In the 1920s, the Pullman Company was the largest single employer of African American men. From the 1870s through the 1960s, tens of thousands worked for Pullman as sleeping-car porters. The feeling of sleeping-car luxury came from the porter. He "made down" berths at night and "made up" the berths into seating in the morning, helped with luggage, shined passengers' shoes at night, and answered passengers' calls at any hour. Working 400 hours a month, porters earned better wages than most African Americans, but degrading conditions helped lead to the founding of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1925.
Pullman cars were almost all sleeping cars-i.e., cars that had day seating which was converted to sleeping berths at night. A ticket on a Pullman 'sleeper' cost significantly more than a ticket in a 'coach' or 'chair car'-a passenger had to pay both the railroad's basic coach fare, based on mileage, and the Pullman fare, which was accounted for separately. The cheapest Pullman ticket was for an upper berth in an 'open section.' Each section consisted of facing seats that converted into two berths. At night, the porter-one to a car-folded down ('made down') the berths and hung up heavy privacy curtains along each side of the center aisle of the car. Passengers could pay for more expensive Pullman accommodations, which ranged from private rooms with sink and toilet ('compartments') for one or two people up to 'drawing rooms' for the wealthy. Large bathrooms-one for men and a somewhat larger one for women-at each end of the car served as dressing rooms and, for men in the morning, shaving rooms. Pullman compartments and drawing rooms had their own toilet facilities. A shower was provided only in a private drawing room.
In the 1920s, the Pullman Co. boasted that it was the largest hotel operation in the U.S., accommodating up to 100,000 sleeping travelers each night.
The U.S. and Canada never had a European-style class system (such as the First-, 2nd-, and 3rd-Class on a British train). But in the U.S., the terms 'first-class,' 'sleeping-car,' and 'Pullman' were synonyms and used interchangeably in ordinary speech. Whereas the European class system on trains was based on aristocratic traditions (one's social class determined a traveler's class, no matter how much he or she was willing to pay), divisions among styles of travel in the U.S. were strictly economic.
But, of course, there was one glaring parallel in the U.S. to the European social-class system: Jim Crow. In the days of racial segregation in the American South, African Americans could only ride in the Jim Crow chair cars. That meant that blacks could not ride as passengers in Pullman cars in the South. (Go to the story of Dr. Charlotte Hawkins Brown, in "America On The Move.")
Pullman Co. owned and staffed its cars. Railroads that owned a given route, and thus owned and ran the trains, incorporated Pullman sleeping cars into all overnight trains on the route. On a passenger train, the operating railroad's conductor oversaw the train as a whole, while a Pullman conductor supervised porters on all his employer's cars and collected the Pullman fares. The Pullman Co. also operated parlor/lounge cars on trains that normally carried a large number of Pullman sleepers. (A typical overnight train might have from one to a dozen Pullman sleeping cars, depending on demand.)
Dining cars, however, were operated and staffed by the railroad (the company that owned the tracks and operated the trains). African Americans who were cooks and waiters on dining cars therefore worked for the railroad company, not for Pullman. Most parlor cars and lounge/observation cars were also railroad-owned.
On some railroads, a few trains noted for their luxury (such as the '20th-Century Limited' of the New York Central RR, the 'Broadway Limited' of the Pennsylvania RR, the 'Crescent Limited' of the Southern Railway, or the 'Chief' of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe) offered extra Pullman services - maids to attend ladies in dressing rooms, stenographic and secretarial services, and perhaps a barber shop and manicurist on-board.