On a May morning in 1893, President Grover Cleveland looked out on the most astounding metropolis ever built, the fabulous White City of the World's Columbian Exposition. Staring back were the half-million citizens who had crowded into the fairgrounds on Chicago's South Side to view the wonders of the age.
Cleveland was a burly man with a shoe-brush mustache—his nephews called him "Uncle Jumbo." In his speech, he praised the "stupendous results of American enterprise" and congratulated the nation for having produced "men who rule themselves." Few in the immense throng could hear him—they applauded anyway.
A hopeful gleam of sunlight stabbed through the clouds and flashed from the golden telegraph key in front of the president. Cleveland's pudgy finger tapped the button, setting in motion a huge dynamo that transformed the fair into a marvel.
Electric fountains made water dance a hundred feet above the heads of the spectators. Flags unfurled in unison. Salutes boomed and echoed from the guns of warships. Whistles shrieked. A shroud fell to reveal the enormous personification of the Republic—a sixty-five-foot gowned figure in glorious gold leaf that would be known to all as Big Mary. The mob of onlookers screamed their approval.
They came by the millions and tens of millions. Almost one in every five Americans made the trek to Chicago that summer for the world's fair. Their reaction to the spectacle was summed up by a diarist who wrote: "My mind was dazzled to a standstill."
Almost all who came, came by train. Those who could afford it rode a Pullman car, the epitome of luxurious travel. A Pullman sleeper offered room to spread out, elegant service, and the delicious pleasure of status. Fairgoers were headed to Chicago to shake hands with the future, and in the Pullman car the future seemed to be reaching out to greet them.
Those who had not had the privilege of riding on one could take in all the latest models at a display mounted by the Pullman's Palace Car Company in the fair's Transportation Building. The carved rosewood, Axminster carpets, polished brass, fringed valances, and cascades of curtains and draperies beloved by Victorians all made Pullman travel an adventure in hedonism. By day, a Pullman was a fantastic parlor room on wheels. When night came, a smiling porter turned a pair of facing seats into a bed and produced a second berth from a compartment along the ceiling. He arranged heavy curtains, pristine damask sheets, and mahogany partitions, transforming the car into a comfortable dormitory.
The lucky few, railroad magnates or politicians, might be given a guided tour of the exhibit by the man himself, George Mortimer Pullman. The sixty-two-year-old progenitor of these marvels was one of Chicago's richest entrepreneurs. Many fair visitors could remember the stagecoach days when no man traveled on land faster than the pace of a team of horses. Long train trips had demanded new technology—and Pullman had provided it. The sleeping car had become so closely associated with one company that it was coming to be called simply a pullman. The understated booklet distributed by the company gushed a bit when it called the inception of the Pullman firm, now valued at $60 million, "one of the century's great civilizing strides."
Pullman's name and face were well known across the country—he had made sure of that. His wide, nearly unlined features were those of a tired baby. His hair had gone white and he wore on his chin a goat-like tuft of beard, which boys of the day called a dauber. His imperious eyes were always sizing up.
George Pullman represented a relatively new type in America, a "businessman." He was a man of affairs, a man on the lookout for the new. A businessman's key skill was organizing an enterprise and raising the money to fund it. Pullman knew how to gather resources, command men, and negotiate deals. Early in his career, he had begun to list his profession simply as "gentleman."
The assertion by his publicity machine that George Pullman had invented the modern sleeping car was less than accurate. Most of the credit went to a man named Theodore T. Woodruff, an upstate New York wagon maker. But the mechanics of the car had evolved over decades, and Pullman had introduced his share of innovations.
What was beyond doubt was that Pullman had devised the most efficient system for making money from the sleeper. He saw each car not as a product but as a revenue stream. He retained ownership and allowed the various railroads to haul the cars under contract. The railroads profited because the luxury cars attracted customers. Pullman profited even more as each passenger paid him a hefty fee for the upgrade.