top of page
  • Writer's pictureRich Honiball

Today in Brand History: The Pullman Sleeper

In 1859, the first Pullman sleeping car was entered into service. George Pullman added a new dimension to train travel and went on to found his own company town that is now part of Chicago.

In 1857, as a young engineer, Pullman arrived in Chicago as the city prepared to build the nation's first comprehensive sewer system. Pullman formed a partnership known as Ely, Smith & Pullman. They gained publicity for raising the Tremont House, a six-story brick hotel, while the guests remained inside.

Later, Pullman developed a railroad sleeping car, the Pullman sleeper or "palace car". He designed it based on the packet boats that travelled the Erie Canal when he was growing up. After President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, Pullman arranged to have his body carried from Washington, D.C. to Springfield on a sleeper, which gained national attention for his fledging invention.

In 1867, Pullman introduced his first hotel on wheels, naming it the "President". It was a sleeper with an attached kitchen and dining car. The food rivaled the best restaurants of the day and the service was impeccable. In 1868, he launched the Delmonico, the world's first sleeping car devoted to fine cuisine. Yes, the menu was prepared by chefs from New York's famed Delmonico's Restaurant.

In 1871, Pullman partnered Andrew Carnegie and others to bail out the financially troubled Union Pacific, taking positions on its board of directors. This helped to further propel Pullman and by 1875, his firm owned $100,000 worth of patents and over 700 cars in operation.

In 1880, Pullman purchased 4,000 acres, near Lake Calumet around 14 miles south of Chicago for around $800,000. It was directly on the Illinois Central Railroad and Pullman hired Solon Spencer Beman to design his new plant there. To attract workers and address the growing poverty situation, he built a company town adjacent to his factory. It featured housing, shopping areas, churches, theaters, parks, hotel and library for his factory employees.

By 1892, the community, profitable in its own right, was valued at over $5 million. Pullman ruled the town with an iron fist. He prohibited independent newspapers, public speeches, town meetings or open discussion. His inspectors regularly entered homes to inspect for cleanliness and could terminate workers' leases on ten days' notice. He demanded that churches pay rent, which all refused to do so they stood empty. He prohibited private charitable organizations.

When manufacturing demand started to fall offs, Pullman cut jobs and wages and increased working hours in his plant to lower costs and keep profits, but he did not lower rents or prices in the company town. The workers eventually launched a strike. When violence broke out, he gained the support of President Grover Cleveland for the use of United States troops.

In the winter of 1893–94, at the start of a depression, Pullman decided to cut wages by 30%. This was not unusual in the age of the robber barons, but he didn't reduce the rent in Pullman, because he had guaranteed his investors a 6% return on their investments in the town. As a result, a worker might make $9.07 in every two weeks, and the rent of $9 would be taken directly out of his paycheck, leaving him with just 7 cents to feed his family.

Though Pullman was able to convince then President Cleveland to send soldiers to bust the strike, his reputation was damaged by the strike, and it only got worse after the presidential commission that investigated the incident. The national commission report found Pullman partly to blame and described Pullman's company town as "un-American". The report condemned Pullman for refusing to negotiate and for the economic hardships he created for workers in the town of Pullman. The State of Illinois filed a suit and a year after Pullman's death in 1897, they annexed the town and made it part of Chicago.


bottom of page