The Sleeping Car King: Who Was George Pullman?

In part three of our miniseries on The Edge of Anarchy: The Railroad Barons, the Gilded Age, and the Greatest Labor Uprising in America, author Jack Kelly discusses the short reign of George Pullman and his costly attempt for riches. 

Jack Kelly
4-minute read
Episode #67

Pullman named his business the Pullman Palace Car Company and the cars really were rolling palaces. Their degree of luxury and comfort set them apart. Double glazing and improved ventilation made them far more pleasant than the typical passenger car. Carved wood and brocade seats and chandeliers added the kind of luxury that Victorians loved.

Passengers were willing to pay for this luxury, just as they’re willing to pay for an upgrade to business or first class on a modern airline. Pullman arranged for each railroad to include the company-owned cars on its trains, pocketing the extra fare passengers had to pay to ride in one. Travel was transformed. One passenger noted that “what was once really tedious has become a pleasure.”

George Pullman came up with the first railroad dining cars, also very elegant, and the name Pullman became synonymous with the height of fashion. Besides offering a taste of luxury to middle-class travelers, Pullman sold private cars to the very wealthy so that they could travel in style without having to rub elbows with the lower classes. These cars were pure over-the-top luxury with rare wood paneling and stained glass and gold-plated plumbing fixtures.

But George Pullman’s instinct—his obsession, really—for making money continually came into conflict with his ideals.

Although his name is not as well-known as that of his friend Andrew Carnegie, George Pullman was one of the wealthiest men of his day, a full-fledged member of the club known as robber barons.

But Pullman did have an idealistic streak. His sleeping cars required the services of porters who made up the beds and tended to passengers’ needs. Pullman hired for these roles African American men, many of them freed slaves. In post-Civil War America, persons of color had very few option and welcomed the work. At one point, the Pullman Company was the largest employer of African Americans in the country.

George Pullman was also concerned about the slums that were beginning to spread in American cities, so he constructed a large company town adjacent to his factory on the outskirts of Chicago. This planned community, which he built in 1880, included the Midwest’s first indoor shopping mall, as well as parks, flower beds, and neat brick homes for the company’s employees. Many thought it was the beginning of a new era, that it offered a model for cities of the future that were free of urban problems. A London newspaper called it “the most perfect city in the world.”

But George Pullman’s instinct—his obsession, really—for making money continually came into conflict with his ideals. Yes, he hired African American porters. But at first he paid them nothing—they worked for tips. When they did receive a salary, it was far below that of white workers. And the porters were required to grin and bear it when racist passengers treated them with contempt.