BEYOND THE RAILS BUT NOT OFF-TRACK: THE MITCHELL WOLFSON STUDY CENTRE RAILROAD EXHIBIT AND WOLFSONIAN LIBRARY TRAIN MATERIALS

This past Thursday, I had the privilege of attending the opening of an exhibition of railroad materials curated by Miami Dade College students under the supervision of Melissa Diaz, Bill Iverson, and Lea Nickless.

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The exhibition, Beyond the Rails: Notes on Trains, Travel, and Society is on display in MDC Museum of Art & Design. The museum, housed in the renovated “Freedom Tower,” is a perfect venue for the exhibition, with its high vaulted ceilings and cavernous spaces that are reminiscent of some of the grand old railway stations.

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And the items that the students chose to include in their exhibit were captivating and well-displayed.

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The impressive array of materials in the show got me to thinking about some of the transportation related items in our own library stacks. Associate librarian Dr. Nicolae Harsanyi had not long ago curated a library display titled: Giants Lighter Than Air focused on zeppelins, and I had put together an exhibit about Italian seaplane squadrons crossing the Atlantic in the 1930s.

We have yet to organize an exhibition on railroads, trains, and locomotives, though we have impressive holdings of such materials. And so I thought that I would use today’s post to provide my readers with a teaser of the wide range of materials in our collection dealing with transportation by rail.

An early piece dealing with trains dates back to the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893. The Quaker Oats Company published some advertising cards (probably distributed at a pavilion kiosk) that illustrate the process of creating their cereal products, from the farm, to the factory, to distribution by rail.

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THE MITCHELL WOLFSON, JR. COLLECTION

The Germans published a beautiful book about trains around the turn of the last century, linking the technological to the mythical by equating the coal-fed locomotives to smoke-belching, fire-breathing dragons.

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THE MITCHELL WOLFSON, JR. COLLECTION

The library also holds several rare books about trains designed for young children printed entirely on durable cloth pages.

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THE MITCHELL WOLFSON, JR. COLLECTION

Thanks to the generosity of scholar, collector, and long-time Wolfsonian supporter Frederic A. Sharf, the library also holds some Saalfield’s Muslin cloth children’s ABC books which also include entries like this one for the letter “T” for “Trains.”

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THE JEAN S. AND FREDERIC A. SHARF COLLECTION

As a symbol of the nation’s technological development, trains were often prominently displayed at many world’s fair venues, including the Louisiana Purchase International Exposition held in St. Louis, Missouri in 1904.

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THE MITCHELL WOLFSON, JR. COLLECTION

A Japanese portfolio from about the same period includes vibrant color plates designed as greeting cards, with one plate celebrating the role of trains and technology in helping Japan achieve victory in the Russo-Japanese War, 1904-1905.

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THE MITCHELL WOLFSON, JR. COLLECTION

Down the Line, a children’s book published in Great Britain some few years later, celebrated the London Midland and Scottish Railway Company with full-page color illustrations.

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THE MITCHELL WOLFSON, JR. COLLECTION

Another Japanese publication gifted by the Sharfs focused on the Chinese Eastern Railway that hauled freight to and helped establish Japanese influence in Manchuria.

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THE JEAN S. AND FREDERIC A. SHARF COLLECTION

Before the Panama Canal project was completed in 1914, it was the old Panama Railroad that carried people and goods from one end of the isthmus to the other. The old railroad tracks also proved critical to the laborious work of excavating and clearing the canal. As this year marks the hundredth year anniversary of the completion of the canal, Sharf Associate Librarian Rochelle Pienn is working on our next library exhibit which focusing on that Herculean achievement with materials drawn from the Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf, the Thomas C. Ragan, and Laurence Miller collections. The exhibit will open at the end of the month.

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JEAN S. AND FREDERIC A. SHARF COLLECTION

The library even holds examples of model train catalogs that helped popularize the industry by encouraging amateurs to build kits in their basements.

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THE MITCHELL WOLFSON, JR. COLLECTION

As the transcontinental railroads spanned the continent and the “iron horse” linked the east coast with the west, many of the railroad companies operating these lines used Indians and Western imagery to brand their lines. In the early 1900s, for example, the Santa Fe California Limited used images of Pueblo Peoples and Native American iconography to sell the public on their routes.

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THE MITCHELL WOLFSON, JR. COLLECTION

A few decades later, the Great Northern Railway was still using Indians to publicize the route of the Empire Builder through Glacier National Park in Montana. The company used illustrations taken from Blackfeet Indian portraits painted by German-American artist Winold Reiss (1886-1953) to adorn commercial calendars, and (as I learned at the Beyond the Rails exhibit downtown) playing cards.

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The library also holds a very good run of the pulp periodical Railroad Magazine published in the 1930s and 1940s with graphic color illustrated covers.

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GIFTS OF MELVIN M. HUNT, JR.

The look of trains changed radically in the 1930s and 1940s as industrial designers the world over, including Ettore Bugatti (1881-1947), Raymond Loewy (1893-1986), and Henry Dreyfuss (1904-1972) ushered in the age of streamlined vehicles incorporating the new wisdom concerning wind-resistance and aerodynamics.

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Not only did Wolfsonian museum founder, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. travel about the country in a private railway car for many years (before it was destroyed by Hurricane Andrew), but he also bought and shipped a streamlined, self-propelled Fiat Littorina back to the United States. Also damaged in the storm, the car was sent on long-term loan to the Rahmi M. Koç Museum in Istanbul, Turkey in March 2011 where it was restored by the Turkish Fiat Company (Tofaş Company).

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THE MITCHELL WOLFSON, JR. COLLECTION

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MITCHELL WOLFSON, JR. PROMISED GIFT

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THE WOLFSONIAN-FIU COLLECTION

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THE MITCHELL WOLFSON, JR. COLLECTION

During the depression decade, when many Americans began associating trains with the hundreds of thousands of displaced youths and hobos “riding the rails” and hiding out from the railroad “bulls” policing the lines, railroad companies made a concerted effort to rebrand their industry image.

Consequently, streamlined locomotives were displayed at the 1930s fairs in an attempt to re-instill America’s confidence in railway technology as the symbol of the spirit of progress.

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THE MITCHELL WOLFSON, JR. COLLECTION

In the aftermath of victory in the Second World War, many railroad companies felt that America’s crisis of confidence had ended and believed the general public to be enthusiastic enough about trains that they organized stand-alone exhibitions and railroad fairs.

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GIFT OF CHARLES L. MARSHALL, JR. AND RICHARD L. TOOKE

~ by "The Chief" on April 1, 2014.

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