The Pullman Company maids have long been overshadowed by the more well-known Pullman porters. A new exhibition opening June 3 at the Newberry Library is helping to tell their stories.
Billed as “handmaidens for travelers,” Pullman maids navigated the demands of white passengers and the watchful eye of the Pullman Company itself every time they boarded the train.
For many Americans, riding on a Pullman train gave them access to unparalleled service, style, and luxury. For the Pullman Company’s Black employees, the same train compartment offered stable employment while presenting formidable risks and challenges.
“In the United States, the train is a symbol of ingenuity and progress,” said Professor Miriam Thaggert, curator of Handmaidens for Travelers: The Pullman Company Maids, on view through September 16. “The Pullman train, which improved the experience of long-distance train travel, can be seen as a form of American progress. The question we’re asking in this exhibition is, How does our understanding of the Pullman compartment space change when the experience of the maid is the center of the discussion?”
“As one of the largest archival collections at the Newberry, the Pullman Company Records present researchers with a range of stories to explore,” said Alice Schreyer, the Newberry’s Vice President for Collections and Library Services. “Through comprehensive research, Miriam Thaggert has pieced together how Pullman Company maids experienced work and travel during the Jim Crow era of American history. We’re thrilled to make their stories accessible to visitors in this exhibition.”
On the one hand, maids enjoyed advantages from being employed by a major American company. On the other hand, they endured harassment and constant surveillance aboard the trains.
Drawing on extensive research in the Pullman Company Records at the Newberry, Handmaidens for Travelers highlights the complexity of the maids’ experiences. Visitors can see a range of archival materials, including several that have never before been presented to the public: applications and employee cards, an instruction manual for maids, advertisements, photographs, and one maid’s handwritten account of her work history.
Professor Thaggert encountered these materials while conducting research at the Newberry as a fellow in 2015.
“While looking for first-person stories about Pullman porters, I came across a file containing the application of a woman applying to become a Pullman Company maid,” said Thaggert. “I stopped and asked myself, ”The Pullman Company had maids?’”
Thaggert’s research grew from there. In addition to curating the exhibition at the Newberry, she is the author of the forthcoming Riding Jane Crow: African American Women on the American Railroad (University of Illinois Press; June 2022). The book examines the experiences of Black women on America’s railroads from 1860 through 1925. In addition to Pullman maids, the book highlights the travel of Black middle- and upper-class women, the lawsuits initiated by Black women who sued to ride in first-class train cars, and the town politics that affected Black female food vendors of the South.
Handmaidens for Travelers: The Pullman Company Maids runs June 3 through September 16 at the Newberry Library. Admission is free for everyone.
On June 29 at the Newberry, Thaggert will discuss the themes of the exhibition with Mia Bay, the Roy F. and Jeannette P. Nichols Chair in American History at the University of Pennsylvania and the recent winner of the Bancroft Prize for Traveling Black: A Story of Race and Resistance. The program is free and open to the public.