People’s Palaces on Wheels

“WE ARE REMINDED by a prophecy which we heard some three years since,” the Illinois Journal reported on May 30, 1865, “that the time was not far distant when a radical change would be introduced in the manner of constructing railroad cars; the public would travel upon them with as much ease as though sitting in their parlors, and sleep and eat on board of them with more ease and comfort than it would be possible to do on a first-class steamer. We believed the words of the seer at the time, but did not think they were so near fulfillment until Friday last, when we were invited to the Chicago & Alton depot in this city to examine an improved sleeping-car, manufactured by Messrs. Field & Pullman, patentees, after a design by George M. Pullman, Esq., Chicago.” Pullman’s railroad sleeping coach was marvelously embellished with window curtains looped in heavy folds, the richest Brussels carpeting, black walnut woodwork, French plate mirrors suspended from the walls, and beautiful chandeliers with “exquisitely ground shades” hanging from a ceiling “painted with chaste and elaborate design upon a delicately tinted azure ground.” Americans had devised magical new ways to enjoy the comforts of home while on the move.

GEORGE PULLMAN (whom we have already met as the builder of a model company town), like Swift and Armour, was himself a man on the move. Born in far-western New York, he attended school until he was fourteen, then worked with his brother as a cabinetmaker in Albion, New York, a village on the Erie Canal. When the canal was to be widened, Pullman helped move the warehouses to prepare the way. Arriving in Chicago in 1855 at the age of twenty-four, he signed an unusual contract to help solve the city’s problem of water-logged streets. And he was much admired for his feat of raising several blocks of brick and stone buildings, including the elegant Tremont House, to a new street level, while allowing the owners to carry on business as usual. In 1858 he made his first experiments with the railroad sleeping car; he improved two standard coaches at a cost of $1,000 each, with a generous use of cherry wood and plush. After succumbing briefly to the lure of the newly discovered Colorado gold fields, in 1863 Pullman took the earnings from the general store he had been running in one of the new mining towns and returned to Chicago. Perhaps remembering the fold-up bunks he had seen in the congested miners’ cabins, he resumed his efforts to improve the sleeping car. This time he replaced his original scheme of stowing the passengers on shelves hung directly from the ceiling by devising an “upper berth” made of a hinged flap that fitted against the wall in daytime; he then improved the lower berth so that the facing seats would slide together at night to form a bed. With a new standard of luxury for furnishings, the finished car cost over $20,000. Pullman called this car the “Pioneer A”; the letter “A” suggested that there might be as many as twenty-five more.

But Pullman’s bold and spacious design had produced a car higher and wider, than the existing station platforms and bridges would allow. He believed that the appeal of his cars would lead the companies to widen the clearance along their lines and at the stations. The first important step in this direction came when the “Pioneer” was attached to the funeral train that carried the body of Lincoln from Chicago to Springfield in April 1865. A few years later, when the “Pioneer” was engaged to take President Grant from Detroit to his hometown of Galena, Illinois, the clearance on that way, too, was widened. Alterations were then made along other lines to accommodate “Pioneer”-sized railroad cars, until the Pullman dimensions for height and width became standard. The demand for Pullman accommodations incidentally increased the demand for a uniform railroad gauge so that a passenger could be carried from anywhere to anywhere else in parlor comfort.

The idea of a luxury sleeping car was not new. At least a hundred earlier inventors had contributed to the development. The most famous luxury car at the time was the train impérial which a French railroad company had built to honor Napoleon III in 1857. The product of a collaboration of the best French engineers, architects, and designers, it dazzled the world with a wagon d’honneur, a dining car, a sleeping car, and an open observation car. Eight years later Pullman was offering an American counterpart. But here imperial luxury was not to be reserved for emperors.

If Pullman’s enterprise was to succeed he would have to democratize the luxury of comfortable travel. And he had the combination of talents to do the job. Like Henry Ford a half-century later, Pullman had the instinct “for stirring the dormant fancies of the public until they grew into demands.”

Pullman became the Barnum of the railroad world as he planned tour spectaculars to dramatize the delights of “Pullman” travel. He invited a carload of prominent excursionists to take a complimentary trip on his first “Pioneer”; and in return they provided testimonials that Pullman travel was “superior to any that we have ever inspected!” They especially noted “that a daily change of linen is made in the berths of this new carriage, thereby keeping them constantly clean and comfortable, and rendering the car much more attractive than are similar carriages where this is neglected.” In May 1870, only one year after the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific had joined into the first transcontinental railroad, a special Pullman excursion took the Boston Board of Trade to California on the first through train ride from coast to coast. On the sixth day out, the train’s daily newspaper, The Trans-Continental, reported that as the train was crossing the summit of the Sierra Nevadas, a resolution was passed by the notable Bostonians meeting in the smoking car. After expressing their delight at watching the whole continent unfold out the windows of “this beautiful and commodious moving hotel,” they resolved “that there will be no delay in placing the elegant and homelike carriages upon the principal routes in the New England States, and we will do all in our power to accomplish this end.”

Once again, as with the first explorers, with the framers of the Constitution, with the rendezvousing fur traders, and the cattle-country trailblazers, the vastness and variety of the continent had stirred and tested the talents of great organizers. For Pullman’s “beautiful and commodious moving hotel” to roll smoothly across the continent, it had been necessary for George M. Pullman to collect the capital and construct scores of luxury sleeping cars at unprecedented cost, then arrange the widening of station platforms all over the nation, and see to the replacement of scores of variant railroad gauges by a single national standard. In addition to all this, of course, he had to recruit his own army of conductors and moving-hotel attendants, ready and able to respond to travelers’ whims. Pullman was motivated in all this by his faith that there was a vast American market for luxuries for everybody.

THE SLEEPING-CAR LUXURY that the French had prepared for their emperor, and that in Europe would be reserved for the rich, was destined from its American beginnings to attain a wider, more democratic reach. Pullman was eager to submit his car to the verdict of the public. Would enough Americans be willing to pay $2 a night to sleep in an expensive and luxurious moving hotel? Would the market justify building and organizing hundreds of Pullman cars to race around the continent? Pullman finally persuaded the Michigan Central to test the market by running a few of his luxury cars on the same lines where their crude sleeping cars were already familiar to the public (at $1.50 per night). The public demand for Pullmans was overwhelming, and the only complaints came from the passengers who could not get a luxury berth for their extra fifty cents. Soon the Michigan Central withdrew the older cars, and made Pullman their standard. Then one line after another found that much of their valuable passenger traffic depended on their ability to offer Pullman-luxury.

The success of the Pullman car was another sign that by the late nineteenth century, American mass production was becoming the effort to produce mass luxury. Americans were willing to pay more for the enticingly new. “Then followed a curious reversal of the usual results of competition,” a railroad man of the day remarked with surprise. “Instead of levelling down to the cheaper basis on which all opposition [to Pullman] was united, there was a levelling up to the standard on which the Pullman service was planted and on which it stood out single-handed and alone.”

The long-distance luxury sleeping car brought into being another democratized luxury—the dining car. As early as 1867, the Detroit Commercial Advertiser declared “the crowning glory of Mr. Pullman’s invention” to be the “cuisine department containing a range where every variety of meats, vegetables and pastry may be cooked on the car, according to the best style of culinary art.” Pullman’s first separate dining car, the “Delmonico,” went into operation in 1868. The inexpensive “quick-lunch” at the station counter, a characteristically American by-product of the railroads which had so annoyed European travelers, now had competition from a luxury “diner” (a new word which had entered the American language before 1890) offering meals at leisure. Pullman’s improved design replaced the earliest dining-car arrangement, which had been an open baggage car with a table or counter down the center. The new dining car offered seats arranged like those in the sleeping cars at opposite sides of newly designed individual tables, which swung up from the wall of the car.

Now that there was a place for passengers to eat on board, they had to be able to walk safely back and forth from one car to another for their meals. Crossing the open vestibule of a fast-moving train on a bumpy track was risky. The answer was Pullman’s improved “vestibule” train, which he patented in 1887. Elastic diaphragms on steel frames were attached to the ends of the cars, so that the faces of the diaphragms on adjacent cars were pressed firmly against each other by powerful spiral springs. And this flexible cover-way remained sealed even on sharp curves. Incidentally, in case of a wreck, it helped prevent the telescoping of cars, and also added to the passenger’s comfort by reducing the oscillation of the cars at high speeds.

When George M. Pullman incorporated his sleeping-car company he christened it the Pullman Palace Car Company. For it was the age of the People’s Palace—the American hotel. And Pullman actually called his first sleepers “hotel-cars” He had put the People’s Palace on wheels, with many of the same consequences for the traveler that the hotel had for the city booster and city dweller. While the European sleeping car was from the beginning a series of closed compartments, the American Pullman sleeping car at least until the 1950’s remained open in such a way that passengers could freely move about in daytime; each person had the comforting vista of his fellow passengers, and the opportunity for sociable conversation. The washrooms and smoking rooms became proverbial American mixing rooms, the locale for latter-day tall talk. The early European trains were divided into first and second class, but American carriages were orginally separated only into cars for men and cars for women.

The Pullman sleeping car democratized comfort, but did not universalize it. Pullman aimed to offer his luxury for the price of a night in a good hotel. There still remained an uncomfortable distinction between those who sat up all night in an ordinary coach, and those who could afford the price of a Pullman. But in the United States the price of a sleeper was considerably lower than in the Old World, and the comfortable places were much more numerous. In an age when European nations had not yet overcome the distinctions of the hereditary, money-inheriting aristocracy, the United States was providing its new comforts for a Democracy (and perhaps, too, an Aristocracy) of Cash.

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