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There is nothing like boarding the train to take you to a far off destination. The elegant brightwork of the coaches, the steam coming off of the cylinders of the locomotive, and of course, the smartly dressed conductor who was ready to punch your ticket. A finely dressed conductor was one of the first things anyone sees when they ride the train. The conductor was a professional and needed to be dressed to make the passenger feel they were taking a lifetime trip. But how did it all start?
From the earliest years of railroading, railroad workers have captured the public’s imagination. Starting in the 1840s, attention was especially drawn to railroad conductors who began wearing distinguishing apparel, thus creating the first railroad uniform. A prominent article of the crisp, dark, tailored uniforms was the small billed, dark-colored, fine silk hat, bearing a silver nameplate which read “Conductor.” The conductor had the most contact with the passengers and was thusly the railroad representative to the people riding the train. He needed to be dressed smartly to convey the splendor of the car he was in charge of. It wasn’t long before other workers commenced wearing similar uniforms, with their titles, such as brakeman, switchman, agent, telegrapher, etc., emblazoned on the silver nameplate. Starting in 1870, railroad companies began issuing official uniforms to all train crew members, except for the engine crew.
Railroad crews in different crafts wore different uniforms. Pullman Company porters wore Pullman uniforms, while other onboard workers, such as conductors, trainmen, etc., wore uniforms specified by their specific railroad. Railroads did provide specifications to uniform tailors as to type and color of fabric and cut of the cloth. Black and navy blue were common uniform colors, but others weren’t uncommon. In the 1960s, the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy used a royal blue, Rio Grande and Western used a gray shade, and Chicago & Northwestern used an olive green.
The traditional uniform worn by conductors and brakemen was a 3-piece suit: coat, vest, and trousers. They were designed for long service and hard use. Pockets were of the slit type, no flaps, and were edged with leather, as were coat cuffs. They were built for durability and ruggedness. Coats often had 2-sided pockets on each side, arranged one above the other. A 4-button, the single-breasted style was most common. Vests also had several pockets, although they usually didn’t get the leather treatment on the pocket edges.
Coat and vest buttons weren’t sewn on. Instead, they were affixed with a sort of cotter key to allow easy change-out. Brass was typical for a conductor’s buttons, nickel for a brakeman’s, signifying the hierarchy of the wearer. Conductors, and dining car stewards, station masters, had gold buttons and trim. Trainmen, gatemen, attendants, etc., received silver buttons and trim.
The railroad’s logo or initials often were applied to one or both coat lapels or collars. These might be embroidered or a metal fastening.
Uniform hats had military styling, pillbox with a brim being very common. Peaked caps came into use after World War II, mimicking the garrison caps used by servicemen. Badges indicating occupation, such as conductor, flagman, etc., usually included the railroad’s name, initials, or logo, while sometimes omitting a few details.
After WWII, some railroads began to change their uniforms. One of the first was the Santa Fe. They went to a 3-button coat with a “Military Officer’s Cap” to honor General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower. The Burlington Route went to a lighter, more blue shade of cloth with a red tie in 1956 and went to a military hat in 1966. The Great Northern went to a “french blue” uniform in 1956, topped off with a military cap. The Rock Island Line did the same and included a light blue tie. The Rock Island referred to their cap as “Yachting Style” in their specs. Men on the Rock Island tended to take the grommet out of their caps, giving them the “20 mission crush” look, another homage to World War II. Later they went to light blue shirts as well. The Chicago & Northwestern in 1969 went to a 2-button coat in forestry green, similar to a park ranger, with slanted pockets, with a black stripe down the side of the trousers. One stripe on the sleeve for a collector, and two for a conductor. They had a military cap as well. The Illinois Central did a similar thing in 1971, except they just had the logo on the military cap and plain black buttons.
Dining car stewards generally wore a conductor’s uniform with a white, starched vest. The Baltimore & Ohio and New York Central stewards wore grey trousers with their uniforms. Some stewards wore formalwear, appropriate for the time of day, i.e., dark grey coat, striped trousers for day, tuxedos for dinner.
Pullman Conductors wore a standard uniform, except for a while the coats had five buttons, and the vests had seven buttons. Porters wore “bell collared” coats with trousers, all navy blue. In the heat and the cars, they wore white linen coats. It is important to note that a Pullman Porter never left home without his Pullman key, which allowed him to unlock the overhead berth. There would be some very unhappy passengers, and it could result in the porter getting fired, as infractions were very strictly dealt with by the Pullman Company.
Another prominent railroad worker is the engineer. The engineer operates the locomotive with the assistance of the fireman back in the day. Independently minded locomotive engineers and firemen shunned the fine cut clothing of the other train crew members. They needed rugged apparel that could withstand the heat, grease, and oil of their job. In the early days of transcontinental railroading, engine crews wore sturdy wool or dark denim trousers, loose-fitting muslin shirts, wool vests, and square-toed shoes and boots. Their hats were traditional derbies, top hats, or even military headgear, all without a nameplate. Finally, in 1890, engineers and firemen gave in to the trend and developed their own unique uniform. This clothing included a soft, durable hat of unusual design, which became the engineers’ trademark, who was affectionately known as “hog heads.”
The first stereotypical engineer caps, or hog head hats, were dark-colored denim. In 1920, to promote sales of their striped overalls, a Wisconsin clothing manufacturer began producing engineer caps of the same blue and white striped material. The pattern was a success. Soon, the matching cap and overalls remained the universally identified engine crew uniform throughout the balance of the steam era and into the modern diesel-electric way of railroading.
Overalls made of denim and often striped were used in addition to denim overcoats and leather work gloves. The Overalls had many pockets so that the engineer might store a few tools in them, particularly a wrench to make adjustments, a temperature gauge to take heat readings, and a special pocket for his watch, which must be set accordingly to make sure the train stays on schedule.
Even though we view the engineer’s job as being a difficult and dirty one, it often was; most engineers would go to work wearing and return home in a suit and tie, just like you might see in a person working an office job. Engineers were a class of highly trained professionals, and even though they played hard and rugged, they often looked sharp going to and from the rail yard.
Today most engineers and freight conductors dress in practical clothing with very little uniformity. They may wear a baseball-style cap with their railroad logo on it and steel toe boots, but shirts and pants are left up to the wearer. A uniformly worn thing is a safety vest, especially when outside the cab working on the sides of the train or coupling and uncoupling cars. Safety is the number item when it comes to uniforms nowadays.
The most recognizable person we see on the railroads in uniform today are those working for Amtrak. Shortly after its formation in 1971, Amtrak hired well-known designer Bill Atkinson to bring a cohesive, modern personality to the railroad. With a hodgepodge of uniforms and not to mention cars inherited from various railroads, some serious streamlining was needed.
Atkinson developed conceptual sketches that were presented to teams of employees, union officials, and Amtrak executives. The new uniforms were manufactured with a blend of wool or cotton with Dacron polyester, a popular and “fashionable” fabric in the early 1970s. Components were intended to be “serviceable, functional, and easy to care for.” Atkinson took advantage of bold reds and contrasting color combinations and cleverly incorporated the Amtrak service mark, an inverted arrow, into many pieces, including jacket cuffs and along the neckline of a sweater intended for female passenger service representatives.
The conductor’s uniform remained traditional navy blue, but the Norfolk-cut jacket was finished with red saddle stitching. Conductors would also wear a western-style shirt with a red tie. A pouch resembling an attaché case provided room for the ticket punch, seat checks, and other tools of the trade. In keeping with the relaxed, fun atmosphere of the onboard lounges, the bartender received one of the more colorful makeovers: a three-button cuff bandana shirt and blue and white striped pants held up with tri-color suspenders.
Female passenger service representatives, sometimes referred to as “train hostesses,” were given the most options, with pieces such as hot pants and a floor-length skirt that could be mixed with various tops and sweaters according to the season. Perhaps indicative of contemporary male attitudes towards the entry of an increasing number of women into the workforce, Atkinson commented: “In this era of unisex, distinctive uniforms for the Amtrak gals, from ticket seller to hostess, are absolutely feminine…We feel that just because a guy is riding a train doesn’t mean he’s lost interest in girl watching.” While promotional photos depicted female employees happily wearing hot pants and go-go boots, some women considered this attire unprofessional and favored skirts and slacks, as would become the norm even up to the present day.
Amtrak Blue uniforms were introduced in the late 1970s in time for the arrival of the bi-level Superliner cars. These polyester ensembles had tailored jackets with rounded collars and flared cuff-less trousers. A sense of formality was retained by requiring stewards to wear a white vest with five logo buttons and blue trim at the pockets and a blue necktie.
Male attendants had found Atkinson’s white double-breasted jacket uncomfortable and too short, so it was changed to a longer, single-breasted style. Female attendants now wore navy blue slacks with a navy blue blouse or turtleneck pullover and a white vest trimmed in blue to match the men’s jacket. As usual, the cost of the clothing was split between Amtrak and the employee.
As Amtrak entered the 1980s and approached its 10th anniversary, the emphasis moved to easy-care fabrics in a combination of navy and burgundy. A few years later, the color palette again shifted—to calming navy blue and grey. Manufactured by the Grief Companies, which also made clothing for Ralph Lauren and Perry Ellis, the uniforms were made from a rich tropical wool blend with “classic lines and sharp details, clothes you can feel proud to wear.” Polyester/cotton blends were discarded in favor of polyester/wool cloth that “remains lustrous and resists wrinkles after countless wearings.” Thus making it more practical and user friendly.
In 2014, the Amtrak Uniform Program continued to evolve with a more business-like approach. New fashion-forward neckwear with a subtle Amtrak logo has been distributed to employees. Male neckties and female ascot loops in rich burgundy or royal blue complement white or light blue dress shirts. Also, station employees at medium and small Amtrak stations across the system now have the option to wear a light blue polo shirt instead of the shirt and tie ensemble. This new, more casual look is still professional but better meets the active responsibilities for Customer Service employees.
Railroad uniforms have come a long way since the early days and continue to evolve with the present day’s fashion trends. There seems to be more practicality now than before while retaining the same level of professionalism in public as in years past. The railroad uniforms of the future will be tailored to the needs of its wearers in addition to the appearance of professionalism and safety.
The railroad uniform is just like the railroad itself, always evolving and always moving forward in a world of change.
Written by Justin Lambrecht, education assistant
This article first appeared on nationalrrmuseum.org
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