The other day, while writing a review of a photo archive book about Chicago trains and stations for my new automotive and transportation book review website (which in a shameless plug I will tell you is located at speedreaders.info), I was struck by something about train travel in the 1920s and '30s: It had style. Locomotives in that period followed the Art Deco motif, featuring the use of graphical elements and design that made a train an elegant way to travel.
The train cars themselves followed the styling of their engines with streamlined shapes often rendered in sleek aluminum. Looking at the pictures made me want to hop aboard the San Francisco Chief, the Grand Canyon Limited, the Dixie Limited, the Capitol Limited, the vaunted Twentieth Century Limited, or any one of the dozens of other christened trains that served passengers out-bound from Chicago.
By the '50s and '60s, the styling of locomotives and trains themselves moved away from glamour, becoming more efficient but much less interesting. The drive to efficiency actually got a big push when the Electromotive Division of General Motors introduced a hybrid diesel-electric passenger locomotive in 1938 and one capable of carrying freight in 1939. These game-changers quickly displaced steam, but were much less stylish and eventually resulted in boxy locomotives that looked more like refrigerators than sleek means of transportation.
At the same time that General Motors engineers were developing hybrids for the rail industry, a designer named Norman Bel Geddes was making a name for himself. Bel Geddes trained at the Cleveland Art Institute and the Chicago Institute of Art, but never received a formal degree. He started his career as a set, scenery, and lighting designer for the New York Metropolitan Opera Company, but in 1927 opened a design office and found work creating designs for automobiles, trains, oceanliners, radios, stoves, refrigerators, passenger airplane interiors, office interiors, and service stations. His designs fully embraced the streamlined looks of the style called Moderne-also often referred to as Art Deco.
During the Great Depression, Americans looked to futurists to help escape the drab and dreary realities of everyday life and envision a brighter future thanks in large part to the wonders of technology. The masses wanted optimism, and Bel Geddes' rosy vision of the future included high-speed automobile travel and cities whose design permitted unobstructed transportation. He became adept at building scale models into dioramas that aptly demonstrated his plans for urban America. Largely because of his persuasive and vivid dioramas, he was hired by General Motors to create its Futurama exhibit at the company's pavilion at the 1939 New York World's Fair. His mission was to create an image of "The City of 1960."
The Futurama exhibit cost $8 million to build and as many as 45 million visitors waited an average of two hours in line to have a chance to see it. Viewers sat in plush chairs, each with its own speaker system, which were carried by a conveyer, hovering over Bel Geddes' models of cities, towns, and countryside. His vision included skyscrapers, massive suspension bridges, airports, and superhighways. Bel Geddes described it thus: "Futurama is a large-scale model representing almost every type of terrain in America and illustrating how a motorway system may be laid down over the entire country-across mountains, over rivers and lakes, through cities and past towns-never deviating from a direct course and always adhering to the four basic principles of highway design: safety, comfort, speed and economy." Visitors to the exhibit came away with a button that read "I have seen the future."