Home Adrift: Women and Domesticated Rail Travel

by Amy G. Richter

Pullman porter car from Scribner’s Magazine, September 1888In the summer of 1869 Godey’s Lady’s Book published an editorial marking the completion of the transcontinental railroad. The author praised the new “wonder of the world” and then clarified that “this great work was begun, carried on and completed by men only. No woman has laid a rail: no woman has made a survey. The muscular force and the intellectual guidance have come alike from men.” Likewise, historians have long portrayed railroads as sites of manly power. Familiar railroad stories celebrate the heroics of industrial labor, technological invention, business innovation, and political determination. And so it is a bit surprising that Godey’s went on to assert that the railroad was not an exclusively masculine accomplishment. The editorial explained, “The great works of modern civilization, the Pacific Railway, for example, are chiefly made in the interest of those humane and peaceful employments in which the feminine element is so prominent; for the advancement of trade, the intercourse of friends, the binding together of the nation.” Thus the leading women’s magazine of the nineteenth century made the case for femininity’s place in the history of the American railroad.[1]

Godey’s was right. If the American railroad was “manly” because of the power of its engines and the bravery of brakemen and engineers, it was also “feminine” because of the domesticity of its parlor cars and the refinement expected of female passengers. Lesser-known railroad stories reveal that the railroad was permeated by womanly influence. Again and again passengers used the language of home—woman’s domain—to describe their experiences aboard. A railroad car was a “flying drawing-room,” a “parlor of ease,” a “home adrift,” even a “huge cradle which had so gently lulled us through the night.” The presence of women justified and encouraged such metaphors. When Mrs. Frank Leslie departed New York for San Francisco in 1877 in a Wagner Palace Car she immediately proclaimed it a “charming little residence.” She decided the car “shall be called a home, and very soon assumed the pleasant aspect of the word, as the bouquets, shawls, rugs, sofa-cushions, and various personalities of the three ladies of the party were developed and arranged around a table . . . to represent the general salon.” Susie Clark, traveling from Boston to San Francisco in 1890, admired “the trains [that] furnish every feature of a home but its usual stationary quality” and happily compared her sleeping berth to her “familiar home nest.”[2]

Despite nineteenth-century Americans’ tendency to associate women with the private sphere, there was nothing implicitly subversive about a woman’s decision to travel. Traveling as wives, mothers, and daughters, white middle-class and elite women bound themselves in family ties to maintain respectability while out in public. Between 1879 and 1898, Meta Du Pont Coleman traveled annually from her home in Louisville, Kentucky, to her grandmother’s home in Wilmington, Delaware. Her correspondence captures how familial connections tempered the seeming freedom of women’s rail travel and transported domestic identities into the cars. In one of the many letters Coleman wrote to her grandmother, she explained, “I fortunately got your postal written just a moment before the train moved off. I rushed to the door and asked the porter if he would mail it for me.” Later in life, Coleman traveled as a young mother. Writing to her husband in 1890, she wished “that you could see the baby on the train.” Reporting that he “did not cry once,” Coleman asked her husband, “Don’t you think we are blessed with such a good baby?”[3] Such accounts suggest how the manly railroad was also an important and acceptable public space for women and traditional femininity.

Women like Coleman were not alone in imagining railroad cars as extensions of the domestic sphere. By the 1880s, railroad companies routinely boasted of their trains’ homelike amenities and atmosphere. A brochure for the Pennsylvania Railroad praised the “harmonious colors . . . snowy linen, cut glass and silver” of one of its dining cars. Other railway guidebooks offered descriptions of fine woods, elaborate hangings, rich upholstery, and comfortable furnishings. As early as 1853, Scientific American described a new car built for the Hudson River Railroad “furnished with a sofa, four chairs, a looking glass and a small center table”—the essential pieces of a home parlor. The inclusion of domestic goods reflected a desire to imbue rail travel with the values of home, often in the name of making ladies comfortable aboard. In 1882, The Pacific Tourist and Guide for Travel across the Continent assured readers, “One lives at home in the Palace Car with as much true enjoyment as in the home drawing room. . . . The little section and berth allotted to you, so neat and clean, so nicely kept becomes your home. Here you sit and read, play your games, indulge in social conversation and glee.” After the invention of the vestibule reduced the danger of passing between cars, travelers were encouraged to imagine entire trains as single homes. The Pullman Company, for example, invited passengers to “pass from [their] dining-room to [their] sitting-room, or to [their] sleeping-room, as in [their] own home.”[4]

The domesticated train enhanced the manly achievements of rail travel by offering passengers a clear symbol of progress, particularly on a transcontinental trip. In railway cars, the trappings of home—sideboards, upholstery, rugs, and paneling—stood for technological and national advancement coupled with a value system that emphasized moral conduct, politeness, and civility. Railroad companies and passengers frequently invoked the image of a long line of railcars moving through the western landscape to convey the unique nature of American progress. In the words of New England Magazine, “Civilization has literally rolled across the continent.” Anna Dickinson recalled standing on the rear platform and wondering at the “odd contrast” between “the steam wonder, cultured growth of brains and civilization, epitome of thought and mechanism” and the “flashes of lightning across the limitless spaces we are crossing.” The Pacific Tourist and Guide for Travel across the Continent echoed Dickinson: “Standing at the rear of the train, and with all the doors open there is an unobstructed view along the aisles through the entire length. On either side of the train are the prairies, where the eye sees nothing but wildness, and even desolation, then looking back upon this long aisle or avenue, [the passenger] sees civilization and comfort and luxury. How sharp a contrast.” [5]

Juxtaposing domestic comfort and technological power, civilization and wilderness, a transcontinental journey seemed to embody the best of American life. When members of the Boston Board of Trade undertook the “first through entire train” excursion from Boston to San Francisco in 1870, they published their own newspaper, The Transcontinental, aboard the cars. The first issue announced that the party carried “a bottle of sea water [from the Massachusetts Bay] . . . to be taken to San Francisco and there emptied into the Pacific Ocean.” Almost half the passengers were women—most recorded on the passenger list as “and wife”—and their efforts to add homey touches to the train were reported as news. En route the passengers marveled at the library cars, the Burdett organs, and other domestic amenities. Their sense of awe was enhanced by the realization that the domestic scenes of singing and games of leapfrog took place in the midst of an unfamiliar western landscape, “all while traveling forty miles an hour.”[6]

Ironically, the domestication of rail travel permitted respectable women to step beyond the domestic sphere, to encounter unfamiliar landscapes, and to be transformed by new experiences. Women took pride in their ability to negotiate train schedules, check luggage, and interact with strangers. They recorded the excitement of high speeds and the adventure of washed-out bridges. Many wrote to their families and displayed a new worldliness—even a willingness to break the rules of respectable femininity. Martha Lawrence, for example, described the Native Americans who gathered at western railway stations and compared her observations against familiar depictions in photographs and popular novels: “The wigwams look just like the pictures of them look only they [the pictures] don’t show the dirt.” And as Susie Clark’s train neared the Sierra Nevada Mountains one night, she and her companions climbed out to the rear platform. Standing there, clinging to the brake wheel “for several miles, we were lost to all but the sublimity of the wild mountain pass.” Crossing the Rocky Mountains inspired a new understanding in Anna Dickinson. In florid prose she addressed her readers, “If thou hast ever breathed the elixir of this air, and felt nerve and blood thrill within thee, thou wilt long for it, many and many a time thereafter, through all thy days, as one who having known life, can never be altogether satisfied with the conditions of semi-death.”[7]

If the domesticated train reflected efforts to integrate respectable women into the public life of rail travel, it also offered a new way of separating and stratifying passengers: using domestic amenities to mark boundaries of class and race. Beginning in the 1850s, emigrant cars were unadorned boxcars with windows. Passengers were given bare wooden berths upon which they could place their bedding and stoves to cook their own food. By the 1880s, some emigrant cars had evolved into “tourist sleepers”—scaled-down versions of more luxurious and expensive sleeping cars. An article on “The Comforts of Railroad Travel” offered a “look into the second-class tourist cars of a transcontinental flyer at a prairie station” where “whole families bound for Rocky Mountain resorts loll about on the wicker or leather seats; one or two people are heating coffee on the range at the end of the car; three or four straw-hatted men are clustered smoking on the vestibule platforms; heads project from open windows; everybody is happy.” And yet for Godey’s not all female travelers required the comforts of civilized domesticity and instead needed the uplifting influence of hardship and struggle. Writing about these improved accommodations, Godey’s Lady’s Book fretted that even modest amenities in emigrant cars removed all hardship from the long transcontinental journey. The covered wagon had “filled the great West with its self-reliant and hardy population; and perhaps it developed some fine qualities, which the [emigrant] family car, with its ease and convenience, may fail to bring out.”[8]

African American women faced still another struggle aboard. Even with a first-class ticket, they were routinely excluded from the pleasures and safety of domesticated rail travel. In Mary Church Terrell’s words: “There are few ordeals more nerve-racking than the one which confronts a colored woman when she tries to secure a Pullman reservation in the South and even in some parts of the North.” Black women fared little better in the West. In 1870 Anna Williams was denied entry into a ladies’ car at the Rockford, Illinois, station of the Chicago & Northwestern Railway. She sued the railroad and won. Nonetheless, African American women could not count on their inclusion, and the 1890s saw a rise in racially segregated accommodations. At the 1899 National American Woman Suffrage Association meeting in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Lottie Wilson Jackson proposed a resolution: “That colored women ought not to be compelled to ride in smoking cars, and that suitable accommodations should be provided for them.”[9] Jackson explained how dirty cars and rowdy passengers prevented black women from traveling freely. The predominately white association rejected the resolution.

Even as women of different classes and races traveled the rails alongside men, popular culture continued to suggest that women were out of place aboard the trains. A book of railroad anecdotes published in 1871 asked readers, “Why is a fine woman like a locomotive?” The answer: “Because she draws a train after her, scatters the sparks, and transports the males.”[10] Many similar jokes circulated in the popular literature of the time. Visual puns playing on the trains of ladies’ dresses and trains of railroad cars appeared on sheet music and as the punch line of cartoons. The juxtaposition of women and the railroad was clearly funny. But taking the experiences of women passengers seriously shifts our understanding of the railroad as a symbol of late nineteenth-century America. The railroads emerge as a space connected not only to home life, but to the values of domesticity associated with womanly refinement and respectability. They become a site of transformative experience in which women tested their abilities beyond the home. The domesticated train also provided a new language for talking about class and racial differences and for marking them in public. In short, aboard the railroad, nineteenth-century Americans redrew the boundaries of public life as they crisscrossed the nation.

[1] “The Pacific Railroad,” Godey’s Lady’s Book, August 1869, 175.

[2] Miriam Florence Leslie, California: A Pleasure Trip from Gotham to the Golden Gate (New York: G.W. Carleton, 1877), 19 and Susie Clark, The Round Trip: From the Hub to the Golden Gate (Boston: Lee and Shepard Publishers, 1890), 5, 8.

[3] Margaretta E. Du Pont Coleman to Margaretta E. Lammot Du Pont, March 1, 1885, and Margaretta E. Du Pont Coleman to Bannen Coleman, August 13, 1899, both in the Margaretta E. Du Pont Coleman Collection, Hagley Museum and Library, Wilmington, Delaware.

[4] Pennsylvania R.R. Around the World via Washington and Transcontinental America, Warshaw Collection, National Museum of American History, Washington DC; Scientific American cited in August Mencken, The Railroad Passenger Car (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Press, 1957), 17; Frederick Shearer, The Pacific Tourist and Guide for Travel across the Continent (New York: J. R. Bowman, 1882), 5–6; Pullman Company, The Story of Pullman (Chicago: Blakely and Rogers, 1893), 12.

[5] E. W. Sanborn, “In the Pullman Car,” New England Magazine, June 1895, 472; Anna Dickinson, A Ragged Register (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1879), 32; Shearer, The Pacific Tourist and Guide for Travel, 6.

[6] Transcontinental, Volume 1, numbers 1–12, was published daily aboard the Pullman Hotel Express between Boston and San Francisco from May 23 to July 4, 1870. The newspaper seems to have terminated with the journey.

[7] Martha Lawrence to Harrison and Cinthia Lawrence, April 7, 1876, Harrison Lawrence Family Correspondence, Western America Collection, Beinecke Library, Yale University; Clark, The Round Trip, 67; Dickinson, A Ragged Register, 30.

[8] M. G. Cunniff, “The Comforts of Railroad Travel,” World’s Work, June 1903, 3577; “The Family Car,” Godey’s Lady’s Book, June 1874, 563.

[9] Mary Church Terrell, A Colored Woman in a White World (Washington, DC: Ransdell, 1940), 295, quoted in Aileen Kraditor, Ideas of the Woman’s Suffrage Movement (New York: W. W. Norton, 1981), 170.

[10] The Railway Anecdote Book: A Collection of Anecdotes and Incidents of Travel by River and Rail (New York: D. Appleton, 1871), 97.

Amy G. Richter is Associate Professor of History at Clark University, where she teaches US women’s, urban, and cultural history. She is the author of Home on the Rails: Women, the Railroad, and the Rise of Public Domesticity (2005).

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