Revisiting The Golden Age of Railroad Advertising
"I won my fame and wide acclaim
For Lackawanna's splendid name
By keeping snowy white
Upon the road of anthracite.”
These are the words of Phoebe Snow, a fictional character created by Earnest Elmo Calkins in the early 1900s to promote The Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad; the company used anthracite — an expensive, hard-variety coal that emits the least amount of volatile matter.
Advertising is often about two things — competing, and responding to the times. Since the beginning of commercial railroad travel in the 1830s, people expected to exit the coal-powered trains in soot-stained clothes. Phoebe Snow, a New York socialite whose fancy dress was always pure white, was meant to showcase the clean-burning properties of anthracite. At the time of her creation, the railroads were America’s main source of transportation, and they were fiercely locked in competition.
Soon, however, international conflicts disrupted the railroads’ control of long distance travel. Both World War I and World War II forced railroad companies to temporarily work for the United States government. Meanwhile, the aviation and automobile industries, which were just beginning to gain traction at the turn of the 20th century, suddenly blossomed. These unforeseen developments brought about unprecedented competition to railroad giants each time they were able to resume normal operations.
To keep up, railroads heavily invested in advertising throughout the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. In his 2011 book, Classic Railroad Advertising: Riding the Rails Again, Tad Burness calls this period in American history The Golden Age of Railroad Advertising: “The advent of the affordable private automobile, motor truck, bus, and airplane, gradually eroded railroad’s market share. Suddenly, faced with this competition, the railroads were compelled to enter a field they have never taken seriously before.”
In Proclaiming Airpower: Airforce Narratives and American Public Opinion from 1917 to 2014, Alan J. Vick notes: “Average people identified with flight and aviators, they routinely discussed aviation matters with friends and family, they avidly sought and shared information about aviation, and many became aviation advocates.” A lot of early airline ads focused on machinery; many were close-ups of the planes or a particular part of their build, a surprising number of them explained the planes’ inner workings.
Without missing a beat, railroads invested in new technologies throughout the 1930s, hoping to capitalize on America’s fascination with high-powered machinery. In 1934, for instance, Burlington, Chicago and Quincy introduced the diesel-powered Zephyr (named after the Greek God of Wind), while Union Pacific Railroad released the gasoline-powered M-10,000. According to an article from Duke University Library, Brief History of the U.S. Passenger Rail Industry:
“The Zephyr reflected a variety of technological advances: shot-welded stainless steel, a General Motors diesel engine with aerodynamic design, air-conditioning, and recessed fluorescent lighting in the passenger cars. The ‘streamlined’ stainless steel look of these two new trains influenced designs in architecture, consumer products (even streamlined coffins) and other types of transportation.”
Taking inspiration from aviation ads, railroad advertisements often consisted of images depicting the newfangled features and machinery. If before and after WWII, advertisements were colorful, elaborate, and printed on fine paper, during the war, they were minimalist, cost effective, and fairly straightforward. “Railroad advertising was aimed to show how they were supporting the war effort by demonstrating how new locomotives and facilities were operating efficiently.”
Around this time, the Lackawanna resurrected the ever popular Phoebe Snow. Starting in 1944, the beloved character was once again reeling off catchy jingles, but not about the clean-burning coal. “Gone were the debonair white hat and gown, also the pert bouquet of violets. The new Phoebe Snow — lovelier than ever — made her wartime debut bedecked in natty service uniform and jaunty overseas cap.” Because business picked up for the railroads during the war, her goal was to show people how Lackawanna was contributing and doing its part.
When WWII ended, William White (1897 — 1967), who guided the Lackawanna through the turbulent time, launched a new streamliner named after the fictional character, which began service in November of 1949. “The train was a marketing sensation and the railroad even hired a model to promote it. She became one of the most popular celebrities in New York City at the time as throngs of folks from large towns and small gathered to see the new streamliner when it debuted all along the Lackawanna's system.”
Revived by their efficacy during the war, railroad companies believed their streamliners would continue bringing in huge numbers of people, so “most executives were not prepared for the extent of decline in passenger travel that would occur over the next decade.” By the 1950s, railroads were losing market share to the airlines and automobiles. Due to erratic schedules, run down trains, and other issues, people rarely opted to travel by passenger train.
Furthermore, “advertising by the railroads was significantly less than by airlines: during the first seven years of the 1950s, airline advertising doubled, as compared to the drop of one-quarter in advertising by railroads.” By the late 1960s, most railroads were advertising their freight services since they was still generating revenue. In response, “a national rail passenger system — Amtrak — was created in 1971.” In the same tradition as its predecessors, Amtrak often advertises its railroad.
Early advertisements were often an appeal for people to travel by train instead of airplane or car. In the 1980s, for example, the company released a photo of a landscape seen at ground level with the words: “This time why not see America at see level.” In another add, Amtrak ad put it more bluntly: "Not Everyone Was Meant to Fly.” Today, the railroad still plays an important part in United States transit, “and, as expected, [is] accompanied by imaginative railroad advertising.”