Billboard reefers are well-known and loved by model railroaders both for their colorful designs and for the products they advertise. The practice of painting the sides of railroad cars, particularly reefers, dates back as early as the 1870s. The cars were most common however through the 1920s and 1930s. Like so many aspects of railroading, the colorful exterior was just a small part of the total story of these cars, most of which was really about just one color – green.
Railroad Car Leasing
Before we look at how the billboards came to come and go, it is important to understand the relationship between railroads and their customers. As common carriers, railroads are required to provide a service for their clients. As part of facilitating this service, they must provide a vehicle for transportation. They do not need to own that vehicle themselves however.
Railroads made a case early on that owning specialized cars was not fiscally practical for railroads. This included cars like refrigerators and tank cars that had very specific lading requirements. (See our earlier blogs on reefers and tank cars for more information.) Unlike a typical boxcar, these couldn’t go anywhere anytime for any load. The courts agreed to allow the railroads to work with a third-party to lease the necessary equipment for its shippers, provided a reasonable fee was paid to the car owner. These fees would not be charged to the lessee, but withdrawn from the revenues the railroad collected which were already based on established rate tariffs.
In other words, a railroad would charge the shipper a price regardless of who owned the cars used. If the railroad could not supply its own cars, it would have to pay to borrow somebody else’s.
Enter the Billboards
In the 1920s, shippers and the leasing companies began arranging leases for blocks of cars more or less dedicated to their individual needs. The lessor would charge the shipper a flat monthly fee for the use of the cars. The leasing company would collect usage fees from the railroads and then deduct those fees from the shippers’ balance.
Herein lay the problems for railroads. The railroad companies argued, on their own part and to a lesser extent in fairness to their other clients, that such a payment arrangement amounted to a rebate on services below the advertised costs of service. That is to say that since the shippers cost of using the car was reduced as a result of the railroads’ use of it, they received their shipment at a lower rate than if the carrier had supplied their own cars.
In 1934 the Interstate Commerce Commission agreed. In case 201 I.C.C. 323, the Commission outlawed the payments and the billboard advertising as well. Shippers were given some time to repaint cars. It would not be until 1938 that the last of the billboards were outlawed.
Modeling Billboard Reefers
Modelers have long enjoyed these brightly colored cars. Despite their relatively brief time on the rails, they left a big impression. These cars must have been a delight from trackside as well, especially given utilitarian paint schemes generally applied to other cars of the era.
If you are trying to build trains appropriate for a specific time period, then these cars are generally appropriate from the 1880s to 1938, but were most common in the 1920s. One other factor to keep in mind, reefers would not have been advertising alcoholic products from 1920-1933. On the other hand, we don’t have to be tied to tightly to the pages of history on our layouts, so if you want to run that string of rolling ad-space behind your SD80MAC, go right ahead!