Our previous post featured some of the menus from the New York Central’s most famous train, the 20th Century Limited… but I left one out, as I felt it was appropriate for today. Printed in 1943, World War Two raged on, and much of the country’s resources were devoted to the war effort. Not only did the railroads move troops and materiel, they heavily advertised war bonds on timetables, menus, and even on a giant “billboard” in Grand Central. This particular 20th Century Limited menu featured a large American flag (the 48 star variety, of course) on the back with a little story about what our flag represents. It felt perfect for today! Happy Independence Day from I Ride The Harlem Line!
If you enjoyed our previous set of Farm Security Administration photos, no doubt you will enjoy the ones today, possibly even more so. Captured by Marjorie Collins, another one of the lesser-known FSA photographers, today’s set of photos features New York’s Pennsylvania Station. Taken about a year after the photos we saw last week (these date to August 1942), the war is in full swing, and the station is filled with soldiers. As was the FSA’s goal, these images artfully capture what life was like in the 1940’s.
Now I’m not the biggest fan of the Pennsy, and I don’t frequently post things about Penn Station, but I think this set of photos was too amazing to pass up. We may be celebrating the centennial of Grand Central Terminal, but I think it is also a perfect time to reflect about New York’s other great “temple of transportation,” and its greater significance in terms of historical preservation.
Grand Central Terminal was still in construction when the Pennsylvania Railroad opened their great station in 1910. Designed by the famous McKim, Mead, and White, the two stations shared a Beaux Arts aesthetic. Both were exquisite New York monuments, and they almost shared the same fate – the wrecking ball. With the decline in rail travel both the New York Central and the Pennsylvania Railroads were strapped for cash and looking to make a buck anywhere they could. With the significant costs to maintain such large stations, the buildings were worth more to them as real estate. In 1963 the gorgeous Penn Station was demolished in order to build Madison Square Garden above.
Is it not cruel to let our city die by degrees, stripped of all her proud monuments, until there will be nothing left of all her history and beauty to inspire our children? If they are not inspired by the past of our city, where will they find the strength to fight for her future? Americans care about their past, but for short term gain they ignore it and tear down everything that matters. Maybe this is the time to take a stand, to reverse the tide, so that we won’t all end up in a uniform world of steel and glass boxes.
–Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, the high-profile face of historic preservation in New York City.
I am firmly of the belief that New York could not have two great railroad stations – for it was the destruction of Pennsylvania Station that motivated people to protect the city’s historical landmarks. In 1965, two years after Penn Station’s destruction, New York’s Landmark Preservation Commission was established. Grand Central was declared a landmark, and the New York Central, and later the Penn Central, were not permitted to destroy it – a fight the railroad took all the way up to the Supreme Court. If not for the destruction of Penn Station, it is very possible that we would not be celebrating the centennial of Grand Central right now. So thanks, Penn Station, we shall not forget you.
In the late 1930’s, when the United States was still in throes of the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt enacted various economic programs focusing on recovery called the New Deal. One of the new federal agencies established by the New Deal was called the Resettlement Administration, a group that focused on building relief camps for migrant workers and refugees from the droughts in the southwest. A photography project to document the work was established, and when the Resettlement Administration later became the Farm Security Administration, the documentary photography project was expanded. Under the leadership of Roy Stryker, the FSA photographers captured some very iconic images of American life during and after the Depression, or as he said “introducing America to Americans.”
While the Farm Security Administration photographers captured many images of Americans struggling through tough times, you may be surprised to note that not all of the photos were of farmers and migrant workers, or even poverty. The FSA’s photo archives contain many images of just regular American life between the years 1935 and 1944 – including several shots in Grand Central Terminal. Two particular photos, captured by visual anthropologist and FSA photographer John Collier, are quite iconic, and have even used on video boards in Grand Central Terminal advertising its upcoming centennial.
Below you’ll find some of Collier’s photos from Grand Central, including the two more famous ones, all taken in October of 1941. It is pretty cool to compare the first and second photos in the set – the first is the fairly famous capture, while the second is of the same people in the Terminal, just from the other side. The angle – with the sun shining in from the windows, illuminating the people and casting long shadows – really made the shot.
Now when I said that the Farm Security Administration photographers endeavored to capture views of American life, I totally meant it. Undoubtedly, the photographers could have spent the entire day wandering around Grand Central, capturing the various people walking in and out of the Terminal and call it a day. But the FSA, they didn’t work that way. Collier went beyond Grand Central and followed some commuters home – snapping photos of them in the bar car, playing cards on the train, or just reading the newspaper. For one particular commuter, an unidentified advertising executive from Westport, Collier captured the man’s breakfast with family, photographed him running out the door to make the 7:40 train, and even snapped the moment he kissed his wife goodbye at the station. The following photos are truly a gem – illustrating not just an American life, but the life of a commuter to Grand Central in the early 1940’s.
Scant months after the above two sets of photos were taken, the large east windows of the Terminal were completely covered with a massive photo mural paid for by the Treasury and advertising war bonds and stamps. The mural not only used photos from the Farm Security Administration’s collection, but was documented from start to finish by the FSA photographers. Dedicated in December of 1941, the mural was claimed to be the largest photo mural in the world, measuring 96 by 118 feet.
Visible on the mural was the following text:
That government – by the people shall not perish from the Earth. That we may defend the land we love. That these may face a future unafraid. That we may build for a better world. Buy defense bonds and stamps now!
When the mural was originally planned, the United States had not yet entered into World War II. Work for the mural had begun at least three months prior to its installation, though it was dedicated in December – just days after the attack on Pearl Harbor. At some point, assumedly sometime after the US entered the war, the sign was changed to say “War Bonds” as opposed to “Defense Bonds,” which is visible in this photo (it was hard to read – “war” is written in black, covering over the “defense” written in white).
After the US entered the war, the FSA’s photography unit was reassigned to the Office of War Information, and then a year later, disbanded. Collier remained with the photography project when it was transferred to the OWI before leaving in 1943. His mentor, and fellow FSA photographer Dorothea Lange opted for a job with the War Relocation Authority. Lange captured hundreds of Japanese Americans as they were rounded up and sent to internment camps during the war, where her depictions of reality were at odds with her employers. In the government’s desire to gloss over the fact that we too operated concentration camps during the war, the photographs were confiscated and only recently uncovered.
Last weekend when I was out and about, I couldn’t resist making the purchase of an old New York Central dining car menu. I don’t particularly need a dining car menu (just as a cat lady doesn’t really need 50 cats :P), but here I am with a new acquisition to my ever-growing collection. I think the thing that really captured my interest was the fact that the menu had a photo of Grand Central on the front. But I’m glad that I bought the thing – if only to marvel at the cheap (by today’s standards) prices food used to cost “back in the day.”
Railroad menu designs are certainly not as alluring as the ever-changing timetable, but menus are a nice little bit of rail history. Trains were once the primary mode of long-distance transportation in this country, and where people went food certainly needed to follow. The dining car was an integral part of these trains – a place where passengers could relax, watch the passing scenery, and have a wonderful chef-prepared meal.
The menu that I purchased is from around the 1940’s, and possibly from the 20th Century Limited (note the name of the salad – 20th Century Salad Bowl). The menu is for dinner service, and the offerings look quite tasty – including prime rib, lamb chops, and a chicken pie, among other things. Though the $1.60 for the full prime rib meal seems incredibly cheap, that meal would end up costing around $24.60 today, adjusting for inflation.
If you find the subject of dining cars interesting, there is a wonderful article that was published in Classic Trains Magazine that is a must-read. It even includes a recipe for Chicken à la Century, a meal that was served on the 20th Century Limited.