How did booking a rail ticket work in the early 20th century?
February 21, 2015 7:51 PM   Subscribe

Was a physical description necessary for early 20th century railway travel? I've been looking through a lot classifieds from around 1910, specifically the For Sale and Wanted ads (mostly in Oregon), and there are a lot of rail tickets listed. In the ads the people almost always specify what they look like.

For example one woman says "Lady's ticket to Omaha; described stout, light hair and young" another example is "Wanted - Ticket to Chicago or Kansas City, medium, dark."

I've tried looking up photos of tickets on google but from the ones I've seen they don't have any mention of what the people look like. Who needed this information and why? When did the practice begin (and, presumably, eventually end)??
posted by addelburgh to Grab Bag (10 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
Speculatively, I'd say these listings were made by men (and/or women) soliciting for traveling companions. Why else would physical description matter?
posted by killdevil at 8:09 PM on February 21, 2015

Wow, this is a really interesting question. "CPRR" seems to answer a lot of similar questions, I'm poking around their archives looking and that might be a good place to look. Maybe you could post a few more examples? From the two you posted, it seems possible there are segregated male and female cars (or sleeping cars); it could be that references to complexion are referencing racially segregated cars; or it could be that these are straight-up advertisements for prostitution services, which have a long history of being advertised as other things in newspaper classifieds (and they migrate to a new and different thing whenever authorities crack down).
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:15 PM on February 21, 2015 [3 favorites]

This is pure speculation but if there was a black market for tickets maybe the railways started writing personal descriptions on the ticket to prevent them from being transferred.
posted by bleep at 8:34 PM on February 21, 2015 [5 favorites]

It seems fairly clear to me that these are re-sold tickets, and thus that the intended buyer is someone who (to use your example) wants to get to Omaha, and can pass for stout, with light hair, and a young lady. The buyer masquerades as the original purchaser of the ticket.

I have a memory of an article/blog post including a recollection by someone who spoke of traveling by plane in, I want to say, the 1940s or 1950s (?), and being able to get tickets from other people as long as you could reasonably pass as the other person. But I'll have to track down this or any other proof to back me up. This article on scalping from the 1800s to now looked promising, but it didn't include any mention of appearance.
posted by spelunkingplato at 8:39 PM on February 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: They're called Punch Photographs, it's meant the deter train robbers.

The Secret Life of Machines Word Processor episode talks briefly about them.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 8:40 PM on February 21, 2015 [25 favorites]

Response by poster: I've put a few from one weeks Sunday paper together here!
posted by addelburgh at 8:45 PM on February 21, 2015

Best answer: If you scroll way down to "An End to Rochester Transfers," there is a picture with pictures of the passengers that the conductor was supposed to punch for transfers within the local commuter system, which may be the only punch photo type ticket that survives -- I am way deep in the rabbit hole on this, there are patents, there are complainy articles in magazines for train conductors, I am not sure I can stop now that I'm started. It gave the guy the idea to punch data for the census which is part of what eventually turns into punchcard computing, which is why it was on Confess, Fletch's episode.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:02 PM on February 21, 2015 [7 favorites]

Best answer: There's a photo here of a train ticket from 1917 with descriptions along the side to be punched.
posted by cabingirl at 9:03 PM on February 21, 2015 [5 favorites]

A Civil War era ticket with space for filling out info about passenger's age, height, hair, eyes (ebay, scroll down to see the photo).

Various searches on Ebay bring up some historical tickets, some of which mention 'non-transferable'--so apparently that was a thing.
posted by flug at 7:16 AM on February 22, 2015 [2 favorites]

(and, presumably, eventually end)??

In Chicago, monthly Metra tickets have an M or an F gender marker punched in them (it's the letter written in a series of small holes, so people frequently don't realise they're gendered). The official justification for this is that a monthly ticket can only be used by the person who purchased it, but obviously a gender marker is not the way to ensure that.
posted by hoyland at 8:42 AM on February 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

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