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Henry Dreyfuss and the 20th Century Limited

By Russell Flinchum

Although the history of streamlined trains in the United States reaches back into the nineteenth century, it was not until the 1930s that real experimentation led industrial designers to create the most significant streamlined passenger trains in America, with none so memorable as Henry Dreyfuss’s 20th Century Limited. 


Mercury was the name the New York Central Railroad used for a family of daytime streamliner passenger trains operating between Midwestern cities. The Mercury train sets, designed by Dreyfuss, are considered a prime example of Streamline Moderne design.


Frederick Williamson took the reins of the New York Central Railroad almost at the moment when Dreyfuss would propose his first streamlined train to the New York Central’s management. In Dreyfuss’s account of the creation of the Mercury, he consulted with Williamson, who oversaw the railway’s operations from 1932 until he resigned in 1944. Dreyfuss explained that it was not aversion to the new that almost stopped the development of the Mercury (although one vice president, asked by Dreyfuss what he thought of the new designs as he saw them being built, simply exclaimed, “Cleopatra’s barge!” as he left the inspection). It was more a matter of money, and the estimates sent to Williamson for a new train were so far out of line with what the railroad planned to invest that Dreyfuss was simply told this leap was going to prove financially impossible.


Dreyfuss later recalled that downcast day as he headed for the country home he and his wife, Doris, had recently purchased north of New York City in Kent Cliffs, Putnam County, until, passing by the Mott Haven yards in the Bronx, he saw dozens upon dozens of unused railway cars. He got off at the next stop and took the train back into Manhattan, where he proposed to Williamson that the new train be built on existing rolling stock, an approach that proved feasible. 


Dreyfuss was off and running with the commission for the first truly integrated steam locomotive and train, one that would run on a highly visible and well-traveled, desirable route. In advertisements, the New York Central highlighted it as its Water Level Route because the path followed the shoreline of Lake Erie as well as the Mohawk and Hudson rivers. 


Dreyfuss’s refinements in treatment of the “inverted bathtub” of the Commodore Vanderbilt, an earlier design by New York Central designer Carl Kantola, made the locomotive seem visually narrower when viewed head-on; it also successfully elevated the smoke from the exhaust so it stayed out of the engineer’s eyes and above the train cars. If the Commodore Vanderbilt seemed to be lifting a curtain to reveal its running gear, it was celebrated in the Mercury locomotives, where its gleaming disc drivers were fully on display. One detail Dreyfuss included was a series of lights over the wheels to allow for inspection of the locomotive after dark; the dramatic effect the wheels created meant they were constantly lit at night.


The Mercury achieved what the New York Central was seeking: a new look that compared in appearance to the most advanced designs of the increasingly stylish automobiles from Detroit, as well as new, all-metal aircraft such as the Douglas DC-3. This streamlined train gave the New York Central something striking to advertise while also serving as a testbed for the updated 20th Century Limited, which would be new from the ground up. 

For the new 20th Century Limited, Dreyfuss returned to an original design by the American industrial designer Otto Kuhler, who in 1931 modeled a tubular shroud with a torpedo-shaped nose that could cover an existing steam locomotive, giving it a streamlined appearance.

Instead of looking like the Mercury—a boiler in a long dress—the 20th Century Limited looked like the most powerful high-speed locomotive, which it actually was—dressed in a tailored shirt with sleeves rolled up to expose its considerable muscles. The theatrical lighting of the drivers on the Mercury had been so successful that Dreyfuss retained that feature on the 20th Century Limited. Adding a crest to the top of the torpedo-shaped shroud projected its masculinity. The new design was a great success, not just a novelty like earlier streamlined trains. The 20th Century Limited went on display in Grand Central Terminal on June 15, 1938, and soon commenced runs in both directions between New York and Chicago. 


The design patent drawing for the 20th Century Limited locomotive, applied for in September 1938, makes Dreyfuss’s design contribution to the locomotive immediately clear. But there was much more to the 20th Century Limited than its locomotive and unifying external paint scheme. Aside from its strikingly advanced appearance, the first and most notable change from most trains was that it was an all-room (sleeping car) train with no coach seats. The passenger compartments were made up as comfortable sitting rooms by day that rapidly converted to sleeping arrangements at night. No more monotonous seating that looked as if “George Pullman walked through a railroad car and planted seeds in even rows and the regimented chairs and tables that sprouted were the result.”*


Each compartment contained a telephone allowing the user to call ahead to the dining car to make reservations. Less readily apparent, but just as important to the passenger experience, was the task-specific lighting Dreyfuss designed with the Luminator Company of Plano, Texas; 14 different new fixture designs were used throughout the 1938 Century.

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20th Century Limited train (locomotive and new cars) soon after its debut in mid-1938.

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First-class interior in the 20th Century Limited of 1938.

The 20th Century Limited had always boasted of its amenities, and few were lost with the new train. Gone was the open deck at the rear of the last car (the site of many famous publicity photographs), but besides the spittoons, little else was eliminated.

Everything the traveler might interact with became Dreyfuss’s province. From printed ephemera to the substantial and durable tableware designed for the train, there were constant reminders that this was no typical coach trip between cities . It was more like a rolling hotel, with the crew familiar with the regulars and their special requests, and solicitous of those traveling on the 20th Century Limited for the first time.

After dinner service was cleared, tables were reset and the lighting was dimmed as the dining and observation car became the Club Century, with broadcast music fitting the more relaxed atmosphere. The trip from New York to Chicago was shortened to 16 hours. The combination of speed and amenities meant the 20th Century Limited’s only rival was the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Broadway Limited, styled by the industrial designer Raymond Loewy and the architect Paul Philippe Cret. (The two trains went on display on the same day, and both ran the New York to Chicago route.)


Dreyfuss’s changes to the 20th Century Limited attracted major press coverage. Despite a heat wave, hundreds of people toured the new train as it appeared on the tracks of Grand Central Terminal. Advertisements for the train featured a dramatic diagonal in their layout and informed readers that this was a new creation from Henry Dreyfuss. Perhaps the crowning accomplishment for Dreyfuss was his obtaining the more luxurious account than the Broadway Limited, which went to Raymond Loewy, who disliked just about everything his competitor had accomplished and said so in print.

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Amenities on the 20th Century Limited of 1938.

The truth was that the New York Central Railroad was doing its best to modernize in challenging times, and the 20th Century Limited—although not the only train redesigned by Dreyfuss—was indisputably the most luxurious.


A grand train running between two major cities daily, often in multiple sections, was a tremendous step forward for Dreyfuss’s public visibility. It associated his work with painstaking attention to detail, down to the graphics on the wrappers of the sugar cubes in the dining car, the cocktail napkins from the Club Century, and the other ephemera that reminded patrons of their trip.


One gauge of the train’s success was that Dreyfuss was asked to revise his design in 1948, after a decade of hard use that included yeoman service during World War II. The 1948 version lacked the appeal of the 1938 version—tighter budgets, fewer cars, the replacement of the steam locomotives by diesel-electric units—and the earlier train has slipped into a sort of myth that establishes it as a high point for Dreyfuss’s career. 


Dreyfuss (and the New York Central) were lucky to have made their wager on the 20th Century Limited when they did: it was the way to go before dependable airline service emerged. But the 20th Century Limited did not simply evaporate; it was still the train of choice in 1959, when Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest appeared on the screen. As a desperate Cary Grant seeks to avoid arrest, he asks the cool, calm, and collected Eva Marie Saint what she does for a living. “I’m an industrial designer,” she replies. Clearly, by 1959, industrial design was no longer unfamiliar. Dreyfuss had moved on to even greater projects, and it wasn’t even unusual for women to work as industrial designers.


The romance of the great steam locomotives was rapidly disappearing, however, as the amenities of train travel were increasingly of less concern than issues of time. Advertising for Dreyfuss’s work had slipped into the past by the time the 20th Century Limited made its final run on December 2, 1967. Luckily, Dreyfuss had demonstrated his firm’s ability to carry off a major project, down to almost negligible details—a valuable recommendation as he took on airliners and ocean liners in the post-World War II era.

About the Author:


Russell Flinchum is an Associate Professor at NC State University’s College of Design, and this article is based on a forthcoming book on Henry Dreyfuss to be published by SUNY Press.


*Designing for People, 1955, p. 112

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