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One reason the rank and file got up in arms…
In 1882 at least two notable innovations took place on the J. M. & I. Railroad, the first being the installation of a cooking stove in the caboose of each train and the second being that its conductors, baggagemen and brakemen should be clad in “new” and appropriate uniforms. The obvious reason for cooking stoves in the caboose was so that workers could fix their meals cheaply and avoid the cost of a hotel room at the end of the line. The cynical, however, might be of the opinion that having cook stoves on the trains meant there would be no reason for workers to be tempted to lift a few beers or get into mischief while off the job. It didn’t hurt either, that the new innovation guaranteed employees to be close at hand and ready to work at a moment’s notice. It was the equivalent of having a live in maid on call at all times. The addition of consistent and more conspicuous uniforms, one would surmise, made it easier to identify railroad employees and give the public a feeling of assurance and convenience of identification. Each position of employment would enjoy its own but distinctively homogeneous attire. No more would the road allow the various assortments of overhauls and patched pants, or the flannel shirt with elbows protruding. This was, after all, the Victorian era, with refinement and sophistication being the order of the day. The idea had come of age on other railroads and could the J. M. & I. do less than doggedly follow suit?
The uniform consisted of pants, vest, coat and cap, all of an appropriate dark color (no doubt a good choice to conceal the accumulation of soot) with the appropriate insignia for each classification. On the lapels of the baggage master was a shield, inside of which the monogram “B. H.” was neatly embroidered. The coats of the conductors were more elaborate and “fearfully got up” and could be mistaken in any crowd for the uniform of a rear admiral or major general. The uniforms were, however, evidently a source of pride to the new owners, for the Columbus Herald related, “when Scott Thomas got here this morning from Madison with his fine uniform, he jumped off his baggage car and ordered the boys around at a lively rate. “Major General” Elliott (Calvin) felt so big that he inquired what little one-horse village this was that a train commanded by such a good looking crew should be bored with stopping at. He failed to recognize any of his old acquaintances until he was formally introduced”.
This tongue in cheek taunt was all well and good but the railroad was dead serious as to the proper presentation of its new standards. Clean, pressed and well-turned-out, that was the order of the day. Woe be to any who did not conform, even for a moment. One unlucky employee was laid off for thirty days for doing switch work on the main line with his coat unbuttoned. This high-handed attitude, however, backfired when the local paper issued this comment, “If for this trivial offense, a man is laid off thirty days, there must be a sliding scale of punishment for non-observance of the rules and regulations for wearing these railroad liveries. For instance, to appear with the top button out of place, two days would be about the proper caper; the second, six days; the third, fifteen days and the fourth, thirty days. One breeches leg rolled up, four months, and to appear before the big bugs without a coat, instant death! Such aping of royalty in free America is simply disgusting, and is opening the eyes of the rank and file in this country.”
This was a telling and prophetic statement. In the coming years the railroads would lose their iron grip on the workers, but in 1882 the careless unbuttoning of a jacket meant the loss of a month’s pay. The rank and file would have to bide its time until the organization of a powerful union would protect the railroad worker.