Pullman Sleeping Cars add Comfort to Overnight Travel

Interior of a Pullman Sleeping Car in 1890 (Pullman photo) Sleeping cars were introduced about 1838, providing "hotel" sleeping accommodations on overnight passenger trains, although their use was not widespread until the late 1850's. Pullman began building and operating sleeping cars in 1859. Pullman continued to expand the number of sleeping cars and won contracts with additional railroads. The sleeping car that emerged as the public favorite was largely the invention of Pullman. Eventually the name Pullman became synonymous with sleeping car on American Railroads.

Sleeping cars of sorts had first appeared on the Cumberland Valley Railroad about 1838, although their use was not widespread. Theodore Woodruff introduced his first sleeping car on the New York Central in 1857. In 1858 he had contracts to operate sleeping cars on the Galena and Chicago Union and the Illinois Central Railroads. In 1858, Webster Wagner, a Station Agent for the New York Central Railroad, contracted to operate Woodruff built sleeping cars on the New York Central and J. D. Morgan contracted to operate Woodruff build sleeping cars on the Michigan Central.

Woodruff's Central Transportation Company dominated the sleeping car business during the 1860's, in 1866 the company had 88 cars in service. During the summer of 1866 Jonah Woodruff introduced the Silver Palace cars. In 1869 Central Transportation had 119 cars in service on sixteen major railroads.1

George Pullman refines Sleeping Car:

George Pullman was born in 1831. He learned the contracting business working with his father. Pullman traveled on numerous occasions, and like most travelers of the time was unhappy with the uncomfortable, inadequately heated and ventilated wooden coaches of the time, with having to lug his baggage from one train to another at junction points, and having to spend the night in seedy hotels. George Pullman created and refined the sleeping car that dominated railroad travel for decades.

George Mortimer Pullman and Benjamin C. Field began operating sleeping cars on the Chicago and Alton Railroad in 1859, initially using rebuilt day coaches.

Pullman Open Section Sleeping car in 1916 (Pullman photo)Pullman's first sleeper built from the ground up was put in service on the Chicago and Alton 1865. The Pioneer was much longer, higher and wider than previous sleeping cars, railroad bridges and platforms needed to be modified to permit its passage. The car introduced folding upper berths which could folded up to the ceiling during the daytime, to allow for coach like seating, and dropped down to be made into a bed at night time. The lower berth was created by sliding the facing seat cushions on the seats together. The Pioneer was selected and included in President Lincoln's funeral train in 1865, attracting attention for Pullman. By the end of 1866 Pullman and Field have 40 cars operating on seven different lines.

The Pullman Palace Car Company was founded in 1867. Pullman won the contract for providing sleeping cars for trains on the Union Pacific Railroad, and in 1870 leased the entire property of the Central Transportation Company. Pullman had 400 cars in service and employed 2,000 people. Another 400 cars were jointly owned by Pullman and the railroads.

By the end of 1881, Pullman had more than 800 cars in operation across the United States and Canada. By 1890 the company had 2,135 cars in service. George Pullman died in 1897. In 1900 the company bought out its major competitor, the Wagner Palace Car Co. and reorganized as the Pullman Company, operating 3,258 cars, controlling nearly 90 percent of the sleeping car business and operating the largest railroad car plant in the world.2

Pullman continued to own and operated most sleeping cars on passenger trains in the United States until the mid-20th century. Pullman also owned and operated some cafe and buffet cars which either ran as a supplement to the railroad owned and staffed dining cars or as the sole source of meals on smaller runs. There were also some sleeping cars that were operated by Pullman but owned by the railroad running a given train.

At the company's peak in 1930 the Pullman fleet grew to 9,801 cars. Twelve thousand porters were employed by the Pullman Co.

Pullman Porter assists passenger Pullman Porters Provide Courteous and Efficient Service

George Pullman also developed a system which included hiring Pullman porters who provided courteous and efficient service to passengers and kept the Pullman sleeping cars impeccably clean. Pullman porters worked for the Pullman Company. Pullman porters set up the sleeping car while it was in the yards, greeted passengers, and helped passengers settle into their rooms or sections. They took care of the passengers needs while they were on board. The porter was responsible for monitoring the cars air conditioning and heating systems, making the beds each evening, cleaning the rooms, shining shoes, pressing suits, mailing letters and telegrams, and bringing meals into rooms on request. All bedding was removed and cleaned daily. Strict standards were maintained on all Pullman cars, a 127 page manual and a 14 day instruction period in the yards covered all of the fundamentals.

The majority of Pullman Porters were African Americans. While still a menial job in many respects, Pullman offered better pay and security than most jobs open to African Americans at the time, in addition to a chance for travel, and it was a well regarded job in the African-American community of the time. The pullman attendants, regardless of their true name, were traditionally referred to as "George" by the travelers, the name of the company's founder, George Pullman. The Pullman company was the largest employer of African Americans in the United States.

Pullman also employed cafe-food service attendants on trains where Pullman provided a cafe or lounge-buffet car. When the cafe or lounge-buffet car also included rooms, the attendants often doubled at the Porter. On some trains a busboy was also employed to help.

The Pullman Conductor was the on board manager of all the Pullman cars in the passenger train.

Pullman Sleeping Car Accommodations

Pullman Drawing Room during the 1920's (Pullman Company) Pullman sleeping cars included a variety of different arrangements. About half of the steel "heavyweight" sleeping cars built by Pullman by the early 1930's were built to a common interior arrangement of 12 open sections and one drawing room. Other sleeping cars offered a variety of other accommodations.

Upper Berth and Lower Berth: The traditional arrangement of pullman cars is the open section, shown in the top two pictures on this page, the top is an open section sleeping car from 1990, the second is an open section sleeping car from 1916. During the daytime, passengers were accommodated in comfortable sofa seats. At night, the upper berth dropped into place from the ceiling, and the cushions of the daytime section seating drop down to form a base for the lower bed, see picture at the top of this page. Both berths had space for clothes hangers, a rack for toilet articles, etc. Berth curtains provided privacy. The upper berth was the least expensive accommodation offered in a Pullman sleeping car.

Section: A section is the space of both an upper berth and lower berth. A passenger could purchase a section for single occupancy, which would give that passenger use of both seats, extra luggage space and extra pillows and blankets if desired. With the upper berth kept closed a passenger would have more headroom.

Pullman Compartment during the 1920's (Pullman Company)Drawing Room: The drawing room provided a spacious living room with a wide sofa, two movable lounge chairs, private toilet, luggage space and a wardrobe for hanging clothes full length. It accommodated three full length beds at night, including an upper berth type bed that drops down from the ceiling. The drawing room was especially suited for family of group travel.

Bedroom: A bedroom provided comfortable private living and sleeping space for two passengers, clothes storage and luggage space, and a private toilet. At night the bedroom accommodated two full length beds, including an upper berth type bed that drops down from the ceiling.

Roomette: Introduced in the 1930's, the roomette, designed for single occupancy, offered private toilet facilities, sofa seating, clothes storage and luggage space, plenty of room for lounging and dressing and ample luggage space.

Compartment: A compartment provided a sofa and lounge chair, clothes storage and luggage space, and was capable of seating four passengers during the daytime. Compartments also included private toilets. At night the compartment accommodated two full length beds, including an upper berth type bed that drops down from the ceiling. The compartment was more roomy that a bedroom but less roomy than the drawing room.

Double Bedroom: Also referred to as a bedroom suite, this arrangement provided private sleeping and living space for two people, private toilet facilities, clothes storage and luggage space, large beds at night, and the rooms make a sitting room by day. Most double bedrooms were constructed in pairs with a partition between them that could be opened.

Evolution of the Pullman Sleeping Car

1859 - Pullman's First Sleeper Completes First Trip

The first Pullman Sleepers were built in 1858-59 from a rebuilt day coaches. The first overnight trip was made on the Chicago and Alton Railroad between Bloomington, Illinois and Chicago on September 1, 1859. The body of the coach was all wood, with metal truss rods underneath. The roof was basically flat with a slight arch, and was so low that a tall man could barely stand up . The seats were adamantine, it was lighted by candles and two small wood burning stoves furnished heat. At each end was a toilet room large enough for one person. A tin wash basin was in the open. There were ten upper and ten lower berths; mattresses and blankets, but no sheets. While these cars continued to be in service Pullman didn't get an order to convert any more coaches.

1865 - The first real Pullman Sleeping Car Introduced

The first "modern sleeper" built from the ground up by Pullman was put in service on the Chicago and Alton 1865. The Pioneer was much longer, higher and wider than previous sleeping cars, railroad bridges and platforms needed to be modified to permit its passage. The car introduced folding upper berths which could folded up to the ceiling during the day. The car was heated by a hot air furnace under the floor, lighted with candles, included a raised upper deck or monitor roof and was ventilated through the deck windows. The car had two compartments at each end, eight sections, and a roomy washroom. Furnishings included black walnut woodwork with inlay, framed mirrors between the windows, French plush upholstery, polished brass fixtures, good beds, ample bedding, deep pile carpeting on the floor, somewhat influenced by the furnishing of the saloons and cabins of the river steamboats. The car ran on 2 eight-wheel trucks.

The car proved to be immediately successful, it was added to President Lincoln's funeral train and was a popular choice of several dignitaries including General Grant.

While other companies produced equally comfortable and luxurious sleeping cars, Pullman's more efficient use of space allowed him to charge more reasonable rates to passengers providing a better value.

1876 - The Nation's Centennial Year

The Pullman Sleeping cars grew from 58 to 70 feet long. Oil lamps replaced candle, and air brakes were introduced allowing for greater speed and safety. A hot water heating system replaced stoves and furnaces. Six wheel trucks had become standard. Overhead tanks supplied water. Interior finish was lacquered walnut with carved and inlayed decoration characteristic of the period.

1887 - The Car Vestibule Introduced

The car vestibule, a Pullman Invention, was introduced in 1887. Initially the vestibule enclosed a narrow passage between cars, which was later widened to full car width. It allowed passengers to walk between cars with enhanced comfort and safety. The cars contained 12 sections, a drawing room, smoking room, high backed seats, mahogany finish, much carving and ornamentation, higher windows, rich carpets and upholstery, and increasing elegance throughout as appropriate for the approaching Victorian period.

1891 - Increased Comfort and Convenience

The wide vestibule was now in general use with anti-telescoping construction. The cars grew to 75 feet long. Pintsch gas had become the standard type of lighting, although electric lights were starting to appear. Ceilings were of a semi-empire design, and air pressure water supply system has also become standard.

1907 - The All-Steel Car Appears

The first experimental all-steel construction car body was introduced in 1907, hailed as a great stride in passenger safety. This type was adopted into general service in 1910. Car length was 74 feet, with full vestibules, 12 sections, drawing room, smoking room, electrical lighting with power coming from an axle device, and a low pressure vapor heat system. Interiors were less elaborate with plain mottled finish, standard green frieze plush upholstery and green carpets.

1920 - Refinements and Conveniences

During the first world war Pullman properties, like other railroad properties were taken over by the Government. In addition to changing color schemes, improvements which had already been introduced included increased lighting, a dental lavatory, metal dust deflectors at windows, sliding car window screens,, anti-pinch devices on doors, floor lights in the aisles, and the safety ladder.

1927 - The Single Room Car Introduced

The single room car afforded a particular luxury to a large class of overnight travelers. It contained 14 rooms, each for a single passenger, with full toilet facilities, stationary bed across the car, electric fan, folding washstand with mirror and sidelights, and and drop table for eating or writing. Adjoining rooms could be used as a suite if desired.

1929 - Air Conditioning System Successfully Introduced

The Pullman Company introduced a successfully operating air conditioning system to a sleeping car in 1929. This innovation was added to over 50 percent of Pullman passenger cars by 1937.

1936 - The Duplex Unit - Lightweight, Streamlined, Articulated Car Introduced

The Duplex car, of alloy steel in the body construction. contained 16 rooms - two regular bedrooms and 145 single rooms, equally divided by rooms on the floor level and others reached by 3 steps. Air conditioning includes individual temperature and ventilation control for each room.

1937 - The Roomette Car Introduced

Each Roomette is a small, completely enclosed private room, containing one bed which folds into the wall at one end of the room and a sofa-seat for daytime service. In this car there are 18 Roomettes, each has complete toilet facilities.

1942 - The Duplex-Roomette Introduced

The Duplex-Roomette car again furthered the concept of a hotel on wheels. The rooms, which are on two slightly varying floor levels, interlock, permitting 24 rooms in a single car. The lower duplex bed slides under the floor of the adjacent room, in the upper roomette the bed swings up to the wall.

1956 - The Observation Dome Sleeper

The first passenger car featuring an observation dome was placed in service in 1945, and became a popular feature of railroad passenger travel. Since then the dome has been enjoyed on coaches, lounge cars and diners as well as sleeping cars.

Recommended Reading:

  • Perata, David D. Those Pullman Blues: An Oral History of the African American Railroad Attendant. New York, Twayne Publishers, 1996.
  • White, John H. Jr. The American Railroad Passenger Car. Baltimore MD, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2 vols., 1996.

1 White, John H. Jr. The American Railroad Passenger Car. Baltimore MD, Johns Hopkins University Press, vol 1, 1996.
2 White, John H. Jr. The American Railroad Passenger Car. Baltimore MD, Johns Hopkins University Press, vol 1, 1996.

Pullman Sleeping Cars at Orange Empire Railway Museum:

Orange Empire Railway Museum preserves and exhibits three Pullman Sleeping Cars:

  • the Corydon, a 7 compartment, 2 drawing room car built in 1917;
  • the Bison Peak, a 10 section 2 drawing room car built in 1926;
  • the National Scene, a streamline 6 roomette 6 section 4 drawing room car, built in 1956.


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DigitalNetExpress.comEvolution of the Pullman Sleeping Car based largely on Pullman Progress: 1859-1929, and Modern Travel by Pullman, both published by the Pullman Company. Photos and illustrations from the Pullman Company.
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