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Pullman Fundamentals

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Sleeping in Comfort: Pullman Fundamentals

by Lesa H. Campbell

The term "Pullman" has become synonymous with sleeping cars just as the word "Kleenex" is commonly used to mean facial tissue. While at least five different rail car companies were constructing "sleepers" in the late 1900s, this article follows innovations made by The Pullman Company of Chicago, Illinois.

The first prototype "sleeper car" was the result of modifications made to a standard coach in 1859. Cars from this era were still made entirely of wood (except for the wheels and axles); heat came from a wood-burning stove and light from candles. The 10 lower berths were created by placing a mattress across two facing seats, and the 10 upper berths were little more than mattresses on fixed shelves.

The Pioneer (1865) was the first rail car designed and built for sleeper service. Pullman constructed this car higher, wider, and longer than day coaches to accommodate its new features. A raised roof provided not only a higher interior ceiling, but a place to install windows to improve ventilation. Folding upper berths first appeared, and a hot air furnace (located under the floor) replaced the dangerous wood-burning stoves.

By 1887, the Victorian period produced the most ornate sleeping cars ever built. With high backed seats, French upholstery, plush carpeting, carved mahogany paneling, and water provided from overhead gravity supply system tanks, Pullmans reached the height of elegance. Light was now supplied from oil lamps rather than candles, and car bodies were still primarily made of wood. One new Pullman invention -- the vestibule -- provided for the first time for safe passage between cars.

The first all-steel sleeping car was built in 1907 but was not mass produced until 1910. By this time, car lengths had reached 74 feet (compared to the 50 ft. Pioneer). A common floorplan would have 12 sleeping sections (upper and lower berths, with hallway curtains), one drawing room with its own toilet facilities, a men's dressing room and a women's dressing room. Electric lighting was now available, supplied from generators attached to the car's axles. By this time, interiors were much less ornate, and standardized design would prevail.

The single room car appeared in 1927, providing more privacy than that afforded by section sleepers with hallway curtains. One car could contain as many as 14 rooms, each with its own bed, toilet, and folding washstand. Air conditioning was added to cars in 1929.

The late 1930s saw the introduction of alloy-steel to construct new "lightweight" cars of streamline design. Building of "section" sleepers was discontinued in favor of the "all room" cars, and the three basic room designs introduced then have proven to be classics, for they are still found in cars built for Amtrak service today. The one-person roomette has a sofa, toilet, and washstand, plus a bed which folds out from the wall. The compartment has a long sofa which converts into a bed, and an overhead, folddown berth, plus the same toilet and washstand facilities as a roomette. The drawing room has a long sofa which coverts into a bed, two chairs, an overhead folddown berth, and a third bed which folds out from the wall; the toilet facilities are located in an adjoining separate area.

The Pullman Company ceased manufacturing passenger cars in 1978. While today's travelers would be appalled by the lack of comfort afforded by the "fixed shelf" sleepers of the 1860s, the 1860s traveler was amazed at the simple luxury of having a place to lie down.

An impressive number of Pullman innovations introduced prior to 1900 are still standards today, giving credence to the Company motto: Progress Without End.

The first Pullman car built as a sleeper was produced in 1865. The upper berths were slanted in toward the windows, providing more head room for daytime passengers. The "upper deck" on the roof was an innovation added with the design of this car; its windows provided ventilation. The Pullman Company began the practice of supplying sheets, blankets, and pillows, causing some difficulty with frequent passengers who were accustomed to sleeping in their boots and coats.

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Last updated June 13, 2006