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The Absolute All-american Civilizer

July 2024
6min read

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.

Not long ago I received a very angry letter from an old friend. It was a response to my suggestion that liberal arts colleges might give students some instruction in technology; that is, give them some feeling for how the world they are living in works. My friend’s argument was that from the Love Canal to Three Mile Island, and from the grid locks of Manhattan to the boeuf bourguignon on the plastic airline trays, the technological world was not working very well and never would. To explain its necessary malfunctions to the young would do no more than contaminate the view of things put forward in the Platonic Dialogues, Restoration comedies, and whatever other subjects undergraduates were studying these days. The fact was, so the argument ran, that while technological advance increased the Gross National Product and created a glut of creature comforts, it worked inevitably against decency and our saving graces. The thing to do was to stay as far away from it as possible.

My friend is not alone and, in the diagnosis, may even be right. For instance, much of our social intercourse does seem as temporary and meretricious as the plastic surroundings in which it takes place. And the dialyzer and the CAT-scan do seem to drive out the need for the indispensable TLC that supplied so much of the therapeutic energy in the days when medicine couldn’t offer much else. And so on and on.

This is not a contemporary finding. Ancestral voices from Plato to Orwell have been saying much the same thing, pointing out, one way or another, that, as Matthew Arnold said directly, coal, iron, and railroads do not produce much sweetness and light.

They may all be right, and at times it certainly seems so. Yet it is hard to believe that the fault eroding our better selves lies, if not in our stars, at least in our satellites and their supporting technology. But it seems equally hard to believe, as some of my other friends assure me is the case, that the way to an improved quality of life is simply through more and better engineering. If the choice has to be between walking away from the machinery we now have or the finer tuning of some new instrumentation, it may be time to look for another way out.

A place to start, I would suggest, is in the smoking compartments of the old Pullman cars. I came to know them well during my boyhood trips between the LaSalle Street Station in Chicago and the South Station in Boston. It was in these compartments, as some will remember, that the male passengers prepared themselves to face the day.

They came in, bearing over their left arms their suit coats, shirts, and ties; these they carefully hung on the rows of surrounding hooks. They then sat down on the benches to await the availability of the water closet and of those shining bowls and mirrors that lined the walls. On this occasion there was none of the continuing anecdote and exchange of confidential information that filled the air later in the day. It was early on, serious business was going forward, and it was a time for patience. When their turn came, they took their place, swaying slightly with the movement of the car, in undershirts, suspenders dangling from the trouser waist, and started on their ablutions. First the brush, the shaving soap, the straight-edged razor taken from the small, neat, leather boxes. Then the shaving, the swabbing of the face, arms, and armpits, the washing of the hands and the cleaning of the nails. And then the application of unguents and facial tonics with deft strokes and exhilarating slaps. Finally, as my father had told me must be done, the wiping out, before disposing of the towel, of the shining metal bowl, and the drying off of the surrounding counter space in preparation for the next in line.


To one for whom, at the time, a simple splash of cold water would serve the needs of the next twenty-four hours, the whole procedure was an altogether astonishing performance. And to one who later spent time in the plumbing facilities of locker rooms, dormitories, naval indoctrination schools, and airports, it remains the demonstration of a singular order and decorum.

I have begun at the homely end of things. There is the larger topic of the car itself. Taken as an engineering construction, it was, first, an assembly of wheels, journal boxes, air brakes, couplings, pipes, wires, and steel plates to do work. Second, it was a masterful organization of spaces to fit the nature of the work required—the transportation of people from here to there by day and by night. Third, the space was filled with devices and appointments that made the work go forward with efficiency and convenience—the section that provided expeditious conversion of seats to beds, the circulating fans, the well-placed lights, the ladder to the upper berth, the little hammocks for small clothes and sundries, and those tough, green baize curtains that shrouded the made-up berths. Here was a structure that, in general scheme and in detail, satisfied equally the requirements for mechanical efficiencies, the claims of creature comforts, and the rights of passengers to a reasonable privacy.


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 All-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.

The object is to amplify a weak signal from the past.

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