Monday, October 2, 2023

Moving the People in 1940

Twenty or so years ago, I met up with my family in the Niagara Region over the Easter weekend, as it was a reasonable half-way point between where I lived at the time (Ottawa) and where they were (Sarnia area). Over the course of our adventures, we happened across this antique shop that had items flooding every room of a somewhat dilapidated old farmhouse. I remember the uneven floorboards and endless curiosities. As antiques aren't really my thing, I spent some time going through old issues of Life Magazine. I found one of the older issues from 1940 and bough it for something like $5 or so, just for the historic value of the old stories.

There are some fascinating stories about the Second World War in the magazine, but the old relic eventually made its way onto a bookshelf and sat there for many years, untouched. Recently, as I was going through other items in the bookshelf, I dug out the old magazine and started leafing through it again. I was quite surprised to find five railway advertisements in the magazine, which was a pleasant surprise.

The ads speak of the unparalleled comforts of the passenger trains of the Union Pacific (the Challengers), the Santa Fe (El Capitan) Southern Pacific (Arizona Limited) and the New Haven (Pullman Standard streamliners). There was even an ad for Lionel Trains.

When I read the ads for each railway, there were a few things that really struck me. The first was how much description went into the ads and how important rail travel was in North America, particularly in 1940. We all know what role the railways played during World War Two in mobilizing hundreds of thousands of troops to fight on the side of the Allies in Europe and later in the Pacific theatre against the expansionist Japanese empire. 

One question you might have is why a railway would advertise in 1940, at a time of global conflict. I had to check my history to see when the United States entered in the Second World War. Sure enough, it was following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in December 7, 1941. War was declared with Japan on December 8, while Germany declared war with the United States on December 11, given the the Nazi-led administration was friendly with the Japanese emperor. 

By way of comparison, Canada had already been in the war since 1939, as our country was quick to support the United Kingdom.

So, given that historical context, it makes a little more sense for the Santa Fe Railway to advertise its passenger services between Chicago and Los Angeles in 1940, although even without the U.S. being at war, I still wonder about the wisdom of this type of advertising. The reason I wonder is that it was generally accepted that by November 25, 1940, when this ad ran, the country was still very much feeling the effects of the Great Depression of the 1930s.

But there are clues in this advertisement that allow you to understand the railway's thinking. The most obvious point to consider is that this is a promotion for El Capitan, the discount streamliner that often played second fiddle to the railways' Super Chief, the railway's flagship luxury passenger train, which began running in 1936. 

The difference between the two trains was the Super Chief had many amenities that El Capitan did not, including sleeping cars, which was the major difference. The running time between the two cities was quite impressive at just a shade under 40 hours for both trains. Both trains made twice-weekly departures in each direction.

Given the importance the railway placed on its passenger service, there was priority given to these trains on its fairly straight route between the Windy City and Los Angeles. And whereas the Super Chief was dubbed the Train of the Stars, as it was known to host celebrities, El Capitan was very much the People's Train, which hosted people who needed to get from Point A to Point B without much fuss. Given the economic realities of the country in 1940, the promotion of this discount train makes sense in a national publication like Life.

A few things to consider about this train. 

1. Despite its economy-based fares, the train featured a lounge and a "counter service" diner featuring Fred Harvey meals. These two amenities were a step down from something one might find on the Super Chief, but it shows you how the railways placed great importance on passenger travel in times past.

2. The railway advertised the services of a "courier nurse" on this train, whose job was not defined in the ad, but it seems this job was close to what was once known as a stewardess. There is a small photo of someone helping passengers recline their seats and sleep for the overnight portion of the journey. 

3. Going from Chicago to Los Angeles would cost you $39.50 in 1940, or $65 round trip, although the one-way fare could be augmented with a $5 surcharge for extra fare, although that is not clearly explained in the fine print. The round-trip ticket would run you $65 between these two cities.

4. The Bank of Canada inflation calculator estimates that this fare would cost the equivalent of $783 today, although I doubt those figures, since the inflation situation in Canada is likely skewing that number a little higher than it should be. Even so, $39.50 sounds like a large sum in 1940, at a time when money was scarce.

5. In 1940, the Santa Fe was clearly advertising the benefits of its streamlined FT locomotives and cars, as you can see from the prominent image of the train near the top of the ad. This would have likely been quite a novelty at the time, as the transition to diesel engines was not yet fully realized on most railways. Given the lack of servicing these diesel units required when compared to steam engines, the timing of this journey would likely have been reduced a fair bit, making it attractive to passengers.

And, in case you're wondering, a subscription to Life cost $4.45 in 1940. Stay tuned for more vintage ads from this old magazine. It turned out to be a fascinating historic find and an educational tool to explore railway history.

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