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Highway History

The Road to Civil Rights

Pullman Porters

With the rise of railroad in the 1830s, they replaced the stagecoaches that had been the primary means of interstate surface transportation. Although a marvel of the age, railroads were primitive in accommodations for passengers. Writer Larry Tye quoted a rider describing a night trip to Wheeling:

Without a proper place to stow away one's hat, with no convenience even to repose the head or back except to the ordinary height of a chair, with a current of cold air continually streaming in and rendered necessary by the sulphurous heat of the furnace, and with the constant slamming of the doors at either end of the car as the conductor goes in or out, or some weary passenger steps onto the platform to have a smoke, the passenger must indeed be dead beat who can sleep or even doze in a railroad car. [Tye, Larry, Rising from the Rails: Pullman Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Class , Henry Holt and Company, 2004, p. 6-7]

In 1838, the Cumberland Valley Railroad added sleeper cars to its line between Chambersburg and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Tye said of the new service:

Calling those primitive cars sleepers did not make them such. Beds typically consisted of bunks stacked three high, with cast-iron platforms and no sheets. There was no fresh air either, and about as much privacy as in an army barracks. [Rising , p. 7]

Rail companies tried to improve the service, but initial efforts were lacking:

Innovations over the next twenty years, from swivel couches to cane-bottomed berths, were insufficient to induce grumbling men to shed pants or even muddy boots as they bunked down for the night. Or to entice any but the bravest women to venture in at all. Most who did remained fully clothed, clutching hatpins through the night to repel wayward men. [Rising , p. 8]

One traveler who had experienced these cars was George M. Pullman, who took his experiences as a challenge. One 58-mile trip between Buffalo and Westfield, New York, was particularly influential, as Tye explained:

Pullman paid the extra dollar for a berth, intending merely to examine the accommodations, not test them. What he found when he did were ceilings so low a long-legged man like him had to stoop, ventilation so lacking it was difficult to draw a breath, and bedding so uninviting he felt obligated to keep on his pants and shoes. As for his triple-tiered bunk, he slept not a wink. [Rising , p. 9]

Pullman, a native of Albion, New York, had moved to Chicago in 1859 at the age of 29. He had worked in his father's business as a cabinetmaker and building-mover, but was looking for different challenges. In Chicago, he applied his father's building-moving technique to lifting the Matteson House hotel 8 feet so a sewer system could be installed. His new business did not give him the success he hoped for, so he turned to the idea of putting a hotel on rails.

His initial efforts involved two passenger cars that went into service on the Chicago, Alton, and St. Louis Railroad on September 1, 1859.

They . . . introduced a magnificently clever upper berth whose sleight-of-hand construction allowed it to be closed and lifted to the ceiling during daylight, when it stored the mattress and blanket, then dropped halfway to the floor at night. Heat came from box stoves, light from candles, and small toilet rooms with tin washbasins were situated at either end of the car. There were no sheets to start with. The nightly fare was fifty cents for the upper berth, one dollar for the lower, and passengers had to be instructed to remove their boots and spurs before climbing into bed. One early rider-a lanky lawyer with whiskers from Springfield named Abraham Lincoln-was intrigued by the conveyance and, after quizzing George on its features, curled himself into an upper berth for the night. [Rising , p. 9]

After the Civil War, demand for sleeping cars increased. The railroad companies adopted a standard width, or gauge, between their rails of 4 feet, 8½ inches - replacing the varying gauges that limited the distance a company's trains could travel. Despite President Lincoln's recommendation that the builders of the transcontinental railroad employ a 5-foot gauge, they adopted what was becoming the standard gauge. With longer distance travel increasingly common, the companies had to improve sleeping accommodations.

The sleeping cars were typically convertible, with seating for the day, beds for the night. The British novelist Anthony Trollope described the sleeping cars he encountered during his tour of the United States in 1861:

In making this journey at night we introduced ourselves to the thoroughly American institution of sleeping-cars; - that is, of cars in which beds are made up for travelers. The traveler may have a whole bed, or half a bed, or no bed at all as he pleases, paying a dollar or half a dollar extra should he choose the partial or full fruition of a couch. I confess I have always taken a delight in seeing these beds made up, and consider that the operations of the change are generally as well executed as the maneuvers of any pantomime at Drury Lane. The work is usually done by negroes or coloured men; and the domestic negroes of America are always light-handed and adroit . . . . For every four seats the negro builds up four beds, - that is, four half-beds or accommodation for four persons. Two are supposed to be below on the level of the ordinary four seats, and two up above on shelves which are let down from the roof. Mattresses slip out from one nook and pillows from another. Blankets are added, and the bed is ready . . . . I cannot say that it is in all respects perfect. But distances are long in America; and he who declines to travel by night will lose very much time. He who does so travel will find the railway bed a great relief. [Trollope, Anthony, North America (editors Smalley, Donald, and Booth, Bradford Allen), Alfred A. Knopf, 1951, p. 119-121]

Many entrepreneurs were ready to meet the new demand, but Pullman would come to dominate the market beginning in 1865 with the introduction of the luxurious Pioneer :

He . . . kept a father's prideful watch over the installation of every shag or Brussels carpeting, French plate mirror, ceiling mural, marble washbasin, and carefully encased upper berth. Gone were the flea-ridden, paper-thin cushions of old, replaced by mattresses stuffed with soft animal hair, sheets of silky linen, and enough plush blankets to warm the Pioneer 's fifty-two passengers. Heaters were hidden under the floor. Windows in the clerestory roof ensured endless fresh air. [Rising , p. 10]

Pullman and his Pullman Palace Car Company would outdistance rivals for several reasons:

What he was was sharper and shrewder than his nearly three dozen rivals, building more sleepers than they did, standardizing them, and striking lucrative deals with rail lines to lease his cars and crews. He bought out competitors who were open to wooing and busted the rest. [Rising , p. 11]

His concept was that each car would be a hotel on wheels. In keeping with this concept, Pullman employed white conductors, who functioned as hotel managers, but as Tye put it: "where could he find a single worker willing and able to act as hotelier and waiter, chambermaid, butler, electrician, entertainer, and all the other things required for his five-star rolling hotels?" [Rising , p. 18] Pullman adopted the term "porter" for what he wanted. The term had long been used by railroads for the men who carried passengers' luggage and performed other minor tasks. Now, the term took on a new meaning that "made porter synonymous with Negro ." [Rising , p. 23]

As Trollope had observed in 1861, African-Americans had worked on railroads for years, but the rail companies saw them mainly as cheap laborers in construction or shoveling coal into the engines. Pullman saw them as ideal for a different type of task, namely porters serving passengers throughout their trip.

According to Tye, Pullman preferred African-Americans from the South to be porters. Price was one factor, since they were willing to work for low wages in return for a steady job. In addition, he wanted his porters to serve his customers without question:

Negro porters seemed the ideal choice to deliver the obedience bordering on obsequiousness. Who better to anticipate and cater to passengers' every caprice, from fetching a sandwich at sunup to mending torn trousers in the middle of the night, than men whose entire upbringing had been a long lesson in vassalage? How better to sell white riders on the slavish service on a Pullman car than to greet them with a smiling ex-slave?

Another factor influenced Pullman's choice:

George Pullman's most compelling motivation for hiring only Negroes, however, had to do with his conviction that for passengers to truly feel comfortable on his sleepers, they had to see the porter as someone safe. Ideally it would be a man you could look at but not notice, as if he did not exist. An invisible man. Which, given the social divide between Negroes and whites in those years after slavery, meant an ex-slave. To underline that otherness, Pullman managers favored swarthy-skinned applicants over those with creamier complexions. No danger, then, of a porter ever being mistaken for a passenger. [Rising , p. 24-25]

Although Pullman's motives were driven by profits, not humanitarianism, the effect was stark:

Whatever the reason, the results were arresting: thousands of Negro men freed from the dead-end choice of farm or factory, riding the nation's most ornate railroad carriages and relishing their adventure. He was the first northern industrialist to employ large numbers of Negros-and his porters, in turn, helped prod the northward migration of tens of thousands of other southern Negroes as the nineteenth century drew to a close. [Rising , p. 28]

Pullman was a perfectionist who wanted his instructions carried out precisely. Gradually, the preparation of Pullman porters was regimented. Potential porters were carefully selected, their characters assessed, and then trained meticulously. Training included studying what grew into an inch-thick rulebook, as well as physical training. Author Stewart Holbrook explained the training in his history of American railroads:

The rookie porter is sent to school in one of the larger railroad centers where the Pullman Company has a car sidetracked for a schoolroom. Here in charge of a veteran the rookie learns the proper method of folding and putting away blankets, of making berths. He is taught that a sheet, towel, or pillow slip once unfolded cannot be used again; it may be clean, yet technically it is soiled and must go to the laundry. He goes through the motions of making up and making down the beds. He is shown how the heating, lighting, and air-conditioning controls operate. He is taught how to wake passengers-no noise, not even a knock on the edge of the berth, but merely a gentle shake of the curtains from the outside. Meanwhile, from the wise old heads who instruct him, the rookie learns a good deal about the habits of passengers whom he will meet.

Now comes an actual trip, though still under the eye of an experienced porter. The rookie will doubtless make several of these trial trips, and then, one night, he makes the trip out alone. If all goes well, or even pretty well, he is on his way to being a Pullman porter, and once he is such, he is more often than not set in the occupation he will follow the rest of his life. [Holbrook, Stewart H., The Story of American Railroads , Bonanza Books, 1957, p. 330-331]

It was a demanding job that as Tye put it, "would swallow up their lives, in hours and attitude," with new hires "cut loose from home and family."

Thousands of men hired in Georgia, the Carolinas, and Alabama were made to work out of railroad hubs like Chicago, New York, and Boston. The climates were icy, the accents hard to decipher, and there was a whole set of racial rules to absorb. [Rising , p. 35]

The Pullman porter had many responsibilities, sometimes occupying 400 hours a month in the early years. Converting the passenger cars into a sleeper was a key task:

Or, as they said, made down beds, since the most taxing part was popping the upper berth from the ceiling. The lower was formed by folding down opposing seats, fastening curtains, affixing the headboard, and adding blankets, pillows, and linen.

The porter was alert throughout the night to help passengers who needed to get down from their upper berths. He shined the passengers' shoes, black and tan only, one pair at a time to avoid mixing them up. In the morning, he had to be sure to wake the passengers on time:

Berth attendant was one among many hats worn by the Pullman porter. He was official greeter, helping passengers climb aboard and lugging up their baggage, then doing the reverse when they left. He was a chambermaid, endlessly dusting cinders from window ledges and seats, always with a wet cloth to keep embers down, then using mop and whisk broom to sweep grime off washrooms, passageways, and platforms. Spittoons had to be polished, ladies' hats boxed, letters mailed and telegrams wired, heaters stoked, lights lit, and extinguished, "Quiet" signs posted then removed, card tables set up and broken down, and coolers stocked with ice . . . . He was a flesh-and-blood lost-and-found, helping passengers retrieve misplaced dentures, diamond bracelets and wedding rings, mink coats and golf bags, and children. He brought food and drinks from dining and hotel cars, and sold cigarettes, candy, and playing cards everywhere Pullmans ran. [Rising , p. 38]

The Pullman company kept salaries low, so the porters depended on tips from their passengers. This circumstance made the porters eager to please, which was a characteristic the company encouraged:

Giving shoes a lasting shine was what porters called their "hustle," the ministration most likely to elicit a reward. Next were delivering a telegram, mailing a letter during a station stop, running a bath, serving food or drink, delivering a card table or aspirin, and carting baggage . . . . A plea to "take care of my child" always came with a sawbuck or two, with another tip likely upon safely handing her or him off to grandparents down the line. [Rising , P. 46]

Passengers called the porters "boy," "uncle," "Sam," "Joe," and frequently, the "N-word." However, the most common name used was "George," after the company's founder. The porters resented this nickname, but the company required them to respond to it if used. By the 1920s, the company posted the names of the porters in the cars as a way of ending the "George" nickname, although its use continued for many years. In his 1947 book, Holbrook observed that by then, only the "pseudo-sophisticated male" addressed porters as "George," adding, "Today, only congenital hicks use 'George.'" [Rising , p. 94-96, American Railroads , p. 333]

In return for this hard work, Pullman porters were seen as leaders in their communities:

[The] porters were fully aware they had one of the best jobs in the Negro community, putting them on a social par with teachers, funeral directors, and even doctors and lawyers, many of whom worked their way through school as porters and a surprising number of whom came back after graduation for the easy money. Porters owned their own homes and were thought to be catches as husbands. They were racial diplomats, mediating between their all-Negro, mainly poor world and their riders' all-white, mainly middle-class one . . . .

Pullman porters also climbed near the top of the Negro social ladder, to the same rung as head waiters in restaurants and barbers. Porters had dipped their toes in the Pacific and Atlantic, walked the promenades in New York City and Chicago, and traveled to fifty states with Wall Street barons and baseball gods [the latter uniformly reviled as disruptive, horse-playing, rowdy, low- or non-tippers]. They were men with stories to tell, and everyone listened. No matter that the Pullman Company sold their services on the basis of their old South obsequiousness. What mattered back home was that many porters owned homes and cars, while most stayed groomed and sober, voted Republican, and were beacons of the church. Their skin remained black, but their tastes grew increasingly white and bourgeois, which in pre-World War I America was a measure of success. [Rising , p. 73, 77]

Their children and, in turn, grandchildren were often recruited for porter jobs, almost inheriting their parent's occupation.

Relations between the porters and the company were sometimes rough. For example, in 1893, the country went into one of its worst panics - railroad over-expansion with shaky financing created an economic bubble that collapsed and resulted in bank failures. Tye described the effect on Pullman's company and the town he had built for his factory workers:

George slashed workers' wages by nearly a third and pared back thousands of jobs, but rents went untouched, as did salaries of managers and dividends to stockholders. Workers were outraged, and in May of 1894 they declared a strike. It started locally but spread across the country as members of the American Railway Union refused to haul Pullman cars. It also started peacefully but ended with brick-throwing mobs overturning freight trains and turning Chicago into a flaming inferno. Calm was eventually restored, but not until twelve people were killed and two thousand federal troops called up, along with four thousand Illinois militia, five thousand deputy marshals, and the entire Chicago police force.

A racial divided was evident. The union's constitution required members to be "born of white parents," so the porters had not been recruited for the strike. The strike also exposed the racial restrictions of Pullman's company town, which admitted few African-Americans and no porters. Although Pullman had broken the strike, he was now seen as "a pompous autocrat, industrial tyrant, and modern-day King Lear," as Tye summarized the contemporary commentary. [Rising , p. 70-71]

George M. Pullman died in Chicago on October 19, 1897, after a heart attack. Robert Todd Lincoln, the former President's son, became president of the Pullman Company, a role he would hold until 1911. Much of his term would involve defending the company's labor practices, including the low salaries paid to the porters.

Updated: 10/17/2013
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