The Evolution and Separation of Space on Railroads

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Chapter Two “To Protect Women from the Rude Conduct of the Disorderly”4 Railroad Rules and Practices as they Applied to Women

Nineteenth-century American railroads had different rules and practices for most of their female passengers than they did for men. Societal perceptions of women shaped how the railroads categorized and treated them. In practice, railroads in the east classified women into three categories: genteel, respectable, and less-than-respectable. Gentility was actually a subclass of respectability with extra requirements, one of which was wealth. Railroads in the west tended to only have two classifications: respectable and less-than-respectable.44 Different rules applied to each of these groups. A railroad car manufacturer’s prospectus of 1839 describes four classes of passenger car as supplied to “seven major Middle Atlantic and Southern railroads.” The first and second-class cars included a “Private apartment for ladies.” The distinction between the two ladies’ compartments was phrased as “completely trimmed and carpeted,” for the first-class cars, and “neatly fitted up,” for the second-class. The third and fourth-class cars had no separate facilities for women at all. This distinction in treatment between wealthier “ladies” and less well to-do women was a common theme throughout nineteenth-century rail passenger service.45
Respectable women comprised the majority of the female passengers on trains and most regulations and practices were established for them. One essential element for understanding the culture of railroad passenger service in the nineteenth century is the concept of separate spheres. Victorian women and men saw respectable women as distinct from men, with different skills and interests. Even the physical and spiritual essence of these women differed from that of men. Lydia Huntley Sigourney, author, champion of middle-class values, and arbiter of women’s behavior in the mid-nineteenth century, described this division of the world into masculine and feminine domains in one of the first issues of Godey’s Lady’s Book in 1830:
Man might be initiated into the varieties and mysteries of needlework; taught to have patience with the feebleness and waywardness of infancy, and to steal with noiseless step about the chamber of the sick; and woman might be instructed to contend for the palm of science; to pour forth eloquence in senates, or to ‘wade though fields of slaughter to a throne.’ Yet revoltings of the soul would attend this violence to nature; this abuse of physical and intellectual energy; while the beauty of social order would be defaced, and the fountains of earth’s felicity broken up.
We arrive, therefore, at the conclusion. The sexes are intended for different spheres, and constructed in conformity to their respective destinations by Him who bids the oak brave the fury of the tempest, and the Alpine flower lean its cheek on the bosom of eternal snows.
In Victorian America, God created an order for the universe, with places for each element of creation. Those in a particular position should fulfill their assignments to the best of their ability, but should not seek to move out of their ordained place. To do otherwise would be as unnatural as for an Alpine flower to be capable of surviving “the fury of the tempest,” as Sigourney characterizes the distinction. Men were created to have certain characteristics so as to occupy a particular place in creation. Respectable women had a different role.46
For mid-nineteenth-century Americans, the essential role of woman was as wife and mother. Based on Protestant Christian religious convictions, and spread by books and magazines, domesticity permeated American culture. Historian Barbara Welter described this belief system and its ubiquity in her groundbreaking essay « The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860. » Welter characterized the combination of religious beliefs and capitalist practices as the « cult of domesticity. » Values reflecting those of the home comprised a key element of domesticity. Lydia Sigourney’s commentary referenced needlework and caring for infants and the ill. This belief system defined society’s expectations about “true” or “proper” women in America from the ante-bellum years to late in the century. Domesticity was not limited to women, however. Just as proper women had a set of interests and behaviors, some men accepted, glorified, and supported that role for women. Men who rejected the pattern of behavior allied with true womanhood were not considered gentlemen. Welter made a tongue-in-cheek observation that nevertheless contained a great deal of truth: “If anyone, male or female, dared to tamper with the complex of virtues which made up True Womanhood, he was damned immediately as an enemy of God, of civilization and of the Republic.” Domesticity formed the single most important element of true womanhood.47
The same period in which the cult of true womanhood developed and reached its height, 1820 to 1860, parallels the creation and initial expansion of mass transportation in the United States. Travel practices illustrate a number of elements of respectability as understood by nineteenth-century American society, particularly women’s helplessness and need for protection.48 The concept of respectability as a component of true womanhood required that women be relatively helpless when out of their own domestic sphere, even if quite capable within it. An endearing dependence and submission to male superiority was expected of proper women. Charlotte Hosmer, a quite independent-minded young woman, repeatedly encountered this presumption and found it quite amusing. Upon one occasion while traveling as a book agent in the early 1850s, Hosmer found it necessary to transfer from a steamboat to a train. The captain of the boat took it upon himself to gather and shepherd all of the women from the boat to the train. Hosmer described the scene: “to give you a perfect picture of us, hurrying along from the boat to the cars, you must fancy a hen with an immense brood of chickens, when there is danger near.”49
The nature of women’s respectability was reflected in Americans’ conception and use of space in the sexually shared realm of railroad passenger cars. Early railroad passenger cars allocated space in a different fashion than the earlier canal boats. From a relatively early point in the history of railroads, physically separated areas were created for the use of “ladies,” their children, and their escorts. This practice distinguished railroads from their immediate predecessors in mass transportation. On canal boats, use of the “ladies cabin” generally prohibited the presence of men. Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote a painfully amusing account of a trip on a canal boat, describing the trials and tribulations of “a respectable colony of old ladies, babies [and] mothers” traveling in Pennsylvania. Crowding and confusion ruled. Stowe advised “all our friends who intend to try this way of travelling for pleasure, to take a good stock both of patience and clean towels with them, for we think that they will find abundant need for both.”50
Unlike canal boats, most women on railroads rode in spaces that were shared with men. Mixed gender day coaches always formed the principal means of travel by train. Regulations and practices for these shared spaces were modeled on the American Victorian concept of separate spheres. As noted in the Introduction, railroads classified women with those considered as less than capable, putting “ladies, old people and invalids” all in the same category of those needing assistance. As historian Barbara Welke has pointed out, American society had created this situation of incapacity by structuring “daily life to preserve female passivity and helplessness.” Railroads saw women not only as less capable, but as being more demanding as well. The Pullman Palace Car Company felt it necessary to caution their conductors to take special care “to accommodate a lady, an invalid, or an exacting passenger.”51
A principal duty of the railroads was the protection of women. Railroad company regulations and a preponderance of court cases indicated that women required and were due protection even beyond the safety precautions described in the previous chapter. Railroads exemplified societal perceptions by treating women as less capable than men. As late as 1899, the Supreme Court of Louisiana still found for a plaintiff on the basis that she had every “right to expect” that a conductor or porter would “render her assistance in alighting” from a train car. Mrs. Ella Kennon sought to alight from the ladies’ car in which she had been traveling, but the car had not reached the platform. She waited in the vestibule of the car, thinking that the train would pull forward to where she could more conveniently get off. Instead the train pulled out of the station altogether. When Kennon attempted to reenter the car, the train jerked, causing her to lose her balance and fall to the ground, becoming seriously injured. The conductor admitted that he had overlooked or forgotten that a “lady passenger” was scheduled to alight at that station and so was not present to render assistance. Therefore, when she was injured while attempting to disembark on her own, the railroad was liable.52
Protection was not limited to safety from gross physical harm.53 In a case in Illinois in 1898, The People ex rel. W. S. Cantrell et al. V. The St. Louis, Alton and Terre Haute Railroad Co., the question was rather or not the railroad should be required to furnish a passenger train as well as a freight train. The railroad had been running a “mixed” train, one with passenger as well as freight cars in the consist. In the mixed train, the railroad placed stock cars carrying live cattle ahead of the passenger cars, following the standard practice of “protecting” the passengers by keeping them as far as possible from the engine. Unfortunately, this arrangement caused the odor from the cattle and their manure to inundate the passenger cars. An important argument for forcing the railroad to put on an additional train for passengers only, was that the odor was “bad for ladies and children.”54
Protection from being annoyed by men comprised an essential part of a railroad’s duty towards women. The New York Times treated one episode from 1873 in a humorous fashion that nonetheless demonstrated a certain presupposition of protection by railroads and their employees. A “’good-looking and interesting young lady, twenty-one years of age,’” took a train to Baraboo on the Chicago and North-western Railroad. After some time, the car in which she was riding emptied out except for herself. The conductor entered, and finding her alone, did “’caress and kiss’ his interesting passenger with malice prepense and aforethought.” A Wisconsin court fined the conductor $25 and the railroad fired him. However, the court also fined the railroad — $1000 in damages. The Times writer facetiously noted that at least the conductor got a kiss, the company got nothing:
We trust the lesson will not be lost on other roads with insolent conductors. For the Chicago and North-western we may safely assert that no man will hereafter be employed on it as conductor who is not at least 100 years old, and who does not rank interesting young ladies as disasters only second to a first-class collision.55
This court made a strong statement about the responsibility of a railroad company to control its employees, at least in regard to women.
The ultimate aspect of the gendered arrangements established by the railroads in the effort to protect women was the establishment of dedicated ladies’ cars. By 1850, almost without exception, railroads east of the Mississippi had instituted the practice of designating the rearmost coach on the train as being restricted to ladies and their escorts. Even on a short train, consisting of only a baggage car and two passenger cars, one of the cars would often be specified as the ladies’ car. Dickens observed this phenomenon: “there is a gentleman’s car and a ladies’ car: the main distinction between which is that in the first, everybody smokes; and in the second, nobody does.” Dickens is not alone in finding tobacco to be the primary difference between the cars. The author of a recent popular history of American railroading went so far as to state that the introduction of cars for women “came about not for reasons of prudery, or because women needed to be spared the presence of members of the opposite sex, but because in those years a great many men smoked and an equally large number were devoted to the then very widespread practice of chewing tobacco.” He overstates the importance of tobacco alone to the separation of women from men, especially considering that on some railroads ladies’ escorts were free to smoke and chew in the ladies’ car, at least up to about 1860.56 What this early definer of difference does is reflect the developing concept of gentility.
As practiced on the railroads, gentility was respectability distilled to its purest form. Genteel women required not only the basics of assistance and physical protection; they and their equally respectable male escorts also had to be protected from the presence of the less-than-respectable. Ladies’ cars offered a sanctuary from certain behaviors and groups. The practice of restricting entry to ladies’ cars reflects societal attitudes concerning those behaviors and groups.
One less-than-respectable behavior from which women were to be protected was bad language. Swearing was considered to be undesirable on most railroads. Some companies went so far as to attempt to ban it altogether: “No person will be employed by the Company who is known to be in the habit of using profane or obscene language, and any one using such language, in the presence of passengers, will be promptly discharged.” This attitude demonstrates the increasing sense on the part of Americans that public behavior needed to be even more restrained and proper than private. One guide-book author put it this way: “Profanity, boisterous laughter, uncouth manners, and rudeness are even more unseemly and improper amid the stranger-group of passengers than elsewhere; for, being strangers, a reciprocal respect should prevail.”

Chapter One  The Evolution and Separation of Space on Railroads
Chapter Two  “To Protect Women from the Rude Conduct of the Disorderly” Railroad Rules and Practices as they Applied to Women
Chapter Three  Space and Comfort in Travel
Chapter Four  Gentility and the Smoking Car: Gender Roles on the Railroad
Appendix – Illustrations

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