- Historic Sites
The Absolute All-american Civilizer
A lot of people still remember how great it was to ride in the old Pullmans, how curiously regal to have a simple, well-cooked meal in the dining car. Those memories are perfectly accurate—and that lost pleasure holds a lesson for us that extends beyond mere nostalgia.
June/july 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 4
Built in, around, and upon this structure was a system of service that took into account both the physical characteristics determined,by the car and the character of the transported cargo. It began at the entry step with the greeting, the portable stool, and the transfer of responsibility for luggage to the porter, and ended with the final flourish of the whisk broom and the settling of the topcoat on the shoulders at departure. In between was the polishing of men’s shoes during the night, the paper envelopes for women’s hats, the making up of the berth at the individual demand, and, at the ring of a bell, the provision of food, drink, playing cards, and a table to set them on. The ride by Pullman, quite aside from those magical moments that used to happen to anyone going anywhere, was an experience in what might be called straightforward care and refinement.
With the passage from the Pullman to the dining car, there was an impressive continuation of the condition of things. Here again was a technical structure to do work—the rapid preparation and distribution of food in a confined space. And here again there was a tone for the whole operation established by nice arrangement and regulated service procedures. In the fresh linen, the substantial chinaware, and the solid cutlery of simple design, there was a no-nonsense elegance appropriate to time and place. And, following the opening act of prestidigitation by which the new tablecloth replaced the old one without appearing to disturb the sugar bowl, the salt and pepper shakers, the menu holder, and the carnation in the vase, there was the ordering of food and the serving of it with neatness and dispatch. And then there was the food itself—no attempt to borrow distinction (never really achieved anyway) from haute cuisine or Szechwan, but the authentic, homegrown stuff: ham and eggs, beef, lamb chops, Idaho bakers, chocolate ice cream, baked apple. What counted was quality—U. S. Prime cross the board—and the preparation: roasting, frying, and grilling done to the required turn.
The object here has been to amplify, without undue reliance on nostalgic connotation, a weak but significant signal from the past. The message is that a technological advance does not always and necessarily shrink the’ human potential until it fits only into performance characteristics of the mechanism.
The technological advance can also, if sufficient thought is given to its uses, serve as a means to improve and expand that potential. So much was apparent to an English observer who reported that travel by Pullman was an “absolute civilizer [encouraging] social amenities, aesthetic tastes and the refinements of life.”
New instrumentation has been called everything from a source of increased efficiency in operations to a state-of-the-art breakthrough, but it is a long time since it has been said to be a civilizing influence. This effect was not achieved in a night and a day. The sleeping car began to take shape in the time of Jacksonian Democracy and what was called the Republican Principle, which held that anybody was as good as everybody else. In accordance with this finding, reinforced by an interest in operating economies, the early cars were built so that as many men as possible could share in the equality of the accommodations, furnished at the lowest possible price. The result was something like one of the later cattle cars, and there was much satirical grumbling at “being herded together in this modern improvement.”
Not surprisingly, the claims of the Republican Principle began to wear a little thin for those able and willing to pay for a more attractive alternative. In response to their demand, and in a rather dramatic overreaction to the previous state of things, cars were then conceived in the high baroque and made to look like ducal suites in the grand hotels at any one of the European spas.
A good many years of thought and experiment were taken in finding the desirable mean between the cattle car and the ducal suite. It was an evolutionary process stimulated toward its end by the vision and hard-nosed calculation of one man and secured in its course by what looked a good deal like a monopoly. In the end, the sleepers and diners were a shrewd and pleasing compromise between George Pullman’s feeling for attractive surroundings, the characteristics of the rolling stock, and the needs and financial capacities of the ordinary traveler. What was finally built upon this technological advance was a controlling style for a common human experience. That style set a standard for mechanical efficiencies, established a tone for appealing surroundings and appropriate services, and gave a defining expression to national attitudes that was as authentically American as the baked apple in the dining car. It was in fact an absolute civilizer, an Ail-American style, since by the time the railroads got to the end of the line as a prime mover, the charge for riding in the Pullmans was only .07 cents a mile more than the coach fare.
The moral is, or one hopes it may be, that while the machinery will get you if you don’t watch out, it can be controlled to serve a civilizing scheme if you take the time and trouble to devise one.