Civilising Velocity: Masculinity and the Marketing of Britain's Passenger Trains, 1921-39

By Divall, Colin | The Journal of Transport History, December 2011 | Go to article overview
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Civilising Velocity: Masculinity and the Marketing of Britain's Passenger Trains, 1921-39


Divall, Colin, The Journal of Transport History


In February 1937 the London & North Eastern Railway Magazine published a photograph of a young girl sound asleep on a train (Figure 1). The winning entry in a competition aimed at the company's workers, the image connoted the civilised nature of British railway travel in the inter-war decades.1 Freed from any worry of crashing, and watched over by the railway's disciplined employees as well as by any accompanying adults, the girl was lulled by the train's gentle motion and upholstered seating, even while at speed, into that most vulnerable condition of everyday life: sleep. From one perspective this photograph was just the latest twist in a long history of the train's representation as a civilised form of transport. In Victorian Britain the invocation of bourgeois notions of civility had countered widespread anxieties about this novel way of travelling. In particular, recasting the train's amenities as a mobile version of those found in the home served to reconcile men to a way of moving that might otherwise have been construed as effete. Accentuating the domestic comforts also eased women's acceptance of the train, helping to regulate interaction between the sexes when strangers came together in the confined space of the compartment.2 By the First World War, the unparalleled safety, comfort and speed of British express trains was a staple of the private railway companies' efforts to persuade people to travel more.3

Why, then, should historians be interested in such cultural practices between the two world wars? Because in order to compete with the rapid spread of motoring from the early 1920s, the railways had to re-engineer the train as a masculine space, which might also appeal to the growing numbers of women with the time and money to travel. Such a narrative embeds the consumption of railway travel in a history of personal mobility understood as a commodity. In a market economy, as soon as people have any choice about whether to move, and if so by which means, their mobility becomes shaped by the commercial cultures of transport providers. The term 'commercial culture' acknowledges that 'various aspects of cultural production ... are inherently concerned with the commodification of various kinds of cultural difference'; as a consequence, 'the apparently rational calculus of the market is inescapably embedded in a range of cultural processes'.4 One such process is aspirational marketing based on the social distinction conferred by the purchase of a service like a train journey. Related processes include the development of corporate brands, trademarks and public relations. These commercial cultures are constructed and communicated through a wide range of literary, visual, aural and physical media, including technological objects and spaces such as vehicles.5 And as Sheryl Kroen reminds us, gender infuses the history of consumption and hence that of commercial cultures. The growing approbation of the consumer in the early twentieth century turned both on men's increasing consumption and on women's assertion of full political, economic and social status.6 Consequently, the railway companies' marketing in the face of road competition both reflected and contributed to the gendering of inter-war mobility.

The gendered nature of motoring is quite well understood. In picking up on the excitement that contemporaries felt about cars and motorcycles, historians have shown that before 1914 these technologies appealed particularly to men precisely because they were dangerous, uncomfortable and used outside the supposedly feminine, private sphere of the home.7 The identification of automobiles as predominantly masculine continued in Britain throughout the 1920s and 1930s, despite an early connection between motoring and female emancipation. Nevertheless, the growing presence of women on the roads both encouraged and was a consequence of a 'feminisation' of the car (but not the motorcycle). Manufacturers made driving easier with devices such as synchronised gearboxes and electric starters, and in the 1930s they made frequent changes in external styling and to the comfort and aesthetics of interiors.

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