Phoebe Snow lives up to her surname. She has pale skin and is dressed entirely in white. From the pristine ostrich plumes that adorn her hat to the spotless boots that protect her feet, Phoebe Snow is obsessively, almost compulsively, clean. She’s also a fictional character, invented by an advertising firm in an early push for “clean coal,” decades before that term even existed. Today, Phoebe Snow serves as a testament to the power of corporate propaganda and the dirty history of energy lobbying.
A vintage game featuring Phoebe last appeared at the New-York Historical Society in 2010, as part of an exhibition of the Liman Collection of board and table games, where she reminded modern visitors about this forgotten chapter in pop culture and energy history.
Today, the scientific community has overwhelmingly concluded that coal is one of the most heavily polluting fossil fuels on the planet and a major contributor to climate change. While coal use has been steadily decreasing in the US, 30 percent of the country’s electricity was still generated by coal in 2017. And a recent report by the International Energy Agency revealed that coal-fired power plants in Asia released a record amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere last year. It’s ironic, then, to look back at a moment in the early 1900s when anthracite coal became a cause for environmental celebration, at least according to the railroad industry.
Railroads were confronting a serious problem at the turn-of-the-20th-century: Most Americans believed that train travel was dirty and dangerous. They had good reason. From 1902 to 1911, 33,761 employees and 4,146 passengers were killed on American trains and 403,259 employees and 113,410 passengers were injured (An Evaluation of Railroad Safety). Rail passengers who safely disembarked at their final destinations still arrived the worse for the wear. At the time, most railroads ran by burning either wood or soft bituminous coal. Wood-burning steam engines spewed ash and flaming debris on unlucky customers, while bituminous coal-powered trains transported travelers under a sulfurous cloud of smoke that covered their faces and clothing in soot.
Hard, cleaner-burning anthracite coal promised passengers a less toxic journey, and the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad was built to monetize it. Started in 1851, the Lackawanna route connected eastern Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal mines to cities in western New York like Buffalo and to the east, all the way to New York City’s doorstep in Hoboken, NJ.
The Lackawanna bet on anthracite’s potential to take the “‘sin’ out of cinders,” as one of their executives said in a speech. And by the 1900s, the railroad’s executives were seeking to protect their investment from bad press. At the time, the most famous images linked with the coal industry in the public imagination were of soot-covered child miners, usually recent immigrants, who risked death for a paltry wage in one of the nation’s most dangerous industries.
In addition to the threat of cave-ins, explosions and floods, miners had to deal with management that was viciously anti-labor and anti-union. Over 150,000 members of the United Mine Workers went on strike in May 1902, a seminal moment in the US labor movement. An agreement to end the strike was finally reached later that year in Scranton, PA. Eager to change the subject from labor strife and exploitation, the Lackawanna Railroad commissioned an ad campaign focused on Phoebe Snow one year later.
White, wealthy, and feminine, Phoebe was designed to represent the Lackawanna’s ideal patron and quite literally change the face of coal. In Phoebe’s voice, the railroad spoke directly to a public that felt uneasy about train travel and delivered persuading—albeit fake—testimony in support of the safety, reliability, and cleanliness of anthracite-powered trains.
Lackawanna printed Phoebe’s image in ads and created many jingles to cement her name in consumers’ minds:
Says Phoebe Snow: / “The miners know / That to hard coal / My fame I owe, / For my delight / In wearing white / Is due alone to / Anthracite.”
Phoebe says / And Phoebe knows / That smoke and cinders / Spoil good clothes / ‘Tis thus a pleasure / And delight / To take the Road of Anthracite.
Over the next few years, Phoebe quickly became a pop-culture phenomenon as anthracite became aspirational. Ballet reviews described costumes of “Phoebe Snow-white.” Articles reported trends in yachting fashions styled to suit Phoebe Snow. One newspaper romance column even imagined a complicated love triangle between characters named Phoebe Snow (“who lived near the railroad station at Laurel”) and two gentlemen callers. To capitalize on Phoebe’s celebrity, the Lackawanna Railroad hired the 23-year-old New Haven, CT, actress Marian E. Arnold-Murray to act as Phoebe and serve as a public ambassador for the train line.
Arnold-Murray was frequently dispatched to make appearances along the Lackawanna Rail line to meet and greet passengers and pose for photographs. People lined up to see “Phoebe” travel the “dustless road of anthracite” with “delicacy” and “true feminine nonchalance” (New-York Tribune). At one promotional event in Binghamton, NY, in 1904, 10,000 people were reported to have assembled to witness Arnold-Murray disembark from the Lackawanna train ( New York Times). They proceeded to follow her as she was “escorted through the city” in an open carriage drawn by four white horses.
Phoebe’s fate followed that of the coal industry. During World War I, she disappeared as anthracite was diverted to the war effort. The Lackawanna revived Phoebe in the 1940s in an attempt to resurrect the line, and even named a train the Phoebe Snow, but this campaign fizzled. After World War II, the anthracite industry began to decline as oil and natural gas rose in production. The Lackawanna itself was dissolved and reorganized by different managing companies between the 1960s and 1970s.
Today, many people still ride the Lackawanna rail line in a way: Cars cruise Interstates 80, 380, and 381, which cover the route of the original train line. Passengers who travel on the Morristown line of commuter railroad NJ Transit are the lucky ones, even though they likely don’t know it: They’re riding the last rail vestige of the route of Phoebe Snow.
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Written by Sarah Gomez, Museum Department Assistant
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