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Streamliners: America's Lost Trains | Article

Industrial Designers and Streamliners

A man stands on the front of a streamlined train, Library of Congress

The industrial design profession was born from the ashes of the Wall Street crash of 1929. Companies lucky enough to survive the debacle saw an unprecedented rise in competition. With the market saturated, manufacturers were forced to distinguish their product from the others. Ironically, in seeking distinction, manufacturers hired designers who were increasingly following the same design, the apparent mandate of the American people: streamlining.

Streamlining is based on the naturally efficient shapes of fish and birds. Streamlined objects, with their curved, tapered shapes, offer less resistance to air, water, or any other fluid they pass through, minimizing turbulence.

Prior to the Chicago Century of Progress Exposition in 1933-1934, only a few adventurous engineers had tried streamlining. In 1905, W.R. McKeen Jr. developed a prototype streamlined train, a gasoline-powered rail car for the Union Pacific. It was recognized for its speed and efficiency, but not appreciated for its design — except by young Edward Budd. The Philadelphia manufacturer worked on and was deeply influenced by the McKeen car, and would rely on streamlining decades later, when he built the Burlington Zephyr. Still, in 1913, when the streamlined "car of the future" appeared in Scientific American, though readers were intrigued by the cigar-shaped vehicle with the tapered ends, they preferred their high-backed seats and surrey tops.

The same was true of Buckminster Fuller's streamlined automobile, the Dymaxion Car No. 3, on display 20 years later at the 1933-1934 Chicago World's Fair. Crowds lined up to see the futuristic vehicle, but looking from a distance was enough. The Dymaxion could seat 11 adults comfortably, and was extraordinarily maneuverable and economical. Though it was 20 feet long, it performed better than today's minivans. But its strangeness made it a commercial disaster, and the vehicle never made it to production. Chrysler, too, tried its hand at the streamlined vehicle, with the 1934 Airflow, but its sales were so poor the auto maker was nearly bankrupted. In large part it was the Airflow's disappointing showing that would transfer streamlining from engineers' hands to those of designers.

The Burlington Zephyr shone at the Chicago Century of Progress Exposition, bright against a dreary Depression backdrop. Here was a streamlined vehicle that the public could accept; it was simultaneously inventive and familiar, intriguing and comforting.

After witnessing the Zephyr's success, the leading designers of the 1930s knew what people wanted. Walter Dorwin Teague was a former advertising illustrator; Norman Bel Geddes and Henry Dreyfuss, stage designers; and Raymond Loewy, one of New York's foremost fashion illustrators. These designers reshaped objects as varied as cameras, cars, skyscrapers, radios, refrigerators, and even the Coca-Cola bottle. Each man brought to the table his own design theory, his own sense of adventure or reserve. Geddes, for instance, created flamboyant, monumental stage sets and flamboyant, momumental product designs (which were not always commercial successes), while Dreyfuss' designs were noted for their understatement (and almost always sold well).

Industrial designers sought to make practical and beautiful consumer products, lavishing design attention on utilitarian household objects. Teague considered himself both designer and businessman, dedicated to economy of manufacture, improved appearance, and greater ease of service. Geddes called his field "utilitarian art," in which he turned "frankly commercial objects" into "satisfying objects of beauty." Disturbed by the poor aesthetics of American machines, the French-born Loewy's goal was "'to improve things people live with from the moment they wake up till they go to bed' by eliminating 'aggravations, irritations.'"

As the country struggled to emerge from its economic slump, Americans were captivated by the streamlined look. "Streamlined trains," wrote one historian, "stimulated public faith in a future fueled by technological innovation." Railroads paved the way for streamlining in the auto industry. Trucks, buses, and of course airplanes followed suit. It wasn't only large machines that were streamlined. Pencil sharpeners, ball-point pens, and kitchen mixers, which had no reason to be aerodynamic, took on the look.

By the late 1930s, even bathroom scales were streamlined. Following a speaking tour of the Midwest, consumer engineer Egmont Arens dashed off a telegram to President Roosevelt: "'Word Streamlining has captured American imagination to mean modern, efficient, well-organized, sweet clean and beautiful...'"

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