Romancing the Rails: Train Travel in the 1920s and 1930s

The New 20th Century Limited, from original painting by Leslie Ragan (1897-1972), lithograph by Latham Litho. Co., Long Island City, NY, half-tone print, 1938, gift of the New York Central Railroad, 1959.130.168

JUNE 12, 2021-FEBRUARY 27, 2022

The 1920s and 30s were a kind of golden age for rail travel in the U.S., a period when railroads were portrayed as modern amenities that carried passengers to romantic getaways in luxury and comfort. Yet the story of railroads and rail travel during the period is much more complex, involving talented individuals, hardworking people, engineering accomplishments, celebrations, and momentous events.

Railroad history of the 1920s and 30s is also linked to automobiles. During the period the rise in automobile ownership presented the single greatest threat to railroads. Indeed, automobiles reduced demand for short-haul rail service because Americans could easily drive from one town to the next, but the unpaved surfaces of most roads and the uncertainty of amenities like gas stations and wayside restaurants made train travel for long distances the more convenient and preferred method of transportation. Making long-distance rail travel comfortable required a growing number of porters and staff who catered to passengers’ every whim. Porters aboard Pullman sleeping cars comprised one of the nation’s largest employment opportunities for African Americans. During the 1920s, more than 20,000 African Americans worked as porters or other railroad personnel, and in 1925 they organized the first Black labor union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.

During the same decades, railroads like New York Central embarked on new advertising campaigns to confront the growing threat from automobiles. Posters, calendars, and magazine advertisements presented images that romanticized train travel, their destinations, and the sleek, new streamlined locomotives that moved passengers. New York Central hired Industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss, who redesigned not only their locomotives and passenger cars but nearly everything the passenger may encounter from tableware to matchbooks.

The 1930s was also a decade of celebrations that showcased America’s railroads. In 1931, New York Central celebrated its centennial and in 1939 and 1940, America’s railroads were presented to millions of visitors at the 1939 World’s Fair in the form of a musical, Railroads on Parade, presented by the Eastern Railroads. The musical featured a sound score composed by Kurt Weil and a choreographed performance that included actors and real locomotive engines on stage.

Romancing the Rails features objects and library materials from the Albany Institute’s railroad collections, including rare photographs, posters, locomotive models, and objects designed for New York Central’s 20th Century Limited railroad that debuted in 1938 and ran from New York City to Chicago in sixteen hours.

Exhibition Support

Exhibition support is provided by William H. Harris & Holly A. Katz, Alan P. Goldberg, Mr. & Mrs. John Walsh, III, and Elizabeth A. Lee.

Season exhibition and program support is provided by Phoebe Powell Bender, Mr. and Mrs. George R. Hearst III, Charles M. Liddle III, Lois and David Swawite, and the Carl E. Touhey Foundation, Inc.


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Program and exhibition support is made possible in part by the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Kathy Hochul and the New York State Legislature.