In 1840 the city boasted 48 packing plants which employed 1,200 workers.
Until the early 1800s, farmers would slaughter, pack, and sell their own meat. However, it became more efficient to bring hogs to designated packing centers. Hogs were brought to Cincinnati from various locations. A large portion of Cincinnati’s business came from Southern plantations which would outsource their hogs to the region and in return import pork. The extensive waterways and canals around the city enabled hogs throughout Ohio and surrounding states to be brought to the city via water. Many farmers also walked their hogs to the city in annual hog drives.
Hog drives occurred in the late fall and involved farmers herding their herds of swine to the nearest meatpacking facility. These drives could last a few days up to several weeks with drovers staying in inns, taverns, and boarding houses along the way. Smaller towns came to depend on these annual visitors and some boarding residences had structures to house and feed pigs along with their owners.
Hog processing took place in the winter months because in the days prior to refrigeration the colder temperatures were needed to prevent the meat from spoiling. Packers worked hard from November to February to process and pack as much meat as possible before the arrival of spring stopped their work. With less duties in the winter many Cincinnati area farmers took jobs as packers during the season.
Packing plants were multi-level facilities. Hogs would be killed on the top level. As the carcasses made their way down descending levels various meats would be cut and packed and other useful parts of the animal would be removed as well. Working in an assembly line process packers became incredibly efficient being able to take apart an animal in about five minutes.
At its peak in the early 1860s Cincinnati meat packing employed 2,400 workers who processed 450,000-500,000 hogs each year. Pork exports went all over the world and represented about 10% of American exports. In addition to its location, the city focused on pork production because of the influx of German immigrants that arrived in the first half of the 19th century. By the 1850s roughly 40% of the city’s population was German and many worked in the processing plants. The German cuisine at the time preferred pork to beef, so the Germans not only worked in the pork industry but created more use of and enthusiasm for the product.
The pork industry also created other industries in the city through byproducts of the pig. Pig lard was turned into products like oil, candles, and soap. In the 1850s Cincinnati produced 1/5 of the U.S.’s lard oil. Hog bristles, bones, bladders, and hides could also be made into products like brushes, waterskins, and glue. Industries involved in the process prospered too such as coopering since pork production required barrels for the storing and transporting of meat.
Cincinnati’s nickname of “Porkopolis” is believed to have started in 1825 and is attributed to George W. Jones, president of the city’s branch of the United States bank. In a correspondence with a representative in Liverpool, England, Jones spoke with pride of Cincinnati’s pork production. In response the correspondent had two papier mâché pigs sent to Jones and said that he was a worthy representative of Porkopolis.
The nickname fit the city during this time as pigs in a sense ran the town during the packing season. Residents and visitors alike could not go far without seeing them as thousands of pigs were herded through city streets and could be found everywhere. A Harper’s Weekly story from the era described the droves in the city saying, “A drove once started on its journey is bound, at all hazards and against obstacles, to go through. What obstruction or inconvenience it may prove to vehicles in the street or the crowd of passers upon the sidewalk, is a consideration that troubles in no degree the heads of the contractor and his yelling and slashing gang of vagabonds. You may be splashed and run into, delayed and otherwise offended, upset, it may be.”
Visitors were sometimes quite shocked at pigs’ prevalence in the city. Nicholas Augustus Woods, a correspondent from The London Times, wrote of the scene in 1860. “They pervade the whole place—the very gutters are congested with them, and a sort of dull monotony of pigs is visible everywhere,” he wrote. “They come against you wherever you turn, from huge, black, muddy, unsightly monsters, down to little sucklings not much bigger than kittens, on which you inadvertently tread and stumble, amid shrill squeakings almost enough to blow you off your legs, and quite enough to alarm the neighbourhood…”
Similarly, another English visitor named Isabella Lucy Bird wrote in her book The Englishwoman in America, “…the Queen City bears the less elegant name of Porkopolis; that swine, lean, gaunt, and vicious looking, riot through her streets; and that, on coming out of the most splendid stores, one stumbles over these disgusting intruders. Cincinnati is the city of pigs. As there is a railway system and a hotel system, so there is also a pig system by which this place is marked out from any other…”
The persistent presence of the pigs had a few benefits as they would consume residents’ garbage and other refuse that could be found on the streets. There were also so many pork products that they were sometimes used in the place of money depending on the shop or market.
While the pork industry brought profits and prominence to Cincinnati it also caused some problems, mainly pollution. Leftover pig blood and parts that were not used were generally dumped into the rivers and creeks surrounding the city. As the industry grew these waterways became more and more putrid harming wildlife and occasionally causing disease outbreaks through water contamination. Also, the thousands of pigs that roamed the city’s streets produced tremendous amounts of feces and urine which one can imagine created a big stench.
Beginning the 1860s and into the 1870s Cincinnati’s reign as “Porkopolis” came to an end. The introduction and spread of railroads changed the practices of meat packing and made transport faster. More meat packing facilities came up along railroad lines meaning animals could be shipped to different locations than Cincinnati. Chicago became a Midwest railroad hub and this in part enabled that city to overtake Cincinnati as the pork packing capital of the country. The invention of refrigeration also meant that meat packing did not need to be near major transportation hubs. The Civil War disrupted Cincinnati’s operation as well since a large portion of its customers were Southern plantations.
While other cities became bigger producers, the pork industry remained a major industry and employer in Cincinnati for decades even as other mechanical industries took hold in the city. The Cincinnati Stockyards closed in 1980 officially ending the meat industry in the city. Nevertheless, the legacy of Porkopolis lives on today. The winged pig has become an unofficial symbol of the city and is featured on the entry gates of the city’s Bicentennial Commons. Some Cincinnati chefs feature pork in their dishes as a tribute. There are many other aspects of Cincinnati’s culture that pay homage to the city’s porcine past.
Chandler Hansen grew up and lives in Easton, NY. He is a graduate of Gordon College where he earned a bachelor’s degree in History. He serves as a writer and editor for Morning Ag Clips.