George M. Pullman and the Sleeping Car Business
By Richard Schneirov, Indiana State University
George M. Pullman was in many ways typical of the upwardly mobile, industrial entrepreneurs who came from the New England and New York to make Chicago the greatest industrial city of the world during the late nineteenth century. He was born in Albion, New York in 1831 and learned the carpentry trade from his father. Recently experienced in the business of house moving, he relocated to Chicago in 1855 because of the widespread need to raise existing buildings up to the recently elevated street grade. By the time he raised the four story Tremont Hotel in 1858 using a thousand men and five thousand jackscrews, the twenty-seven year old Pullman had become the leading businessman in his field and one of the young city’s most important citizens.
With house raising work almost completed in the city, Pullman turned to a new business that utilized his carpentry talents: constructing railroad sleeping cars. As railroad mileage tripled between 1850 and 1860, the uncomfortable conditions passengers endured on trips longer than a few hours became intolerable. Passenger cars were not built to cushion jolts; windows constantly rattled; in the winter, wood-burning stoves could fill the cars with smoke and caused accidents; and in the summer riders sweltered. It took three and a half days to travel from Chicago to New York, and a typical traveler resorted to hotels at night. The need for a sleeping car was widely understood, but at the time none were satisfactory. In 1858, Pullman began renovating existing sleeping cars for the Chicago and Alton Railroad. Eventually, he established a small crew and began building cars from scratch. In 1864, his crew built the classic sleeping car he called “The Pioneer.” With brocaded fabrics, hand-crafted window and door frames, plush red carpets, and richly ornamented paneling, the Pioneer was a study in luxury. It was also the turning point in Pullman’s rise to success.
Pullman’s luxurious sleeping car appealed to America’s fast growing wealthy class hungry for status and a new middle class that aspired to the same outward markers of social standing. Pullman shrewdly took advantage of this in his marketing strategy, which relied on quality of service and prestige rather than low prices. His first success came after President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, when he was able to use his business connections to have Lincoln’s casket transported in the Pioneer even though it required widening platforms at stations and raising bridges. He was able to win glowing accolades from prominent businessmen and citizens of standing like Ulysses Grant; he also placed the car on exhibit to the public, where thousands could view its virtues. Needing capital to expand his business, Pullman turned to railroad magnates and leading Chicago businessmen who saw the potential value of comfortable long distance railroad travel for well-to-do, including the prosperous middle class. They took up his private initial offering of one million dollars in stock in the new Pullman Palace Car Company in 1866. Shortly after, future steel baron Andrew Carnegie, representing a competing Eastern sleeping car interest, came in with Pullman. During the 1880s, Pullman out-competed his remaining rivals and became a virtual monopoly by the early 1890s.
Another of Pullman’s keys to business success was innovation and variety, which soon became essential to his corporate image. He tirelessly experimented in raising the standards in railroad travel and varied his sleeping cars to make each one somewhat different in interior ornamentation. In 1867 he rolled out the “Delmonico,” the first dining car—called a “hotel car”--with a kitchen at its center; it could serve 250 meals a day. In 1875 he built a luxurious “parlor car,” which offered an upscale traveling experience. Meanwhile, his designers continuously improved heating, ventilation, and lighting.
Throughout it all, Pullman’s appeal to the public rested on meticulous service. Pullman used the existing racial division of labor in hiring. White conductors collected tickets and sold berths en route. To perform menial work like carrying luggage, preparing the berths for use, cleaning the cars, and providing personal services to passengers, he hired African-American porters, many of them recently freed slaves. The conductors, who supervised the sleeping car porters, received white men’s wages; the porters received less than one-sixth the wages of conductors. Low wages kept them dependent on the tips and thus the good will of white passengers. Despite the servant-like position of porters, Pullman had a good reputation among blacks due to the secure jobs and relatively high income they provided.
In 1870, Pullman inaugurated his first manufacturing plant; by 1875 he employed between two hundred and six hundred men a year. Following the close of the 1873-79 depression, Pullman searched for a location to concentrate and enlarge his manufacturing operations. The result would be the town of Pullman.
- Stanley Buder, Pullman, An Experiment in Industrial Order and Community Planning, 1880-1930. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967.
- Susan Eleanor Hirsch, After the Strike: A Century of Labor Struggle at Pullman. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2003.
- Liston E. Leyendecker, Palace Car Prince: A Biography of George Mortimer Pullman. Niwot: University Press of Colorado, 1992.