Pullman and the Advent of the Dining Car

When you think of the Pullman company, you probably imagine the luxury sleeper cars that dominated the rails for nearly 100 years, with their neatly-made sleeping berths, intricate woodwork and plush drapery. Of course, what made riding in a Pullman car so luxurious wasn’t just the sleeping accommodations; it was the dining experience, too. Over the years, Pullman’s dining cars dazzled passengers with refined, innovative menus and impeccable service, and in the process, transformed the American culinary landscape.

Oddly enough, dining cars emerged more out of necessity than luxury. Before the advent of the dining car, food offerings on trains were a logistical and functional nightmare. Meals were prepared in advance and could turn stale or rotten after sitting out for days, and passengers had little time to get food either on the train or from vendors at stations. During the American Civil War, the Union’s armies needed to transport their wounded on the rails, so they built “hospital trains.” These trains included cars with kitchen and dining areas, which allowed armies to accommodate their passengers without stopping.

These “hospital trains” ended up being the prototype to what would eventually become known as the dining car through the mid to late 19th century. These innovations were soon felt in civilian life through the Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore (PW&B) Railroad producing three railcars officially designated as “dining cars.” These cars boasted the same furnishings found in a restaurant, and their menus contained foods such as oyster stew, pies, and coffee. However, the PW&B trains had one major difference from the dining cars that would be popularized on more modern dining cars: rather than making meals during the trip, PW&B cooks prepared the dishes beforehand and preserved them to be served to its guests.

As with so many features of rail travel, the Pullman company would take these developments in railcar dining to new heights. In 1867, the Pullman company introduced its first hotel car, the President. The extensive menu for this “hotel on wheels” didn’t just provide passengers with good food, it promoted foods passengers might not otherwise be exposed to, like the Creole dish, gumbo. A year after the President began operation, Pullman’s first dining-only car, the Delmonico, would be added to the roster of Pullman cars. Named after a notable Manhattan restaurant, the Delmonico signaled to passengers the kind of elevated culinary experience Pullman was offering.

As the dining car grew into a standard service, it’s success would go on to impact the design of other railcars. With multiple cars serving different purposes, rail companies needed to find a safer way for people to move between cars. In 1887, the Pullman company secured the patents for the Sessions Vestibule, an elastic diaphragm that would attach two cars together to allow for safe passage. Even trains without Pullman cars ended up using similar adaptations for safer passage between cars.

Pullman’s dining service was an enduring tradition, one that revolutionized train travel and provided the company with ample business well into its later years. Its legacy remains; today, many amenities and designs for first-class train cars and planes take inspiration from the sleeper and dining cars Pullman operated. With innovations like vestibules becoming common aspects of passenger railcars, the Pullman Company made sure to leave its stamp on the industry they helped make prosper.

Works Cited
[1] Estes, Rufus. Rufus Estes’ Good Things to Eat. pg. vii-xiii. Dover, 2004.
[2] Porterfield, James D. Dining By Rail. pg. 5- 11, 29-47, 71-74. Macmillan, 1998.
[3] Mulligan, Terence et al. Dining à la Pullman. pg. 9-31. Garbely, 2019.

Pullman National Historical Park

Last updated: April 24, 2023