Graphic tales of America’s railroads
Image credit: Ian Logan Private Collection
The golden age of the great American railroad is as memorable for its vivid corporate design as it is for its engineering. Ian Logan, author of ‘Logomotive’, discusses its impact.
As Ian Logan says, the concept for his new book is “very simple”. It’s a nostalgic stroll down memory lane, where the scenery is that of the great American railroads of the mid-20th century. It was a time of the American Dream, the culmination of the great expansion of the rail network dating back more than a century before that to provide infrastructure for the Gold Rush. It was also a time before advertising as we know it today was born, when the idea of corporate branding was more about artistic freedom than granular data analysis.
‘Logomotive’ is based on the vast personal archive of artworks the 81-year-old British designer has amassed over decades of collecting. In this archive, as well as his own photos, you can expect to find all kinds of graphics-based printed and hand-drawn ephemera: posters, postcards, pencil sketches and engineering drawings, brochures, timetables, dining-car menus, coasters and placemats, tickets and passes, mascots, leaflets.
Logan says he’s always been a collector, vividly recalling how more than seven decades ago he used to loiter outside the newsagents in the hope of cadging cigarette cards from smokers as they emerged from the shop with their purchases. “I stood there because I was fascinated by the design of cigarette packs and the cards that came with them. I thought they were sensational. And so I was always interested in visual design of some sort.”
Logan recalls that he very nearly became an engineer, having been apprenticed to Westinghouse Brake & Signal Company based in Chippenham. While this might appear to be the start of his lifelong relationship with the railway, he thinks it started before then. “I can still remember as a boy standing at the station watching trains. I was never a collector of numbers, but I was totally fascinated with steam trains, as was every small boy at the time.”
While his experience at Westinghouse gave Logan an interest in how locomotives worked, the trainee draughtsman “never really stuck to it. And after four-and-a-half years I was called up to the army.” Logan managed to get a deferral based on the continuance of his further education at the West of England College of Art, “where I changed track completely. The war was pretty much over in any case.”
While stating that the “engineering thing” never left him completely, he soon found himself in London designing textiles, launching a career that would see him creating prints for household names such as Mary Quant. A family friend of the legendary troubadour Ewan MacColl, Logan grew up with the sound of folk, skiffle and blues ringing in his ears, and on hearing Lonnie Donegan’s hit record ‘Rock Island Line’ he decided it was time to go to America to see the places and the trains that went to them for himself.
‘Logomotive: Railroad Graphics and the American Dream’
By the time the swinging sixties swung into gear, Logan was a budding entrepreneur in the tin packaging industry, becoming a partner in JRM Design. By the mid-1970s he was a highly successful designer, especially of decorative tin boxes for tea, sweets and biscuits for brands such as Harrods, Fortnum & Mason, Whittard of Chelsea and the National Trust. His money boxes – in the form of the iconic British red telephone box – became known the world over. An unintended consequence of his involvement in tin-box design was that he became fascinated with the process of printing on metal, and while on a visit to the Metal Box company he saw that the organisation created the packaging for Hornby Railways. “I then started collecting tin trains.”
The success of JRM Design meant that he was soon to accept an invitation to travel to the USA in the company of Terrence Conran and other famous designers for British Week at Macey’s in New York. “And while I was there, we were lent a Mustang and we drove up to a tiny industrial town in Bear Mountain. We sat in a bar chatting to all these old guys and I suddenly heard a train. So I go out of the bar and along came this train with ‘Rock Island’ written in six-foot lettering on the side. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven because in my skiffle group – the Moonrakers – we used to sing the song ‘Rock Island Line’. There’s a song about every single railroad company in America,” says Logan. “It’s extraordinary. There are songs about escaping from prison, about going down to Florida to pick oranges. It’s poetry really.”
In Britain, after the Second World War, going to the cinema and looking at the black-and-white images of America was, for Logan, like visiting “the land of milk and honey. And I remember the first time I arrived in New York. We came over the bridge and said: ‘Bloody hell, it looks just like the films.’ We’d seen it so many times on screen.” This idea of America as a landscape of entrepreneurial success, glamour and ambition never left Logan, and as his interest in the land of opportunity grew, so too did his collection of railroad graphics material.
Although he didn’t know it at the time, the book ‘Logomotive’ started on that day at Bear Mountain, following which a significant part of his life became devoted to his collection. As the tin-box business became more successful, Logan visited America with greater frequency. “I searched through antique shops for railroad ephemera – timetables, matchbox labels, anything to do with that era of trains that was graphic and visual I bought, and we put it all in the book.”
What makes ‘Logomotive’ so important as a documentary record is that Logan is taking us back to a time in which the personality of corporations was starting to become articulated in their livery, logos and brand stylings. But there was also freedom of expression that has been lost with the rise of the corporate style sheet. “There’s been a huge change in graphic design during the time I’ve been around to see it. The computer was part of that. But I think that mostly the craft of graphic design has changed. I used to go to meetings with a pad of paper and a pencil. I would draw things for clients on the spot, and say: ‘Do you mean this?’ I don’t think that happens now.”
‘Logomotive: Railroad Graphics and the American Dream’ by Ian Logan and Jonathan Glancey is from Sheldrake Press, £35
From the 1830s, railways spread out from the East Coast of the United States, through what had been the founding colonies and on toward Chicago. The ultimate goal of railroaders, made manifest when the crazy days of the California Gold Rush started in 1849, was a transcontinental railroad connecting east and west coasts.
Without trains, it could take more than six months to sail from seaports on the East Coast to California via Cape Horn. Overland travel by wagon train was uncertain and often downright dangerous. The railroad, however, promised more than speed, convenience, and a safe passage across thousands of miles of wild frontiers. It spoke of the spirit of indefatigable progress as seen through the eyes of white settlers, evangelical politicians, real-estate speculators, chancers, snake-oil salesmen, and big-thinking entrepreneurs. And when the trains did cross America they also shaped a new aesthetic, that of a golden railway age combining engineering, art, advertising, architecture, poetry, music, and design.
If a picture could paint a thousand miles of railroad track in that pioneering, steam-driven era, American Progress is surely it. In 1872, George Crofutt, publisher of a series of popular transcontinental travel guides, commissioned painter John Gast to illustrate what the majority of white Americans believed to be the enlightened and inevitable westward march of their civilization across the continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Gast’s painting depicts Columbia, a classical muse garbed in a diaphanous robe, flying serenely over the Wild West bearing a schoolbook in one hand and trailing a telegraph line from the other.
Edited extract from ‘Logomotive: Railroad Graphics and the American Dream’ by Ian Logan and Jonathan Glancey, reproduced with permission.
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