I had the incredible pleasure of showing Ann Roe, niece of one of our employees, around our new “Riding In Style” exhibit in the Utah State Railroad Museum.
Ann wants to learn to write, so she’ll be doing some blogging for us. I wanted to show her the new exhibit because it is a good example of how history both shows us how life used to be, and also how it is linked to the present, giving us both lessons and meaning.
A big thrust of the the exhibit is the history of African Americans in Ogden. Black people from around the nation were hired by the railroads to be porters, waiters, cooks and other service jobs. The Pullman Corporation, which made sleeping cars, hired former slaves in the 1870s because they were used to working horrible hours in bad condition. Pullman’s interesting hiring practices led to the formation of labor unions, because even former slaves know that they’re being abused.
So there’s that. But there’s also the extreme elegance of service to customers on the railroad. Blacks may have worked in bad conditions for low pay and horrible hours, but the customers who rode the trains were treated to the best.
You can see it in the tableware on display in the exhibit. Ann is sitting at a table in front of a picture taken in a typical railroad dining car of the 1950s. The picture is a publicity shot, but people really did dress up for dinner back then, and the tables in dining cars really were laid with linen table cloths, real china dishes and crystal classes.
(Important note: The table she is sitting at is set up for folks to shoot selfies. It is not laid with real Union Pacific china. We made fake stuff because we know it is going to get bumped and broken. The real stuff is locked up in the display cases.)
What fascinated me was not just the glassware, but some menus from railroad dining cars our archive recently acquired.
The menus, and prices, are from the World War II era, and it is hard to describe how different the world they mirror is. This is food on a train, folks. Food prepared in a narrow crowded galley and served on a swaying metal box rolling along the rails, and I’d like to have you show me a premium first class five star ride on any airline in the world today that could match it.
Never mind that: Show me a restaurant anywhere in Utah that even comes close. Maybe Lamb’s in Salt Lake, and a few places I never even dream of affording.
But look at the choice facing any Joe Schmo who sat down for dinner on the Great Northern’s “Empire Builder,” which ran between Chicago and Seattle (and still does, now via Amtrak.) The Number One “Table D’Hote Dinner” offers a choice of fresh fish, bake ham, roast turkey with dressing, grilled pork chops with fried apples, roast prime rib or oysters saute on toast. A side of potatoes O’Brien, fresh green vegetables, salad, tea biscuits or cold bread, cream cheese or crab apple jelly, and apple pie or ice cream and cake for dessert.
Coffee, tea or milk, included, of course! And all for a dollar (which, to be fair, is about the same as $15 in today’s money.)
And check out the asterisk: Seconds are free!
Why such great food? Back before airlines and interstate highways stole all their business, railroads offered the best and fastest way to get across the country. A number of competing railroads fought for passenger business. Better service meant more business.
The menus show more than just food, however. There’s hints of world affairs. A banner down the side of one urges rail passengers to “Be Sure And Buy Victory Bonds.” World war II was on, the public was helping finance it by loaning the government money.
A note on the bottom of one, from 1943, also hints at wartime controls: “All prices are our ceiling prices,” it notes, as set by the federal Office Of Price Administration in Washington D.C. The federal government was pumping money into the economy like crazy during the war. To avoid runaway inflation, and control domestic consumption that would have taken away from the war effort, it slapped wage and price controls on everything. Saved up money from buying bonds, and pent-up demand, is what led to the economic boom of the 1950s and rapid growth of the American middle class everyone today wishes would come back.
But that life, and the life or railroading, is gone forever. Try not to think about it, too hard, the next time you get on an airplane, shoe-horned into a tiny seat, expected to survive your cross-country trip on a couple of dry crackers and water or what passes for coffee.