The 1948 20th Century Limited

The New York Central liked to say that its New York-Chicago 20th Century Limited was the most famous train in the world. To commemorate the 1948 edition of that train, the railroad put out what has to be the creepiest brochure in my collection. While the cover, with its flock representation of the red carpet that was rolled out for trains departing from Grand Central and La Salle Street stations and its cut out giving a glimpse of a larger picture on page 3, is attractive enough, many of the interior pictures are rather strange.

Click image to download an 11.6-MB PDF of this 20-page brochure.

First of all, the brochure has several images of happy-go-lucky blacks smiling brightly at the thought of serving the master race of whites who form the exclusive customer base for this exclusive train (see especially pages 5, 7, and 16). This is not the only rail advertising that features blacks serving whites, but the wide smiles on the faces of the blacks seem more than a tad unrealistic.

Any discussion of passenger rail history must eventually confront the uncomfortable fact that, for most of the twentieth century, passenger trains reflect America’s racist heritage. From the divided Jim Crow cars used in the South to the fact that blacks did all the menial work (cooking, waiting tables, changing sheets) while whites did all the supervisory work (conductors, dining car stewards), passenger trains were no more enlightened than the rest of society. While black Pullman porters had high standing in their communities because they got regular paychecks, supplemented by tips (especially on high-class trains like the Century), and were well traveled, this doesn’t make up for the fact that they could be fired at the drop of a hat and had no career path.

Then, on page 9 of the brochure, we have this provocatively dressed woman in the lounge car flirting outrageously with a man twice her age, while a younger but possibly less-wealthy man looks on with only partly disguised envy.

Okay, sex sells, and the clear message–that if you ride this train in which everyone has their own private bedroom, you are likely to meet and possibly hook up with a beautiful person–would eventually be reinforced by Alfred Hitchcock’s 1959 movie, “North by Northwest.”

Turning to page 11, we find this sharp-faced woman in the dining car, eating alone but keeping a vulture-like eye out for a Cary Grant to walk in and fall into her trap.

Page 14 illustrates a “roomy roomette,” which appears all the roomier because the body of the woman in the picture is unnaturally twisted: Her back is leaning against the “sofa” while her legs are going at almost right angles the length of the sofa (which probably isn’t wide enough for an adult to stretch out on anyway).

These and other pictures designed to illustrate the roominess of the train all seem to rely on Harlan-Ellison-like models or exaggerated room sizes. (For those who don’t know, Harlan Ellison is a 5′-5″ science-fiction writer who was in several Geo car ads in the late 1980s/early 1990s, partly because his short stature made the cars look bigger.)

While I haven’t taken a tape measure to an actual roomette or other cars shown, the floor spaces in all of the above pictures just seem to be a few inches larger than are realistic. All in all, this brochure might frighten me away more than attract me to ride the Century.

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