Some characters used for advertising are truly lovable. Is it any wonder that one of the longest lasting symbols of the railroad in the U.S. is a cat? Chessie found her way into American hearts during the depths of the Great Depression, but is still a sought out symbol today.
The Birth of a Legendary Railroad Cat
In the early 1930’s the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway (C &O) added a new and luxurious feature to their passenger trains – an air conditioned sleeping car. The company needed a fresh ad campaign to promote the new service and soon found one in an etching done by a Viennese artist named Guida Gruenwald. Rights to the etching of a sleepy kitten with one paw around it’s pillow was sold to C&O Railroads for $5. Gruenwald would pass away before ever seeing his etching used by the ad campaign.
The kitten was named Chessie, derived from the company’s name. It was in the September 1933 edition of Fortune Magazine that Chessie’s first ad appeared. The drawing was in black and white, accompanied by the slogan “Sleep like a Kitten and Wake Up Fresh as a Daisy in Air Conditioned Comfort.” The ads were a huge success and Chessie stole the hearts of many Americans.
It wasn’t long before Chessie was known as America’s Sleepheart. C&O railways began making merchandise featuring their famous kitty. The first Chessie calendar was published in 1934 and 40,000 copies were distributed! Over the years Chessie would be featured on not only calendars, but posters, jewelry, clothing, music boxes, children’s books, and more.
New Additions to Chessie’s Family
In 1935 Chessie was no longer alone in her cozy little bed. She gained 2 kittens (who showed amazing family resemblance) named Nip and Tuck. Two years later, in 1937, she also gained a mate named Peake. Peake’s name was derived from the railroad company’s name as well (Chessie and Peake from Chesapeake).
As the United States geared up to enter World War II, C&O railways prepared to support the war efforts. Peake very proudly became a soldier and Chessie supported him on the home front. At times, Chessie, now being touted as America’s Sleep Warden, symbolically gave up her bed for traveling soldiers. The cats were used to promote the sales of war bonds.
Chessie Gets Repurposed
In 1963, Chessie made her first appearance on the outside of the train cars. The company logo was changed so that the “C” in C&O had Chessie’s outline inside of it. When Amtrack purchased C&O in 1971, they began using Chessie’s name and logo for not only the C&O railroad, but also the Baltimore and Ohio and Western Maryland railways. The cat didn’t just help promote passenger trains anymore – freight services also carried her name.
After a 53 year reign on the railways Chessie was finally retired as the company logo in 1986. She was replaced by a geometric “CSX” logo. However, Chessie is still considered to be a company mascot. The C&O Historical Society hosts an online shop where Chessie memorabilia can still be purchased. The Cat Fancier Association’s Feline Historical Museum owns several pieces of the original Chessie artwork.