Home on the Rails: Women, the Railroad, and the Rise of Public Domesticity

Home on the Rails: Women, the Railroad, and the Rise of Public Domesticity

Home on the Rails: Women, the Railroad, and the Rise of Public Domesticity

Home on the Rails: Women, the Railroad, and the Rise of Public Domesticity


Recognizing the railroad's importance as both symbol and experience in Victorian America, Amy G. Richter follows women travelers onto trains and considers the consequences of their presence there.

For a time, Richter argues, nineteenth-century Americans imagined the public realm as a chaotic and dangerous but potentially rich space where various groups came together, collided, and influenced one another, for better or worse. The example of the American railroad reveals how, by the beginning of the twentieth century, this image was replaced by one of a domesticated public realm-a public space in which both women and men increasingly strove to make themselves "at home."

Through efforts that ranged from the homey touches of railroad car d cor to advertising images celebrating female travelers and legal cases sanctioning gender-segregated spaces, travelers and railroad companies transformed the railroad from a place of risk and almost unlimited social mixing into one in which white men and women alleviated the stress of unpleasant social contact. Making themselves "at home" aboard the trains, white men and women domesticated the railroad for themselves and paved the way for a racially segregated and class-stratified public space that freed women from the home yet still preserved the railroad as a masculine domain.


“Look at the map.” With these words the Pennsylvania Railroad invited travelers to contemplate its routes: New York City to Toledo, Chicago to Washington, D.C., Pittsburgh to Cincinnati…. The choices seemed limitless; the permutations mesmerized. Dazzled by the intricacies of the Pennsylvania’s lines, the viewer might have missed the larger picture: the routes were printed on the torso of a woman–right across the bodice and balloon sleeves of her dress, her expression serious and her eyes dark. The message, perhaps unintended, is significant; during the nineteenth century, railroads and women appeared to have little in common. Indeed, within the cultural values of the day, the ideals of the railroad stood in opposition to those of “respectable” womanhood. The first represented Victorian hopes of commercial, technological, and national progress; the second embodied a realm of moral and emotional rejuvenation beyond the reach of such social change. Yet, as the Pennsylvania’s “railroad poster girl” suggests, despite their cultural distinctiveness, women and the railroad share a history. To see it, though, we must train our eyes to take in both at the same time. To that end, this study considers women on trains as the key to a different map, one charting the changing terrain of nineteenth-century public culture.

To see women and the railroad together demands a recasting of railroad history and historiography–a shift away from technological innovation and economic indicators. Railroads have long been understood as places of masculine power–of industrial labor, technological development, business innovation, and political debate. But if trains, as traditionally depicted, were “masculine” because of the power of their engines and the courage of their engineers, they were “feminine” because of the domesticity of their parlor cars and the refinement of their female passengers. In the summer of 1869, Godey’s Lady’s Book made this point in an editorial celebrating the . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.