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Transatlantic ‘Logo’motives

Jonathan Glancey looks at how the UK and US inspired each others railroad graphics and designs. Jonathan is a co-writer, with Ian Logan, of the book Logomotive: Railroad Graphics and the American Dream.

Published on December 3, 2020

Streamlined Tube Train A 1935 Tube Stock Streamlined Train. Photo: London Passenger Transport Board

The day after a party held in May 1968 at Macy’s, the Manhattan department store, to celebrate a Best of British Design event, Ian Logan and Rodney Kinsman, two young British designers, drove out of the city in a borrowed Ford Mustang. Stopping at a bar in Cold Spring on the east bank of the Hudson, their glasses began rattling on the table as a long freight train rocked and rolled towards them.

Ian rushed outside to watch the heavy diesel train rumble alongside the bar, boxcars emblazoned with the name “Rock Island”. Ian knew the song Rock Island Line, as popular in England as it was in the US, but not that the line was a real, operational railroad. This was a thrill. But when he caught sight of a boxcar further down the train painted with a big circle proclaiming “Seaboard Air Line Railroad” with a heart in the middle and the slogan “Through the Heart of the South”, he knew he had to record such eye-catching logos. These were soon to disappear as characterful railroads were merged into combines with largely anonymous corporate identities.

Ian has chased this graphic rainbow for forty years and Logomotive: Railroad Graphics and the American Dream is the book he has produced as engineer with me as fireman stoking words into the gaps between a cornucopia of graphics ranging from the cute to the cutting-edge, of florid serif and purist sans-serif lettering and logos owing as much to the Bauhaus as they do to the Big Country.

Did I just mention Bauhaus? In fact, I could mention other links, or couplers, between US, European and British railway design. These worked both ways, with, I think, the US providing the big spirited commercial pizazz, Europe the steel-spectacled earnestness and Britain art-skilled craft.

I’ll try to explain. When, for example, in May 1934 the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad’s sleek stainless steel diesel Zephyr express raced from Denver to Chicago, 1,015 miles at an average speed of 77mph, streamlining became the vogue for railway design on both sides of the Atlantic. And, so much so, that for a brief spell the following year passengers could ride streamlined Tube trains on London’s Underground. As streamlining is not effective until a train is running at over 80mph, this was a kind of nonsense. Ever afterwards, judiciously functional rather than jazzily streamlined trains ruled the Underground roost.

Zephyr advert An advert for the Burlington Zephyr. Photo © The Newberry Library.

The connection, though, between the London Underground and the US was more than skin deep. In fact, the city’s early Tube lines and the District Railway, both taking commuters in and out of the City of London where many American ex-pats are employed today, were to a large part the creation of Charles Tyson Yerkes, the tough Chicago street railway “robber baron”. Yerkes came to London in 1899, partly to escape censure and the law, with his latest mistress, forty years his junior. In ensuing years, Londoners rode American built and styled Underground trains, their carriages called “cars” like those of their American cousins.

American Airlines Poster Posters, like this 1948 work by Edward McKnight Kauffer, were popular on both sides of the Atlantic

Not long after Yerkes’s death, Albert Stanley was appointed chairman of the Underground Electric Railways of London. English born but brought up in Detroit where his father was a coachbuilder for the Pullman Company, Stanley electrified streetcars in Detroit and New Jersey before taking on the London Underground. Together with his visionary and zealously hard working English protégé Frank Pick, the future Lord Ashfield went on to create what was unarguably the world’s finest urban transport system.

As Commercial Manager of the Underground, before he became Chief Executive of the wider London Passenger Transport Board in 1933, Pick employed talented artists for publicity purposes like Edward McKnight Kauffer, an American, whose posters for the Underground and the LPTB , the Great Western Railway and later, after he traded London for New York, for Pan Am and American Airlines transformed commercial graphics into public art.

Meanwhile, in 1913 Pick had commissioned Edward Johnston, the gifted English Arts & Crafts calligrapher, to devise a sans-serif typeface for the London Underground. This superb design had a huge impact on typefaces in Europe and the US. By then, British and American railways were sharing technical knowledge, too.

In 1916, Nigel Gresley, Chief Mechanical Engineer of England’s Great Northern Railway studied designs of the latest Pennsylvania Railroad K4 Pacific locomotive in a copy of the American Engineering magazine. This helped him with his design of his own Pacific locomotives that were to include Flying Scotsman, a 100mph mechanical racehorse that toured the USA in the 1960s and his A4-class locomotives of 1935 that were streamlined along the lines of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy’s Zephyr. Unlike contemporary Tube trains they were very fast indeed.

Gresley’s locomotives for the London and Northern Eastern Railway sported numerals and lettering by the sculptor, engraver and letter cutter Eric Gill, whose work alongside Edward Johnston’s had a profound effect on font designers worldwide. In 1939, the Union Pacific adopted a sans-serif font resembling Futura, a German typeface of 1927 by Paul Renner that, one way or another, had been influenced by the work of Gill and Johnston in England.

And, yet, the most joyous of US railroad graphics, for Ian Logan as for me, are perhaps those of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway and its supremely glamorous long distance trains like Chief and Super Chief that once raced from California to Kansas City and Chicago, all jazz, cocktails and movie stars. The railroad’s compelling blue cross in a circle logo was, though, not devised by a brilliant graphic designer aware of the latest developments in lettering and logos on both sides of the Atlantic, but by J J Byrne, the Santa Fe’s traffic manager, toying with a pen and a silver dollar. The Santa Fe’s corporate image was never less than compelling.

As early as 1890, Edward O. McCormick, general passenger agent of the Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago & St. Louis Railway gave a talk on railway promotion. “Have a trade mark and use it,” he said. “Use it every-where ... put it on your freight cars and plaster it wherever you can. People will unconsciously learn it, and will recognise it wherever it may be.” For different reasons, perhaps, and thousands of miles from home, Ian Logan recognised the Rock Island logo decades down line. It certainly stopped this young English designer in his creative tracks.

Special Offer

Pre-order Logomotive from Sheldrake Press and you'll get priority shipping. Quote the code LG741220 and they'll send you a signed, limited-edition print of the cover art.

Sheldrake Press offer 25% off the cover price when you join their free membership scheme, and delivery is free, so you can get this £35 book for £26.25 with a free print thrown in.

You can pre-order Logomotive online at Sheldrake Press or simply give them a call at 020 8675 1767. Offer closes on 31st December 2020. www.sheldrakepress.co.uk/product/logomotive

Logomotive: Railroad Graphics and the American Dream is by Ian Logan and Jonathan Glancey, published by Sheldrake Press


All Surviving A4s A line up of surviving Gresley A4 Pacifics, featuring Zephyr-style streamlining and Gill Sans lettering. Photo National Railway Museum.

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