The University of Iowa Libraries

Skip to content
print page banner

Cheating the Wind: Streamliners on the Rails

October 2001 – February 2002

Inspired by the Art Deco movement of the 1920s, industrial designers began emphasizing the form and function of machines, and by the 1930s, much of their work reflected the modernism and optimism of the speed-conscious machine age. In 1934, industrial designers introduced a new locomotive that was built for both speed and beauty. As a reflection of the Art Deco Movement, the new streamlined locomotive was smooth and bullet-shaped, emphasizing elegance as well as speed, esthetics as well as power.

From the introduction of the first two streamlined locomotives, Union Pacific’s M-10,000 and Burlington’s Zephyr, streamlined trains were extremely popular with the American public. Although there were a number of streamlined steam and electric locomotives, most streamliners used the modern diesel engine to produce power and speed. The traditional stodgy steam locomotive and the box-shaped electric locomotive gave way to the sleek, aerodynamically-shaped diesel locomotive.

Rolling across America, streamlined trains were eye-catching, modern marvels, combining state-of-the-art power with modern artistic beauty. Art Deco permeated all aspects of the streamlined train, including the locomotive and all of the cars it pulled. Adorning the exteriors and interiors of the streamlined train, bright and bold color schemes mixed with sleek, stainless steel. The streamliner combined the best of art and science, exuding power and grace, as well as efficiency and luxury.

During the Golden Age of American railway history, the streamliner was undisputed “King.” The streamlined locomotive was the railway industry’s workhorse—the engine that powered America’s railroads. With its aerodynamic shape and its Art Deco design, however, the streamliner was also an elegant, artistic statement on wheels.


Prepared by Kathryn Hodson, Selina Lin, Dean Koster, Bob McCown, and Stephen Dew, with the assistance of Kristin Baum, Julie Cobb, and Gary Frost.

The Main Library’s North Exhibition Lobby provides a distinctive venue to highlight the Libraries’ collections and provide outreach opportunities to the larger community. Exhibitions focus on topics consistent with the scholarly and cultural concerns of the University and draw them from the holdings of the Libraries, supplemented when appropriate with materials from other sources.