Friday, October 22, 2021

Waybills, Part 92: identifying commodities

 Waybills, of course, were the documentation for movement of freight. The freight had to be identified on the waybill, so that the correct freight rate would be applied. Over time, a system of “commodity code numbers” emerged, so that each of very many thousands of possible cargoes could be uniquely identified. Well, kind of. Let me explain. 

As late as the mid-1960s, many cargoes shown on prototype waybills simply used ordinary English descriptions of what the cargo was. The waybill blank had a place to enter the commodity code (shown below). The red arrow indicates the code box (you can click on the image to enlarge it if you wish.) Here the cargo, “Class 45 scrap,” was given no code.

My impression from examining a moderate number of prototype waybills from the 1950s and 1960s is that this box seems to have been used in a minority of cases. Likely the agent making out the waybill knew the freight rate for everything his local shippers would load, so the code wasn’t essential

The standard reference document for freight descriptions via the commodity code was the Uniform Freight Classification, as I briefly described some years ago (see that post here: ). The 8th issue of that volume, dated September 1966, was shown in the post just cited, and I repeat the photo here. The book is 8 x 11 inches in size, and more than 1.5 inches thick.

Within the book, there are two sections, about equal in size. One lists commodities in alphabetical order; the second lists them in numerical order by commodity number. As might be expected, many entries in this volume are in the classic Army nomenclature, principal name first, as in “bag, sleeping, Arctic.” Others however are in plain English. 

And in prominent use throughout the classification is the abbreviation, “noibn,” meaning “not otherwise identified by name,” used for all sorts of generic groupings. For example, “mechanics’ hand tools, noibn,” thereby describing a miscellaneous assortment of tools. Here is a brief sample of what entries look like. You will see “noibn” amongst these entries, along with “iors,” meaning “iron or steel,” and “nnstd,” meaning “not nested.”

For model use, the prevalence of “plain English” commodity descriptions in prototype waybills is welcome, as it frees us to give brief and informative descriptions. At the same time, though, sometimes the official classification language serves well, as in the following instance. 

I was aware that spent brewing malt retained food value as animal feed, and was often shipped in bulk. Accordingly, I looked up the official classification, and used it in the model waybill you see below.

The car identified above is one of the recent InterMountain ready-to-run cars, with added weathering, route cards, and chalk marks (fulfilling Richard Hendrickson’s dictum that models like this really aren’t “ready to run” but really instead should be regarded as “ready-to-finish”).

I continue to make use of the Uniform Classification as a double-check on some of my freight categories, but have not gotten into commodity codes on my waybills, and will not. That would be just a little too much information. <grin>

Tony Thompson

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