The Windy City is among the world’s most cosmopolitan urban centers, offering a highly favorable climate for doing business, a lower cost of living than most other major metropolitan areas, and a skilled and innovative workforce. Since its early days as a swampy, lakeside town whose chief industry was the fur trade, Chicago has evolved into a significant force in the global economy.
Here are the stories of several famous businesses that were either born or got their “big break” in Chicago:
1) The McCormick Harvesting Machine Company
Cyrus McCormick improved on the design for a mechanical reaping machine first conceived by his father. In 1847, having already made and patented several improvements to his father’s design, McCormick moved to Chicago and opened his first factory. His workable mechanical reaper would go on to save time and labor costs for wheat farmers all over the world. During his first year of production, McCormick sold some 500 reapers, but he soon lost his hold on the patent.
McCormick decided at that point to simply outsell his many competitors. He pioneered the use of popular advertising, mass production, warranties, traveling public demonstrations, and extensions of credit to consumers. The McCormick reaper even became part of the showcase of world industrial production at London’s 1851 Great Exhibition, and took home the grand prize. At the turn of the 20th century, McCormick’s company combined with others to create the International Harvester Company.
2) The Pullman Palace Car Company
In 1867, George Pullman incorporated his Pullman Palace Car Company in Chicago. A novel improvement upon previous sleeping cars, the Pullman car was also suitable for use during the day. Pullman dining cars additionally contributed to greater efficiency, because conductors were no longer obliged to stop for passenger meal breaks. Redefining luxury rail travel, the amenities of the Pullman cars included sumptuously upholstered reclining seats, elaborate décor, electric lighting, exquisitely prepared gourmet foods, and state-of-the-art heating and cooling systems.
But in 1894, a strike by railroad workers protesting unfair labor conditions associated with Pullman vehicles led to violence, destruction of property, and a steep decline in passenger rail traffic. Despite this setback, Pullman’s company continued to manufacture sleeping cars into the early years of the 20th century.
3) Armour & Company
By the early 1880s, Armour & Company was Chicago’s largest employer, producing more than $17 million in meat products annually and providing jobs for nearly 4,000 employees during the height of the meatpacking season. In 1875, Philip Armour had arrived in Chicago to take over management of his family’s company. Under Armour’s direction, the company grew to become one of the United States’ most successful businesses. The company processed all portions of the animal, a practice that resulted in spin-off trade in gelatin, fertilizers, glue, and other products.
In the 1920s, the family lost control of the business, although Armour & Company continued to operate through the Great Depression and the years of World War II. But by the late 1950s, it had ceased its Chicago meat-slaughtering operations. A little over a decade later, the Greyhound Corp. bought the company and moved it to Arizona.
4) The William Wrigley Jr. Co.
William Wrigley Jr. came to Chicago in 1891, selling soaps and other personal care products. A year later, he began offering chewing gum to his customers through his partnership with the Zeno Manufacturing Co. After only five years, Wrigley’s profits from the endeavor had soared to more than $1 million. After incorporating the two companies under one brand in 1910, Wrigley saw his profit margin more than quadruple.
Through the close of the 20th century, Wrigley family members led the company. The introduction of innovative brands put Wrigley’s share of the domestic chewing gum market at about one-third by the end of the 1970s. At the start of the 21st century, the company held a dominant position in foreign markets and employed nearly 10,000 people around the globe.
5) The Kraft Heinz Company
In 2015, two iconic food-related brands combined under a single corporate identity, now known as The Kraft Heinz Company. But back in 1903, there was only James L. Kraft, a Canadian who opened a new Chicago business to deliver cheese. Kraft soon expanded his business to include cheese-making as well, and by the 1920s the company had grown to include overseas operations.
Over the succeeding generations, Kraft changed names as it partnered or merged with a succession of other food products suppliers. As a component of the National Dairy Products Corp. at mid-century, Kraft was part of one of the nation’s largest corporations, employing hundreds of people in Chicago alone. Philip Morris purchased Kraft in the late 1980s and expanded it internationally under the name Kraft Foods. Facilitated by top investor Warren Buffett, the brand next merged with Heinz, which resulted in the North American continent’s third-largest food and beverage company.