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Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Hard black coal and a lady in white

At the start of the new year I enjoyed taking a look back at Schuylkill County and my Cowhey ancestors one-hundred years ago in the year 1908.

Working back to one-hundred years before that date, none of my family had arrived yet in Pennsylvania, but an important event occurred there that would eventually draw them to the area and impact the rest of their lives.

1808 was the year that anthracite coal was first substituted for wood by a prominent citizen: Judge Jesse Fell of Wilkes-Barre. Since the discovery of the anthracite coal fields in Eastern Pennsylvania in the 1790s, there had been a push to mine and sell it. It was slow to be received by the public until Judge Fell's example showed that it was cheaper and cleaner-burning than wood. It was a decade later before serious marketing and the building of canals would bring anthracite coal to its glory in the industrial age.

Another individual who did her part to encourage the use of anthracite as a fuel was the fictional Phoebe Snow. Created in 1903 by the Lackawanna Railroad to advertise the use of anthracite coal to power their trains, Phoebe Snow introduced would-be passengers to the cleaner rides on the rails thanks to anthracite.

According to William White's The Lackawanna: The Route of Phoebe Snow published in 1951:

"Rail travel around the year 1900 was a messy business. After a long trip on a coal-powered train, travellers would frequently emerge covered in black soot. The exception to that rule were locomotives powered by anthracite, a clean-burning form of coal. The Lackawanna owned vast anthracite mines in Pennsylvania, and could legitimately claim that their passengers' clothes would still look clean after a long trip. To promote this fact, their advertising department created Phoebe Snow, a young New York socialite, and a frequent passenger of the Lackawanna. For reasons never explained, Miss Snow often travelled to Buffalo, New York, always wearing a white dress. The first ad featured the image of Phoebe and a short poem:

Says Phoebe Snow about to go
Upon a trip to Buffalo
'My gown stays white from morn till night
Upon the Road of Anthracite'

The campaign became a popular one, and soon Phoebe began to enjoy all the benefits offered by DL&W: Gourmet food, courteous attendants, an observation deck, even on-board electric lights:

Now Phoebe may by night or day
Enjoy her book upon the way
Electric light dispels the night
Upon the Road of Anthracite

Phoebe soon became one of the United States' most recognized advertising mascots. During World War I, anthracite was needed for the war effort, and its use on railroads was prohibited, thus ending her career, but her legend remained alive among railroad fans."

Phoebe Snow would eventually appear again (she would even one day have trains named for her), but never would she acquire her previous glory.

For more on the history of anthracite coal see the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission's website for the article Who Are These Anthracite People? by Valerie A. Zehl, originally published in Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine's Winter 1997 edition. (Phoebe Snow appears on page 5 of the article.)

For more on Phoebe Snow, see The 100 Greatest Advertisements 1852-1958: Who Wrote Them and What They Did published by Julian Lewis Watkins in 1959.

Thanks to the 24-7 Family History Circle blog for the look back at the year 1808 and their mention of Judge Fell's use of anthracite coal in his home furnace two-hundred years ago.

1 comment:

jyamamo said...

Thank you. Very interesting. I'd never heard of Phoebe Snow before!



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