The Pullman Phenomenon

THE NAME OF ENGINEER GEORGE PULLMAN is still used to refer to the sleeping car he developed for rail passengers. He was the American “genius of the bed on wheels,” who destroyed all his competitors to establish a monopoly in the US by the end of the 19th century. As with many such legends, the original idea was not his, but Pullman made it his own.

It was inevitable that the first sleeping cars would be developed in the US rather than in Europe, as journey times were longer and trains were slower because of the sharper curves and higher grades of the tracks. At first, trains simply stopped for the night and passengers stayed in local hotels and inns. This was clearly both unsatisfactory and inefficient, so the first sleeping car was introduced on the Cumberland Valley Railroad in Pennsylvania in 1839. Unfortunately, it did not provide a comfortable night’s sleep. The sleeping accommodation consisted of a couple of cars, each with four sets of three-tiered berths. They were no more than hard boards without bedding or mattresses, which were then folded away during the day.


A few years later, the New York and Erie Railroad devised an equally uncomfortable solution. Two cars, known as “diamond cars” because of the shape of their windows, were equipped with iron rods that could be used to link facing seats to create a basic bed. The cushions were made of horsehair cloth that penetrated all but the thickest clothing and were invariably infested with all kinds of ravenous insect. As if that were not bad enough, the condition of the track, with its short, badly laid rails, made the experience akin to “sleeping on a runaway train,” according to one early passenger.

By the 1850s, matters had begun to improve. Several railroads advertised improved sleeping accommodation based on an idea by Webster Wagner, a stationmaster on the New York Central. He went on to found the Wagner Palace Car Company, a rival of Pullman. Wagner developed the idea of a coach with a single tier of berths and bedding closets at each end, a definite improvement on all its predecessors. Several other competitors emerged, building sleeping cars to a variety of designs. But it was Pullman who transformed nighttime travel on trains, making it not only comfortable but even respectable.

Like many railroad entrepreneurs, Pullman had already been successful in a different enterprise—that of moving houses (not their contents, the buildings themselves). Several low-lying houses in New York State were in the way of a planned extension to the Erie Canal, so Pullman, along with his father, contrived to move them to higher ground by putting them on wheels. Pullman then moved to Chicago, where he started a fledgling railcar business in 1858, building two cars for the Chicago and Alton Railroad that provided upper and lower sleeping berths.


The radical aspect of Pullman’s design was that the upper berth was suspended from the ceiling by ropes and pulleys. When not in use, it could be hauled up to the roof, leaving plenty of seating space during the day—unlike older designs, in which the bunk was fixed and made life uncomfortable for passengers when they were not in bed. Curtains around the berths created privacy, but these cars were still crude affairs. Candles provided lighting and a wood stove generated heat, but both were a great fire risk given the large number of flapping curtains. Each car accommodated 20 people, and blankets and pillows were provided, although not sheets. The experiment was successful. Soon the cars, which ran between Bloomington, Illinois, and Chicago, filled up every night. The only problem was dirty footwear. The conductors had to convince the male passengers—who were the majority of travelers at this time—to take off their boots at night so that they didn’t soil or damage the bedding. There was a great reluctance to do so, presumably because of fear of theft, so for many years every Pullman car carried notices politely requesting, “Please take off your boots before retiring.”


In 1861, in association with local authorities, Pullman supervised the raising of many of Chicago’s buildings in an attempt to improve the city’s street sewerage system. His most spectacular feat was the four-storey Tremont House Hotel, the tallest building in Chicago at the time. The hotel was in line for demolition, but Pullman devised a clever method to save it. He put the whole building on 5,000 jacks, then a team of 1,200 workers turned the screws 180° each time Pullman gave the signal. They successfully raised the hotel by 6ft (1.8m), while the house band continued playing and the hotel guests happily ate their lunch.

Perhaps raising the Tremont House Hotel helped to inspire Pullman to create a moving hotel for rail passengers. In 1863, he set about building what he claimed, with some justification, would be the finest and most luxurious sleeping car ever. Pullman had realized that he needed to attract the rich and famous, and his efforts were rewarded with good fortune. His new car, called the Pioneer, cost $20,000 to build, perhaps four times the cost of any other railroad car at the time. Mary Todd Lincoln, the First Lady, saw it on a visit in early 1865 and was enchanted by the style and elegance of the luxurious train, with its hand-carved seats and panels, and thick pile carpet. When she was called upon to organize the funeral of her assassinated husband a few months later, she remembered the car, and it was used as the hearse for the funeral procession along the Chicago and Alton Railroad.


The Pioneer attracted national attention, and soon Pullman began building cars for other railroad companies. Before long, many other railroad companies, such as the Michigan Central, the Burlington, and the Great Western, were attaching luxurious Pullman cars to their trains. Pullman’s company also sold the tickets for the berths, which cost 50 cents more than the railroad’s own sleeping accommodation, but were far superior. Passengers were carried in comfort in Pullman sleepers to almost every part of the US. The cars were all built to the same design, equipped for both day and night travel, and served by Pullman’s employees. It was a great business model, and highly profitable as Pullman did not have to pay any of the costs of hauling the trains or using the tracks.

Oddly, despite the luxurious surroundings, the Pullman cars were inferior to those in Europe in one key respect: they did not provide the same level of privacy. Pullman’s design was open plan, with makeshift folding seats, pull-down berths, only curtains for privacy, and nothing to stop a loud snorer from keeping the whole car awake. In Europe, compartments were retained, containing up to six beds on three levels, although a few open-plan cars were introduced for third-class passengers, notably on the Trans-Siberian Railway (see The Trans-Siberian Railway). The open-plan design survived in the US up until the second half of the 20th century, and can be seen in several famous scenes in the Billy Wilder classic comedy Some Like It Hot, starring Marilyn Monroe. Although the cars were popular, some commentators disapproved of such close-quarters living arrangements.


In 1867, Pullman developed a combination sleeping-and-eating car, with a kitchen at one end and removable tables set between the seats at mealtimes. Although this was not the first time that meals had been provided on board trains, the quality, Pullman’s selling point, was undoubtedly superior to anything that had gone before. Sugar-cured ham was 40 cents, a Welsh rarebit 50 cents, and steak with potatoes just 60 cents—cheap even at the time. Pullman was a great publicist and introduced his first hotel car on a journey around the eastern US from New York to Chicago that took seven days. Next, he put self-contained dining cars on trains. The first was called Delmonico, after an eminent restauranteur of that name. Pullman tried it out on the Chicago and Alton, his home railroad, on which he always tested his ideas. It was another great success, and Pullman subsequently both built dining cars for other railroads and operated them himself on some lines. The selection of meals for sale on the best trains was sumptuous. The hotel cars on the Chicago-Omaha service in the 1870s offered a choice of 15 seafood and fish dishes, together with 37 meat courses, including a huge variety of game. One only wonders how often the waiters had to say: “Sorry, that’s not available today.”

While Pullman’s customers greatly enjoyed the quality of service, it was a terrible idea to die on one of his trains. Pullman ruled that if a passenger passed away, the corpse had to be put off at the next station, regardless of whether the town had an undertaker, leaving the traveling companions of the deceased to deal with the situation. Fortunately, most of the attendants were more compassionate than Pullman, and would ensure the body was dispatched at one of the larger towns, where funeral facilities were more likely to be available.

Later, Pullman devised simpler cars, which were cheaper but still clean and comfortable with good service. Whatever the level of luxury, the attendants were always black and male, and all known as “George.” At first, they were not paid and relied on tips to earn a living. Although this changed later, tips remained a key part of their wages. It was a tough job, according to one historian: “a cross between a concierge, bellhop, valet, housekeeper, mechanic, babysitter, and security guard.” To make it tougher, Pullman sent inspectors incognito, to ensure that the attendants carried out their tasks properly. These inspectors would “mislay” jewelry, and the female ones would even make romantic overtures to tempt the attendants into breaking the rules. Attendants who failed to respond appropriately were fired instantly. Despite the many indignities, being an attendant was a stable and reasonably well-paid job, so was much sought-after.

By the early 1870s, Pullman had become, according to one railroad historian, “the foremost industrial name in the United States.” He was to remain so for more than 20 years. Pullmans were introduced in Europe and Asia, too, but it was the dining-car concept that really caught on. Pullman’s influence spread outside the US, though railroad companies tended to provide their own sleeping cars or use those of Pullman’s rival. Pullman’s cars also spawned the trend for luxury that was continued by the Palace on Wheels in India, the Blue Train in Africa, and most famously on the Orient Express (see The Orient Express).


The name of Pullman also lives on in a town he built east of Chicago to house the workers at his factory. The factory is long abandoned but the pleasant, well-laid-out houses survive. The housing, however, was a source of friction between Pullman and his employees. When the economic panic of 1893 reduced demand for new cars, Pullman announced layoffs in the factory, but refused to reduce the rents on the houses he provided for them. A bitter strike ensued and spread across the country after 250,000 railworkers joined the action in sympathy. Violence broke out in several cities across the US and the strike eventually collapsed, but it left a bitter legacy. Pullman’s reputation was so tarnished among workers that when he died, his family arranged for his remains to be placed in a lead-lined mahogany coffin, which was then sealed inside a block of concrete for fear that it would be dug up by angry trade unionists. It was not a comfortable end for a man who brought a good night’s sleep and a decent hot meal to millions of rail passengers.

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