Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

The Bangor and Aroostook Day Car: Radically Open

August 2, 2021 Archive Insight
Yellow railcar with decorative elements inside large building
Bangor & Aroostook Railroad Passenger Coach Replica / THF176772


The Bangor & Aroostook car—a very fine reproduction of an 1860s passenger coach—captures the character and physical nature of the first generation of American passenger cars. Its finish and level of decoration suggest both the ambitions of early railroad enterprises and the expectations of early railroad patrons.

Historian Wolfgang Schivelbush has convincingly claimed that open cars such as this were “economically, politically, psychologically and culturally the appropriate travel container for a democratic pioneer society”—contrasting such vehicles with the European compartment cars that reflected the stratified social conditions there. While it is generally acknowledged that Mississippi riverboat accommodation provided the prototype for the open cars developed by American railroads, there can be no doubt that the increasing spread of the American railroad network, using open cars as the standard passenger vehicle, helped promote this democratic, all-in-it-together approach to travel.

Interior of rail car with floral-upholstered bench seats, wood paneling, and decorative ceiling
The open interior of our Bangor & Aroostook railroad passenger coach. / THF176785

The open layout might appear to us practical, rational, and straightforward, but in many ways it was radical and socially innovative. And even if its layout simply reflects the social norms or attitudes of its era, it absolutely offers evidence of a social leveling largely unknown in other developed nations. Not until the era of the cheap automobile did enclosed personal compartments become the transportation situation of choice for the general public.


This post is adapted from an educational document from The Henry Ford titled “Transportation: Past, Present, and Future—From the Curators.”

travel, railroads, Henry Ford Museum

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