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During the last three decades of the nineteenth century, several factors contributed to the transformation of the nation’s food supply from originating in regionally based economies to being mass-produced on a national scale. These included the increase in agricultural production, especially in the West; the building of a network of railroads throughout the country; and the rise of an unprecedented consumer market that bought 90 percent of what manufacturers produced (leaving little for export).
The country needed new ways of readying for market the great amounts of food being grown, because older systems could not handle the volume. Large companies that could afford to put money into new technologies for mass production began to dominate the food processing industry. The existence of railroads allowed these businesses to concentrate their efforts on making vast amounts of one product, or several related products, because they had the ability to bring in raw materials from afar and to ship their finished goods all over the country. Certain regions became known for specific production capabilities; for instance, Chicago became the center of the meatpacking industry.
Companies continued to produce the standards, such as flour, but consumers’ eagerness to buy encouraged entrepreneurs to invent new products for the table. For example, C. W. Post created Postum, a powdered beverage made of wheat bran, wheat, and molasses, as a substitute for coffee in 1895.
Corporations’ advertising materials, such as trade cards, often featured illustrations of their factories, the site of the new food processing. The sprawling complexes were not believed to be ugly (as we might now consider them) but were seen as signs of the progress of industrialization. Manufacturers were incredibly proud of their expansion and capacity for production. They sought to impress customers with the size of their operation, believing it indicated the quality of their products. Notably, smokestacks, which always seem to be spouting dark fumes over the factories, did not bring to mind pollution, as they would today, but the furious activity inside the buildings.