The Cat That Sold Train Tickets. It Was A Simpler Time.

The art and science of marketing fascinates me and I like visual arts as well. So corporate logos interest me; the things that go into making a public image that will sell a company’s products. Often there’s a lot more to them than first meets the eye. Many know for example, there’s an arrow in the Fed Ex logo in the negative space between the “E” and the “X”.

fedex

An arrow suggests moving quickly doesn’t it, and that’s what you want your package to do!

Cisco computer systems in based in San Francisco (as the name suggests) and if you look carefully at the lines above the name, they suggest the outline of the city’s most famous structure, the Golden Gate Bridge:

cisco

Toblerone chocolates are from Switzerland, so it’s no surprise they have a mountain in their logo. What is more surprising is that they are from Bern, Switzerland specifically and that means “bear.” And if you look closely at the mountain…

toblerone

Look at that bear walking in front of the mountain!

I like trains and cats too. Bet you think we’re getting near a Dr. Seuss story by now, don’t you. Actually we’re not. But there is an example of the three – trains, cats and corporate images – intersecting. No wonder I liked the Chessie System railroad so much.

Chessie was a 1970s railroad that resulted in the merger of two large railroads – the B&O and the C&O (yes, the same two you find in a Monopoly game) – and one short line, the Western Maryland RR. It ran freight trains all across the northeastern U.S. (and a single line cutting into southern Ontario in Canada for a few years) and while most of their competitors favored somewhat dull-looking black and white engines and brownish freight cars, Chessie sported lively navy blues and yellow. Their locomotives were neon yellow with an orange stripe and dark blue top, with the name in large, ever-so-’70s Bahama font on the side. They looked great running loads of coal through the Appalachians and even got a starring role in a music video, strangely enough (R.E.M.’s “Driver 8”).

chesloco

If you look closely though, the “C” in the Chessie System, you see the letter is sort of cut with a couple of points. Well, if you look closely and kind of squint, the “C” is holding the outline of a cat’s head and front paw. That cat is “Chessie.”

Chessie was a kitten that was used in the era when travel by train was the way to get around. Before air travel became cheap or readily available in most places, long trips were undertaken on the rails. And long before the government-sponsored Amtrak, various rail lines competed hard for the travel dollars and advertised extensively, using posters and ads showing the glamorous destinations mostly. The C&O were among the first railroads to get air conditioned cars, and somehow came across a picture by an Austrian artist. It showed a contented-looking kitten sleeping with its head partly covered in a pillow and one paw sticking out from the sheets. They bought the image for all of $5 and ran it in ads saying “sleep like a kitten and wake up fresh as a daisy” when traveling on their trains.

chessiekat

A picture of a sleeping kitty cat might not lure you into booking your next trip between New York and Chicago on a particular railroad, but it was a simpler time back in the 1930s. A couple of decades later, a sexy girl in a bikini might have been the ad attraction, now a multi-racial, multi-generational family laughing around a kitchen table together. But back then, people loved the ad and passenger numbers increased on the C&O after it was used. So popular was it they even published a calendar using the kitty the next year and sold thousands. Take that, Sports Illustrated models!

The mascot, or mas-cat, needed a name so they chose “Chessie”. After all, the “C” in C&O stood for Chesepeake, as in the bay. The O was Ohio, by the way. They ran more ads and, rather like some of our modern corporate spokespeople have (think Flo for Progressive) Chessie took on a life of her own. In time, she grew up, met a tomcat (“Peake”) and had her own kittens, “Nip” and “Tuck.” When WWII came up, Peake went off to war and Chessie stayed home selling War Bonds for the lads overseas. And cats overseas, as it were.

chessiewar

The cats remained popular mascots for years, but eventually passenger trains began to lose their lustre, and eventually were all taken over by one entity, Amtrak. C&O and the likes concentrated exclusively on freight traffic, which required less advertising in mainstream magazines. Chessie was more or less retired. Until the C&O and B&O, with their similar paint schemes and often parallel rail lines decided to merge. They formed the Chessie System railroad, and needing a new corporate image, they resurrected Chessie the cat, but only in the sillohuette superimposed on the large “C”.

chessie cab

The rail line was a favorite of photographers, model railroaders and apparently Michael Stipe of R.E.M., but as is the way with large corporations looking for efficiency, by the ’80s, they in turn had merged with another southeastern railroad, the Seaboard Coast Line to form a corporation unimaginatively called “CSX Transportation.” The company retains the Chessie colors but lacks the kitty design although they say officially Chessie the Cat is still their company mascot. However, repainting entire rosters of thousands of engines and boxcars isn’t always a transportation company’s top priority, if you keep your eyes open you might just spot ol’ Chessie rolling by at the level crossing now and then.

So there you have it – a time when a kitten was the “cat’s pyjamas” for a railroad. Not too important, but just an interesting little story of an America of days gone by.

4 Replies to “The Cat That Sold Train Tickets. It Was A Simpler Time.”

  1. Really cool and interesting history Dave. I wish trains were more of an option now. I like logos also…heck Andy Warhol made a living out of other companies logos.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I once , back in late-80s, took the train out to east coast to visit a girlfriend who’d moved back home there. Was a cool trip, had a sleeper, took close to 48 hours each way, i seem to recall, had to change trains in montreal (the one from Toronto to Mtl. was very new, very sleek, reclining chairs, think they had movies though I didn’t watch. From Montreal to Nova Scotia was older train, with standard coaches but the dining car, sleeping car and all. Was a neat trip to do, of course it did cut badly into the holiday time I had then but I’m glad i did so.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh that would be worth it. That is kinda of a vacation in itself. I would love to do that. I’m sure they would have every comfort now.
        If they had a train to Florida…that is what I would do instead of driving like I do.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. for awhile they had a neat thing called the autoTrain, which ran from somewhere near Washington DC down to Miami (?- some city in Florida). Like a regular Amtrak train but it had oversized boxcars as well which allowed you to take your car down with you. Wouldn’t be much good to you in Tennessee and not sure how many people would use it …they’d probably only save about 12 hours of time driving… but it was an interesting concept.

        Like

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