Sunday, February 12, 2012


This has been a subject that has come up a few times in the past month.  I was born in the later 1960's, but I model the 1950's.  My sense of color runs more toward the modern era and I find myself at a loss sometimes when I try to figure out appropriate colors for my model railroad structures.   As most of the photography of that era is black and white, my impression is shades of gray.   Even my earliest childhood recollections of the 60's and 70's I remember lots of blacks and muted colors.  Trips down the NJ Turnpike to our shore house bring memories of lines of black tank cars and sooty refineries.  The local New York Central infrastructure was all greys and blacks, with the occasional jade green boxcar making an appearance.  As the years went on, the blue and yellow Penn Central brought the era of bright colors to the railroad in terms of locomotives and rolling stock.  (Pump your breaks railfans - Penn Central locos were indeed black with a white logo, but in Westchester County New York on ex-NYC trackage they were indeed blue with yellow noses and a big yellow PC logo.)   Industries also became "cleaner", and subsequently more colorful looking as the EPA began dropping the hammer on old practices.   Obviously there were also improvements in coatings and pigments that enabled more of a color variety on an industrial scale.

Chicago Steel Mill in Color - early 1940s - fireboat in foreground

So what do I use for reference if most photos are black and white from that era?  Indeed black and white was still the film of choice in the 40's and 50's, however, Kodachrome color transparency film was released in 1935 by Kodak and slowly found a following.  These color photos can be found in the beautiful Morning Sun books released on almost a weekly basis it seems.   If I was a hedge fund manager I'd probably buy every title released, but they are for now, an pricey item that I splurge on only for titles that are truly important to me - Steel Mill Railroads, Critters,...etc.     For the budget minded there are a few online sources for color photos of this era.  Truly the most outstanding photos in terms of resolution and composition are those on the National Archives site - I don't have the link but they are in the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information collection and date from 1935-1945.  There are plenty of railroad and industrial shots, including a few dozen steel and coke photos, and browsing through the collection will give you a good feel for the colors of the time.

East Chicago, IN Steel Mill - Check out the B&O E Units

Another source came to me via todays New York Times.   Charles W. Cushman, a traveling salesman, financial analyst, and most importantly, an amateur photographer, started taking photographs of virtually every subject conceivable in the 1930's using Kodachrome film.  His travels took him throughout the United States and overseas.  He donated 14,500 of his slides to his alma mater, Indiana University.  They have digitized the collection and lower resolution images are available online .   There are many industrial, marine, and railroad related photos in this collection, but sometimes just the mundane street shots are just as interesting in terms of colors of the 1950's.   All the photos in this blog are from that collection.

1940's Johnstown, PA - Lots of black, grey, brick tone, and earth tones

And there was also some vivid colors,....

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