Home on the Rails: Women, the Railroad, and the Rise of Public Domesticity

Home on the Rails: Women, the Railroad, and the Rise of Public Domesticity

by Amy G. Richter

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Recognizing the railroad's importance as both symbol and experience in Victorian America, Amy G. Richter follows women travelers onto trains and considers the consequences of their presence there.

For a time, Richter argues, nineteenth-century Americans imagined the public realm as a chaotic and dangerous place full of potential, where various groups came… See more details below


Recognizing the railroad's importance as both symbol and experience in Victorian America, Amy G. Richter follows women travelers onto trains and considers the consequences of their presence there.

For a time, Richter argues, nineteenth-century Americans imagined the public realm as a chaotic and dangerous place full of potential, where various groups came together, collided, and influenced one another, for better or worse. The example of the American railroad reveals how, by the beginning of the twentieth century, this image was replaced by one of a domesticated public realm--a public space in which both women and men increasingly strove to make themselves "at home."

Through efforts that ranged from the homey touches of railroad car decor to advertising images celebrating female travelers and legal cases sanctioning gender-segregated spaces, travelers and railroad companies transformed the railroad from a place of risk and almost unlimited social mixing into one in which white men and women alleviated the stress of unpleasant social contact. Making themselves "at home" aboard the trains, white men and women domesticated the railroad for themselves and paved the way for a racially segregated and class-stratified public space that freed women from the home yet still preserved the railroad as a masculine domain.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A groundbreaking contribution to the history of women and the railroad, Richter's meticulous research and lucid prose illuminate the passage from Victorian America to modern times, the nuanced layers of private lives and separate spheres, and the public culture and corporate strategy that show the remaking of the life and landscape of nineteenth-century America—a terrain where the New Woman took her seat on the Twentieth Century Limited and began the journey anew."
Indiana Magazine of History

"A fine work of cultural history, broadly conceived and imaginatively researched."
The Pennsylvania Magazine of History & Biography

"[A] major contribution to women's studies as well as transportation and social history. [Richter] has creatively used sources, including the rich archives of the Pennsylvania Railroad, the self-proclaimed 'Standard Railroad of the World.' The concept of public domesticity is historically important and carefully explored in this well-written and expertly illustrated volume."

"A stylish, original and entertaining interpretation of the domestication and commodification of public life on the rails at the end of the nineteenth century. Amy Richter's engaging voice will draw in students, and her arguments about the gendered transformation of public space in Victorian America will spark conversations among scholars at all levels. (Jane Dailey, Johns Hopkins University)"

"Heading Home fills a considerable void in the history of trains and travel. Fresh material and a crisp writing style make for a useful and delightful book. (H. Roger Grant, Clemson University)"

Product Details

The University of North Carolina Press
Publication date:
Gender and American Culture
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
File size:
4 MB

Meet the Author

Amy G. Richter is assistant professor of history at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. The dissertation on which this book is based won the 2001 Lerner-Scott Prize from the Organization of American Historians.

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Home on the Rails

Women, the Railroad, and the Rise of Public Domesticity
By Amy G. Richter

The University of North Carolina Press

Copyright © 2005 The University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8078-2926-9

Chapter One

Narrative Lines

Railroad Stories in Victorian Culture

Writing during the 1870s, Charles Francis Adams was perhaps the first to note the railroad's usefulness to cultural historians. Adams, an economist and historian, spent much of his career as an advocate of railroad regulation, serving on the Massachusetts Board of Railroad Commissioners and as president of the Union Pacific Railroad. Despite his commitment to the importance of facts and figures in matters of railroad administration, he began his book The Railroads: Their Origin and Problems with a cultural consideration of his subject. Before turning to the challenges of regulating the railroads, he looked back to the railroad's origin and observed that "the honest wonder" it inspired had left a legacy of considerable intellectual value. The suddenness and enormity of the railroad's impact were, in Adams's estimation, even more dramatic than the discovery of America. The "engine and its sequence, the railroad, ... burst rather than stole or crept upon the world," while Columbus and his crew alone witnessed their spectacular discovery in 1492. Countless spectators greeted the railroad "with a full realizing sense that something great and momentous was impending." From its invention, the railroad reshaped the landscape and transformed daily life. It operated as agent, site, and metaphor for both the gradual and far-reaching processes-acceleration, expansion, industrialization, integration, migration-that were remaking American life. By opening his study in this manner, Adams acknowledged the railroad not only as a business enterprise to be quantified and regulated but also as a site for emotion, uncertainty, and cultural change.

During the nineteenth century, everyone seemed to have a railroad story. People-famous and unknown-watched, participated in, and commented upon the many transformations wrought by the railroad. Victorian Americans produced a rich body of narratives-personal, cultural, commercial, legal-all intended, like Adams's figures and regulations, to order the new experiences of railroad travel. By drawing a wide variety of ordinary people into a debate about the path of progress, the railroad inspired a lively and contradictory record. Railroad promoters told stories of efficiency, speed, and national cohesion; to them the railroad was an agent of progress-a teacher of democracy, a social and moral benefactor of the common man, an instrument of commerce, and the means of fulfilling America's manifest destiny. To its detractors, the railroad was, at best, an unnecessary invention rendered redundant by the growing number of canals; at worst, the handiwork of the devil, defiling the countryside, endangering women and children, and undermining American morals. The spectacular, participatory, and controversial nature of the railroad's arrival enhanced its cultural significance. As Adams observed, "Every day people watched the gradual development of the thing, and actually took part in it.... There is consequently an element of human nature surrounding it.... To their [contemporary] descriptions time has only lent a new freshness."

Descriptions of the railroad remained "fresh" throughout the nineteenth century because the railroad underwent its own transformations-its arrival was both sudden and gradual; its development characterized by tremendous raw potential and constant refinement. Because of the dual nature of its development-from trains of mounted stage coaches pulled by steam locomotives in the 1830s to the fully integrated lines of ten to fifteen cars a mere forty years later-the railroad was forever new to nineteenth-century travelers and commentators. The novelty of rattling along during the early days of rail travel in an open car at the rate of ten miles per hour and inhaling coal soot did not prepare one for the experience a few decades later of having dinner at a beautifully set table and looking out the window as the scenery passed at forty miles an hour. The innovations in railroad design and car architecture during the nineteenth century were almost dizzying in their variety as designers, engineers, and railroad companies met the demand for separate ladies' cars, classed accommodations, and specialty cars offering sleeping, dining, and parlor settings.

The extension of track mileage similarly reflected the suddenness of the railroad's impact and the importance of more gradual fine-tuning. In 1826, John Stevens operated the first steam locomotive to run on tracks in the United States-a locomotive of his own design on a circular track in the yard of his New Jersey home. Less than a decade later, in 1835, there were 1,098 miles of railroad track in the United States. By 1850, the figure stood at 9,021 miles and, in just five years, fueled by the California gold rush and a new congressional policy of land grants, more than doubled to 18,374 miles. In the ten years following the end of the Civil War, track mileage doubled again from 35,085 miles in 1865 to 74,096 in 1875. This impressive growth, however, failed to transform significantly the movement of goods and people. The early rail lines connected existing commercial centers, and by 1850 only a few hundred of the 9,021 miles of track lay outside the Atlantic and Gulf seaboard states. Moreover, much of the new track built during the 1830s and 1840s consisted of individual short lines, frequently single-tracked and of differing gauges. Despite the convenience these new railroads offered some passengers and shippers, each operated on its own timetable, making connections between lines difficult. (Even the timetables were unreliable, giving rise to the popular expression "to lie like a timetable.")

Throughout the century, technological and business innovations coordinated the expansion of track mileage and the planning of schedules, as some lines were abandoned and others knit together into an integrated system. Through such gradual but significant adjustments, the railroad became a familiar part of American life while still connoting innovation. Even as Adams praised the railroad's ties to the past, Walt Whitman hailed the locomotive as the essence of his age, "type of the modern-emblem of motion and power-pulse of the continent." Whitman's locomotive, with its "train of cars, behind, obedient, merrily flowing," seemed to capture the full range of social, technological, and business developments that characterized the moment. Whitman celebrated the modern railroad as consolidation and coordination enabled companies like the New York Central and the Pennsylvania Railroad to provide faster and more direct travel. The meeting of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific at Promontory Summit, Utah, in 1869 ushered in a new era of mobility as the North American continent was opened up to an increasing number of railway passengers. The celebration of the famous "golden spike" uniting the two lines was emblematic of the importance of the railroad to American progress. As the haphazard proliferation of railroad lines gave way to system building, the railroads established themselves as the country's first "modern business enterprises."

Rail passengers now encountered the benefits of complex administrative coordination as well as the monopolistic tendencies under which such coordination thrived. By the turn of the century, one could travel from New York to Chicago in twenty hours without changing cars. (During the 1850s the same journey would have taken over three days and involved several different rail lines.) The institution of standard gauge and standard time in the 1880s helped fulfill the railroad's promises of speed, efficiency, and national integration. The 1880s and 1890s witnessed the standardization of basic railroad equipment-automatic couplers, air brakes, and block signals. In 1892, the power of the railroad companies and the need for standardization of rates and fares was reflected in the Populists' call for nationalization of the railroads.

While the railroad was a vital site for developing methods of standardization, integrating distant towns and small depots into a growing national network, the cars were also a part of an expanding sphere of anonymous social relations associated with the nineteenth-century city. In fiction and nonfiction, cities and railroads revealed themselves as chaotic sites characterized by unpredictable encounters with strangers. Theodore Dreiser portrayed the promise and threat of the unknown city by first presenting his protagonist Carrie Meeber on a train headed for Chicago. Published in 1900, Sister Carrie tells of a young woman's transformation within an urban world of strangers, and the railroad serves as the site where that process begins. Confidence men, dangerous strangers, and unknown benefactors lurked in cities and on railroad cars. Both settings encouraged contact among strangers of different classes and races and demanded deciphering to ensure safe passage. Yet even as the social life of the railroad mirrored that of cities, train travel differed from urban life and created a distinctive milieu: only rail travel demanded the constant and simultaneous negotiation of both urban social disorder and the systematic ordering associated with the rise of larger business enterprises and managerial capitalism. In this way, the railroad stood squarely at the crossroad of the major social, business, cultural, and technological changes remaking national life during the second half of the nineteenth century.

No wonder then that Americans told so many railroad stories; it seemed as though everyone and everything was "aboard." In 1886, a brakeman recalled a single train transporting "a corpse in the baggage car and a bridal party in the Pullman, ... over a hundred going to the court at Winona, one murderer, two horse thieves and a post-office robber, two secret societies, and besides all this a couple of bright little girls." Similar (albeit less colorful) lists appear with an almost overwhelming frequency in a wide range of sources, as travelers claimed that a train trip "reflected the comprehensive scope of our national life during the closing days of the nineteenth century." Or that "a railroad is a microcosm, a trip thereon is an epitome of life." Yet another traveler proclaimed the railroad car "the epitome of the United States" and praised its ability to reduce "the whole game of national life" to "the dimensions of a drawing-room." And Whitman lauded the interstate railroad lines as "the most typical and representative things in the United States."

This metaphor of the railroad as nineteenth-century microcosm operated as a self-fulfilling prophecy, encouraging passengers to view the railroad and contemporary life as reflections of each other. Narratives about the railroad were recorded in diaries, newspapers, respectable family periodicals, volumes of jokes and anecdotes, etiquette manuals, children's books, and even lullabies. In 1880, the passenger department of the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railway published a small volume of Christmas stories for its young passengers. One story, entitled "Santa Claus' New Team," portrayed an aging Santa complaining of cold weather, fatigue, and the burden of delivering toys. Finding his traditional method of toy delivery wanting, St. Nick replaces his team of reindeer with a locomotive. This story might be interpreted as a marketing ploy, evidence of the growing specialization and sophistication of railroad management and promotion. Railroads were revising the nature of Santa's fame-moving vast amounts of freight and sustaining the urban emporia that celebrated Christmas in a dazzling array of lights and consumer goods. By the end of the century, Santa Claus, once a sentimental character of Victorian home life, was a celebrity reflecting the values of a lively consumer culture. It is only fitting then that the railroads used him in their promotions. But within the context of other contemporary writings on the railroad, this brief, humorous story takes on broader meaning, fueling the belief that no one-not even Santa Claus-could escape the influence of the trains.

Such narratives implicitly connected the railroad to the remaking of not only national but also everyday life. They expanded and amplified the impact of the railroad, bringing stories of travel to audiences beyond the confines of the cars and rails; passengers, in turn, carried these stories with them onto the trains and saw their experiences through these narratives. Experience and narrative each imparted meaning to the other, and together gave the railroad its cultural standing. William Dean Howells's 1872 novel Their Wedding Journey cleverly made use of this interaction. Echoing other popular accounts of newlyweds in the cars, Howells told the story of Basil and Isabel March as they traveled to Niagara on their honeymoon tour. Throughout the journey, Isabel seeks to elude the notice of other travelers; she does not wish to be identified as a newlywed and checks every public display of affection between herself and Basil for fear of being associated with those who "sleep on each other's shoulders on every railroad train." While seeking to avoid the gaze of others, Isabel engages in the popular pastime of identifying newlyweds abroad and proclaims their conduct "outrageous, ... scandalous, ... really infamous." Despite her protestations and vigilance, Isabel ultimately gives in to the monotony of rail travel and wakes "to find her head resting tenderly upon her husband's shoulder." Ironically, Howells's novel heightened the visibility of honeymooners on the trains. According to a travel writer in 1897, "the bridal couple, with showers of rice coming from every source, are ever present [aboard the trains], and objects of marked interest since the advent of Mr. Howell's 'Wedding Journey.'"

Both "Santa Claus' New Team" and Their Wedding Journey depict a world of expanded demands and increasingly complex social negotiations: How can Santa possibly deliver toys to so many children? How can Isabel March withstand the gaze of so many strangers and still enjoy her honeymoon? These seemingly unrelated (and silly) questions underscore the cultural significance of railroad narratives. Even as both stories suggest that the railroad has opened up a larger and more challenging social sphere, they celebrate order; Santa and Isabel both encounter new demands-geographic expansion, social diversity, intimacy with strangers-but, in the end, prove themselves part of the world the railroads have created. Both narratives assert the triumph of order aboard the rails: Santa delivers his toys more efficiently; Isabel is a typical honeymooner after all.

When people told railroad stories they were trying to discern patterns not only on the rails but in the larger world epitomized by this drawing room-sized microcosm.


Excerpted from Home on the Rails by Amy G. Richter Copyright © 2005 by The University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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