Pictures to Go: Viewing Trains as Metaphors

The following is a guest post by Martha H. Kennedy, Curator of Popular & Applied Graphic Arts, Prints and Photographs Division.

Travel by train, or what some called the “Iron horse,” dominated other forms of transport in America for nearly fifty years. During this “golden age” of railroads that began in 1865, public fascination with trains seemed to parallel the rapid spread of rail networks across the nation. Prints and cartoons of trains often reflected the speed, power, and visual excitement associated with them. In the famous Currier & Ives lithograph, “Across the Continent,” the locomotive that charges diagonally into the vast landscape can be seen as a metaphor of American progress. The train has already sped past the Indians on horseback on the right, will soon overtake the covered wagons on the left, and seemingly foretells the passing of these older, outdated modes of travel.

Across the Continent, "Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way." Lithograph, published by Currier & Ives, 1868. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.03213

Across the Continent, “Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way.” Lithograph, published by Currier & Ives, 1868. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.03213

Less than a decade later, a close up view of “lightning express trains” published by Currier & Ives, shows trains as gleaming, colorful embodiments of steam power, speed, and comfort. Among the locomotives that depart the junction in an orderly fashion, a “Pullman Palace Drawing Room and Sleeping Car” on the lower right also promises luxury in train travel.

American Railroad Scene: Lightning Express Trains Leaving the Junction. Lithograph, published by Currier & Ives, 1874. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pga.00601

American Railroad Scene: Lightning Express Trains Leaving the Junction. Lithograph, published by Currier & Ives, 1874. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pga.00601

In “The Right of Way,” a stunning cartoon for the satirical humor magazine Puck in 1910, railway artist Beaumont Fairbank offers a different perspective on trains — one that condemns the corrupting influence of monopolies. Compared with the orderly vision of express trains in the Currier & Ives’ print, Fairbanks’ huge black locomotive, the outsized “Private Monopoly Special” dominates the scene as it barrels down the tracks of “Opportunity,” cutting off and sidelining the “Plain People Local” on the left and “Legitimate Business” on the right. Only the ‘Special’ sends forth a fiery plume of smoke as it surges into the viewer’s space.

The Right of Way; As in Railroading, Everything is Side-Tracked for the Special. Offset lithograph by Beaumont Fairbank, 1910. Published in Puck, v. 67, no. 1734 (1910 May 25), centerfold. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.27635

The Right of Way; As in Railroading, Everything is Side-Tracked for the Special. Offset lithograph by Beaumont Fairbank, 1910. Published in Puck, v. 67, no. 1734 (1910 May 25), centerfold. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.27635

Design for a Union Station. Drawing by Luther Daniels Bradley, 1907 October 18. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b30626

Design for a Union Station. Drawing by Luther Daniels Bradley, 1907 October 18. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b30626

Cartoonists also took aim at business men who monopolized railroads. Luther Daniels Bradley, for example, shows eight train lines leading toward the giant head of railroad magnate Edward H. Harriman in a startling image. Six train lines converge inside the dark tunnel of his mouth, in a visual metaphor of one-man control of major railroad lines. Harriman built his monopoly by first revitalizing the Illinois Central Railroad, then acquired the financially shaky Union Pacific, and in 1901 the Southern Pacific, thus taking over the main system of transportation between Kansas City and California.

Given Harriman’s initial acquisition of the Illinois Central Railroad, it is interesting to look at a chromolithograph published decades earlier than Bradley’s cartoon. We see an I.C.R.R. train pulling into a station with well-dressed passengers waiting. Insets and background vignettes reference older modes of travel — steamship, horse-drawn carriage, canal, and stagecoach. Two key elements in this bustling scene, the large globe that displays networks established by the railroad and the brightly shining train, forecast an optimistic future for the I.C.R.R.

The World's Railroad Scene. Chromolithograph by Swain & Lewis, 1882. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pga.03505

The World’s Railroad Scene. Chromolithograph by Swain & Lewis, 1882. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pga.03505

The next twenty-five years wrought changes in the world of railroads that can be read in imagery of train travel, that began with positive, aspirational metaphors of national progress and connection, followed by darker metaphors of plutocrats’ appetites for power and wealth during America’s Gilded Age.

Learn More:

Harvest Time

My ears are caked with dust of oat-fields at harvest-time. I am a deaf man who strains to hear the calls of other harvesters whose throats are also dry. It would be good to hear their songs . . . reapers of the sweet-stalked cane, cutters of the corn . . . even though their […]