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America on the Move
Collection Exhibition Themes
Porter making down a berth
Currently on display
From the Smithsonian Collection

A porter hangs the heavy privacy curtains characteristic of Pullman cars alongside a upper berth that he has folded down and fitted with sheets, pillow, and blanket. The lower berth is only partially made down - the cushions of the facing seats slide down into a flat mattress (which legions of Pullman passengers swore was quite comfortable).

Clearly seen are the Pullman 'sections.' In the picture, only one section of the car has been configured for sleeping. Each 'section' consists of facing seats that can be configured into two berths, an upper and a lower. Thus each section, day or night, accommodates two passengers. The upper berth is folded up during the day; stowed upper berths are seen high along the right wall of the car, with the day seating below.

The heavy woolen twill upholstery of the section seating was made to a Pullman patent and was exceedingly long-wearing and soil resistant.

Physical Description
Date Made:
ca. 1930s-'40s
Pullman cars ran everywhere in U.S.
National Museum of American History, Transportation Collections

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. More-expensive Pullman accommodations were 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 - 'Colored Only.' That also meant that blacks also 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.)

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