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Beyond The Tracks – How Railroading Impacted American Workwear Pt. 1

A single, short shriek of the whistle pierces the air. Even from your position at the end of the train, the sound echoes into the hills and rings in your ears — it’s a call to action. “Take this with you, greenhorn, You’ll need it.” The conductor stoops down behind the car’s blazing cast iron stove and hands you a length of hickory wood about as long as an axe handle. Your job is to clamber over each successive railroad car and apply the brakes. Every half-turn of a cast iron wheel, connected by a long stem to the mechanism below, further applies the brake shoes.

The wooden brake club now in your grip is for added leverage on the especially obstinate brake wheels, which happens to be all of them.  You’re a railroad brakeman after all, somewhere on the spectrum between man and machine. Air brakes are a novelty at this time in history, and stopping a speeding train requires several sets of human hands. The cutting wind feels frigid even on the mildest of days as you walk atop a boxcar. Your denim jacket is buttoned as tight as the fit of your quilted wool cap to keep the cold away. As you bend down to turn the final brake wheel, the sensation of a rubber ball slamming into the back of your shoulders nearly knocks your cap off! The tell-tales! Ropes with knots dangle above the tracks to warn brakemen that a tunnel is approaching. Ducking down to avoid the stone portal, you become enveloped by black exhaust smoke as the train passes through a mountain. Your indigo cotton coverings turn to the color of graphite as cinders are brushed away.


This 1890 engraving of railroad brakeman, by H. W. Peckwell, is given an ironic title. Image via Wikipedia.

Rail travel was a rugged adventure in its infancy and coming of age. Like all great technological revolutions, it held the public’s interest and made many heroes and villains alike. As industry and advertising changed the American landscape, railroading’s impact on modern workwear was nothing short of immense. The dirty rigors of the job, which were drastically different from the agricultural origins that many people were familiar with, created a mode of dress all its own. While many of the fabrics and garments existed before the transportation boom of the late 19th century, railroad workers popularized certain fashions among the general public (where their association with the former became indelible). Work-suits of blue denim bib overalls, Wabash stripe chore coats, and cloth “engineer” caps had reached the pinnacle of popular imagery by the early 1900s.


“The Fast Mail” (1871) recreates a passing train as it snags a bag of mail on the fly. The blue-clad engineer is vaguely suggested, by a single black line, to be wearing a short work jacket. The boy on the left wears a “roundabout” jacket, which was one influence on the modern Levi Strauss equivalent. Image via The Library of Congress.

An Instrument of War and Peace


In 1861, William C. Russell sketched an ironclad “railroad battery” that was built to protect workers during the American Civil War. Image via Wikipedia.

Railroads not only changed fashion, but they changed the physical American landscape forever. Some historians define the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869 as the 19th-century equivalent of the moon landing. This massive undertaking came roughly forty years after the first commercially viable railroads sprang up. Inspiration had been imported from the United Kingdom where steam locomotion was rapidly replacing horse-drawn trams. On both continents, the early days were marked by danger and massive financial risk. Workers brought the dreams of these tycoons to life. Many of these laborers came from across the globe and sought economic and social mobility. It was thus in North America, where vast natural resources remained unexplored, that “robber barons” ran free and financed a veritable iron blanket woven from rails.


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