Caturday felids: Chessie the railroad kitten

If you live in the U.S. and are of a certain age, you might know about “Chessie” the railroad cat: the symbol of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad.  Or you might have simply seen this symbol on the side of a train, without knowing what it was (it’s on the train right below):

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It is in fact a kitten sleeping soundly on a pillow. I suppose it’s not a good graphic if you can’t recognize what it is instantly, but once you know you always get an “aww” feeling when you see it.

Chessie was created in 1933, and you can read about the origin of the logo at Wikipedia, or , more comprehensively, at the Chesapeake and Ohio Historical Society.  See her on the engine below?  (As you’ll see below, Chessie was a female.)

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From Wikipedia:

Chessie was a popular cat character used as a symbol of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway. Derived from an etching by Viennese artist Guido Gruenwald, the image first appeared in a black and white advertisement in the September 1933 issue of Fortune magazine with the slogan “Sleep Like a Kitten.” The advertisement makes no mention of the cat’s name.

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The original drawing of Chessie

Here’s that ad (the video below says that the railroad purchased the right to use the drawing for only $5!):

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When the ad generated a positive response, the railroad developed an advertising campaign around the image and chose the name Chessie as a derivation of the railroad’s name. The promotion proved widely popular and, in addition to national print advertising, grew to include calendars, clothing, and even two children’s books about the character. Chessie acquired two kittens named “Nip” and “Tuck” in 1935, as well as a mate named “Peake” in 1937. During World War II, the Chessie character was used to promote War Bonds and support for the war effort, depicted as working on the home front to support Peake, who was off to war. The Chessie image continued to appear in advertising until 1971 when passenger train travel was consolidated under Amtrak.

Here are two pictures of Chessie, Nip, and Tuck. I guess since there’s a proud father in the first one, Chessie’s a female! There’s a remarkable family resemblance.

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The video below says that Chessie’s mate was named “Peake” (Chesapeake—get it?), and the accompanying drawing suggests he was a hobo moggie taken off a coal car. You can see his name in the ad right above:

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Peake goes to war in a WWII calendar (from Red Slipper Diary). Note that Peake, like Hili, has a white stripe up his nose, which Chessie lacks, so you know this is the male. He’s getting a medal for being a brave cat:

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Of course there’s a YouTube video (be sure to see the sleeping kitten at 1:45):

You can buy old Chessie ads or reproductions of classic Chessie calendars here,; and here’s an example of a calendar page:

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A prayer for Chessie!

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And another reproduction ad, which you can buy on Etsy (I’ve fixed the spelling):

This delightful art print is from a old calendar to advertise the Chesapeake Ohio Railroad… Chessie cat was their advertising cat they used to promote the idea that you would sleep like a kitten when you traveled on their railroad..This is a rare print of Peake Cat…He was Chessie’s old man as they said at that time, and Chessie was his favorite pin-up girl…. and he went off to war and was a war hero…Here he is wearing his military hat and backpack..In this picture he is reading a letter from Chessie saying that “We eagarly await your return from war and here at home we’re doing all we can to hasten that day”…This was the same sentiment that many family members had at that time when a family member was away at war…

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After all that, doesn’t this look familiar? It’s Hili!

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It’s Hili!

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Today, Chessie no longer appears in timetables or on locomotives and rail cars, but she nevertheless is alive in the hearts of millions who grew up during her life’s work on the C&O and successor lines. Interest in her and her history is perhaps as great now as when she was the foremost advertiser of rail passenger service.

But you can still occasionally see Chessie on old railroad cars or on railroad bridges, and I always smile when I see that.

For the complete and detailed history of Chessie’s long career the COHS recommends the book Chessie, The Railroad Kitten, available online from chessieshop.com.

You can buy Chessie merchandise here, including a swell tee-shirt and a coffee mug. You can buy vintage Chessie ads here.

 

 

13 Comments

  1. Posted July 19, 2014 at 4:50 am | Permalink

    Definitely some clever iconography. I guess every marketing trick was needed back in the day (I have a funny feeling the Chessie also deployed the world’s only steam-electric loco in the late 1940s, not wanting to let go of the image of steam).

  2. Posted July 19, 2014 at 4:57 am | Permalink

    Lovely post!

    Focusing on a furry family instead of a holy one is a much more psychologically healthy way to comfort people in distress. 🙂

  3. Jim Knight
    Posted July 19, 2014 at 5:01 am | Permalink

    Congratulations, this is the best Caturday Felid I have yet see. Though I’m not QUITE that old, I remember the logo and the kittens, Nip and Tuck (after which I named two baby cotton-tailed rabbits I raised as a child).

  4. Melissa Johnson
    Posted July 19, 2014 at 5:17 am | Permalink

    My grandmother had a picture of the sleeping Chessie in an upstairs bedroom. When we would visit, the first thing I would do was race up the stairs to look at the adorable picture (At about 4 years old, I just thought it was just the sweetest-looking cat and I loved cats).

    As I grew up, I learned the fascinating story of Chessie.

    Years later as an adult, I came to acquire the very picture my grandmother had in her house and I proudly displayed it in my home, always admiring the sleeping kitten and how I just loved that picture as a child.

    About 8 years ago, I adopted a little orphan kitten and I named her Chessie. Oh, she was a love and she looked just like railroad Chessie and slept just as sweetly….like Hili!

    7 months ago my beloved Chessie died suddenly –no warning, the vet thought she may have had an undetected heart problem. Chessie–who was perfectly named– was the most unforgettable girl, so loving and loyal. She loved me impossibly to absolute pieces– and although I still have cats, I don’t think I shall ever be so intensely loved by any animal ever again. I miss her every single day.

    Thank you for this most wonderful post. I can’t stop smiling. The story of Chessie the railroad kitten has brought much joy to my life. And my Chessie brought boundless love, and leaves me in awe of the sacred bond between people and animals.

    • Frank Williams
      Posted July 19, 2014 at 11:18 am | Permalink

      Our Chessie – also named for the C&O cat – likewise died suddenly of a heart defect; just jumped up to a window ledge, then dropped to the floor, dead in about 15 seconds.

  5. John Crisp
    Posted July 19, 2014 at 5:23 am | Permalink

    I wonder if this was the inspiration for TS Eliot’s “Skimbleshanks: The Railway Cat”, in Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, written in 1939, though Skimble is manifestly British. Old Possum (Eliot’s nickname bestowed by his friend Ezra Pound) might be seen as a predecessor of Professor Ceiling Cat, though PCC would have little sympathy, I suspect, for Eliot’s Anglo-Catholicism and anti-Semitism.

    • Posted July 21, 2014 at 9:32 am | Permalink

      I wondered about the connection “the railway cat” in the poem too.

  6. alexandra
    Posted July 19, 2014 at 6:02 am | Permalink

    Took the Pullman sleeper from Boston to Chicago and vv, many times in the 1940s – first time, alone, when 10 in 1938. I remember my father turning me over to the Pullman porter for the duration and the feeling of friendliness and security, and the enchantment of watching, from my cosy lower bunk, the stations at night, deserted, dark, mysterious and the slow, clanking, metallic surge forward as the train went back to work and we slid faster and faster into the night. Of course in the 40s, the trains were filled with soldiers and coach travel,prevailed – sometimes perched on a suitcase.
    I miss trains, sleepers, dining cars…..sure beats the 6 square confined inches one gets on a plane.

    • still learning
      Posted July 19, 2014 at 6:49 am | Permalink

      A beautifully written memory!

  7. Posted July 19, 2014 at 6:20 am | Permalink

    The Hili picture is even cuter because of the placement of her paw behind her head.

  8. Alex
    Posted July 19, 2014 at 6:35 am | Permalink

    American locomotices have this distinct rugged and bulky look, like they were all built to haul coal at slow speeds over thousands of miles. Compared to the modern super high-powered european ones like this one http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/EuroSprinter they have a very distinct charm. The modern european one would probably die from sand and heat halfway through the US heartland.

  9. DavidF
    Posted July 19, 2014 at 9:33 am | Permalink

    I have a Chessie Christmas tree ornament! Too bad it’s packed away. Remind me in a couple months and I’ll send you a picture.

  10. Mary L
    Posted July 19, 2014 at 9:05 pm | Permalink

    Some people believe Nessie has a relative in the Chesapeake Bay. It’s called Chessie.


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