Wednesday, June 5, 2024

Modeling “billboard” refrigerator cars

Modelers are generally familiar with the dramatic, even extravagant, paint schemes created for leased refrigerator cars up to the middle 1930s. They were effectively outlawed by the ICC in 1934 (which took effect in 1937), in a widely misunderstood ruling. And there is an entire book devoted to this topic, containing more than 440 photos, from noted authors Richard H. Hendrickson and Edward S. Kaminski: Billboard Refrigerator Cars (Signature Press, 2008). Having acted as editor for this book and written its foreword, I know its contents well.

Below is the dust jacket of this book, containing two photos colorized in the 1930s and thus among the very few paint schemes for which we can document color from contemporary sources.  

What does this mean for modelers? I want to cover three points. First, a brief summary of what the ICC actually did in 1934. Second, a few words about what this means for paint schemes in subsequent years. And finally, what modelers need to know about these paint schemes.

The book mentioned above contains, as an appendix, a summary from Railway Age magazine of the problems addressed by the ICC decision, and what the ICC actually did. It’s a useful summary because it’s far shorter than the voluminous ICC report, though the ICC language is extensively quoted. 

The core of the problem considered by the ICC lay in the fact that owners of refrigerator cars were remunerated for their use, not by per diem payments as was the case for most freight cars, but by a payment per mile moved, loaded or empty. This had led to abuse by leasing companies, encouraging excessive empty mileage and in effect paying rebates to lessees who concocted ways to generate that mileage (at the expense of railroads). These practices were then forbidden.

Modelers have long been interested in what was a detail of the ICC ruling, the banning of car-side advertising. The advertising on the “billboard” cars was furnished free by the lessors, and thereby furnished something of value to lessees, which was not available to shippers using railroad-furnished cars. The initial ICC decision prohibited advertisements of shippers, consignees, or products on leased cars, effective January 1, 1937. 

But before long it was recognized that cars exclusively leased to a single shipper could reasonably carry the shipper’s name and emblem, provided they did not advertise specific products. The same was true for shipper-owned cars, such as the meat-packing company car fleets. Gradually other aspects of the advertising prohibition were relaxed also. Below is my model of a 1948 Swift reefer scheme, spotted at the wholesale grocer’s warehouse on my layout.

What about modeling these cars? Most of the most dramatic billboard schemes date from the 1920s, so modelers of earlier eras have distinctly less opportunity to use these paint schemes. And after January 1, 1937, the flamboyant original schemes were surely gone, particularly those advertising specific products such as ham or cheese. As mentioned, some lessees did gradually introduce more colorful cars in later years. 

There is also the problem that this era predates commercial color photography, so color information for the great majority of the schemes does not exist. But as shown in an appendix to the billboard reefer book (citation in first paragraph at the top of this post), the Red Ball car sides, originating in the late 1930s, certainly are likely to be close to actual colors, if not precise matches. If you happen to model the pre-1937 era, some of these may work for you. I show one page of these below, from a 1950s Red Ball catalog (reproduced with permission).

What can a post-1937 modeler do, who likes these schemes? That depends on how far past 1937 you are modeling. Certainly for the first few years after 1937, that modeler is out of luck, not only because of the ICC prohibition, but because most lessors and lessees were really gun-shy and didn’t want to challenge the prohibition in any way. Leased cars were really plain for several years.

But as you move farther forward from, say, World War II, more and more reefers carried lessee’s names and logos. If you love the pre-1937 schemes, though, you’re still limited, because re-introduced meat company and other schemes simply differed. The pre-1937 schemes reflect their original era’s advertising approach, and wouldn’t be brought back in any case. I remember cringing a bit at a late 1950s layout that had one of the Berkshire Ham and Bacon cars (see above) in a freight train. Not likely.

But because the simplest, relatively plain schemes were close to permissible, some did continue, or survived in modestly modified form, so a modeler could choose any historic scheme that was plain enough to have plausibly continued. One of them is the Pacific Egg Producers scheme (the organization morphed into today’s Pacific Egg & Poultry Association); this scheme is shown in the Hendrickson and Kaminski book. I scratchbuilt a wood body for a pair of Red Ball sides, and added detail parts from several sources. This car, shown being switched at Shumala, does operate from time to time on my layout.

There is no question that the “billboard era” cars were visually striking, and having an itch to model some of the flamboyant cars is understandable. I have a couple of the spectacular-scheme cars myself, but if you see them at all, they will be found in my display case, not on the layout. Of course, your mileage may vary.

Tony Thompson

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