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Here’s how to win an award – The 1923 Charles A. Coffin Medal.

Readers of my blog posts for Imprint know I’m a loyal fan of the Chicago North Shore & Milwaukee Railway, The North Shore Line, an electric interurban railway that ran from Chicago to Milwaukee between the late 19th century and January of 1963. My fascination stems from the fact that during its run, it encompassed so many different areas that interest me. Separate from it being a regional thing by having operated in my childhood Chicago area backyard, it also was responsible for producing wonderful advertising and graphic campaigns at its pre-depression height of the 1920s to 1930. Its trains, in particular the Electroliners, displayed arresting design and landmark speed records. In addition, it was instrumental in revolutionizing the electric transit industry by becoming an integral part of the communities it serviced, and proved to be a pioneer in trailer truck intermodel piggy-back freight as well as radio transmission to its rolling stock! Finally, between 1916 to 1932, it was owned and managed by the utilities magnate Samuel Insull, who as far as I’m concerned, is one of the most fascinating personalities of the time.

This article concerns a stunning presentation brief that the railway submitted in 1923 in order to be considered for the first annual Charles A. Coffin Medal. Coffin was the first CEO of General Electric and upon his retirement, the GE Co. established the award in his memory and honor to recognize outstanding achievement in electric railway advancement. The North Shore Line won the competition and was presented with the inaugural honor. This attractive brief is a marvelous testament to what the railway had accomplished on multiple fronts, and produced with limited edition care and high production value.

I’ve included several links at the end of the article that focus on other graphic aspects of the North Shore Line that I’ve written about previously.


Charles A. Coffin 1844 – 1926



Samuel Insull 1859-1938


But First, A Little Background

The British born Samuel Insull, started his career in the United States as Thomas Edison’s assistant and later ran General Electric out of Schenectady, New York. He moved on to Chicago in 1892 to consolidate and manage the electric and gas companies there. Insull continued to build his utility empire in the Windy City and in 1916 acquired the Chicago & Milwaukee Electric Railway. He promptly renamed it the Chicago North Shore & Milwaukee Railway to fully define the territory it would soon cover. Three years later, the railway was extended into downtown Chicago’s “Loop” via the north side Chicago Elevated Railway, which he also owned. This meant that it was now possible to board a train in downtown Milwaukee and travel directly into the center of downtown Chicago. All the other railroads had stations within the city but not as centrally located as where the Elevated ran. In the years prior to the highway system we now have, this was extraordinarily convenient and the passengers traveled at a speed that many had never traveled at before. One of their marketing slogans was, “Did you ever travel 80 miles an hour?”

Insull continued to institute a campaign to upgrade and modernize the North Shore Line that included new equipment, stations, advertising, safety programs and plans for an extended right of way that would bypass the more densely populated areas that significantly slowed the progress of the trains. By 1924, Insull had tripled the North Shore Line’s passenger traffic!

Here’s the 1923 Coffin Medal presentation book.


The 9.5″ X 13″ softcover book with its original mailing envelope. A Native American surveys the region with a new train and station in the distance. Lithographed painting by artist J.T. Armbrust who also designed other marketing pieces for Insull’s newly rehabilitated railway.



The opening page showing one of the new opened end parlor/observation cars at the bottom.




Yes, you could enjoy a full meal during your journey between the “Cream City” and the “Windy City” !



Insull added open ended parlor/observation cars to the end of the North Shore Line’s special “Name Trains” just like the large transcontinental railroad companies had. The difference was an electric railway has no cinders and sitting at the end of the train was much more enjoyable without cinders and ash flying in your eyes. . .




A “Motor Bus” network was established to reach areas that the railway didn’t go. This was especially effective when it came to seasonal jaunts out to neighboring regional resorts.



In the days when clubs and fraternal organizations were popular it was possible to charter a “Special Train” for your membership’s needs.



“Car Cards” are the advertisements that run above the windows throughout the length of the car’s interior.



An example of a North Shore Line car card by Robert Whitelaw.



The “Artistic Lithographed Posters” were inspired by the design sensibility that the London Underground had employed – and still uses – to advertise its offerings. These two 1923 posters are by Oscar Rabe Hanson on the left, and Willard Frederic Elmes on the right. Color examples of the posters are below. . .




The brief includes an example of one of the posters printed in full color and protected by a rice-paper overlay.



“Polo” by Oscar Rabe Hanson 1923.



Two more posters from the series. Left: unknown artist / Right: Roy F. Best – color example below.




The graphic art campaign included more than just single and triple sheet posters. . .



1. “Along The Green Bay Trail” produced by the Atlas Educational Film Company/Chicago and directed by George Frederic Wheeler. Two interesting notes – watch for the fly (?!) that lands on the title card between 2:18 – 2:21, and in the sequence between 10:30 – 10:55 the film stock/exposure available wasn’t able to pick up the existing gold type on the railway’s lettering above the windows. They arranged to paint the letters with white paint prior to the filming in order for it to be visible.

2. “Pace Of Progress” produced by the Rothacker Film Manufacturing Company/Chicago.



An example of “The North Shore Bulletin” mentioned above.





The construction of new stations included both “Insull Spanish” and “Prairie Style” structures. The station above was (and still is) in Kenosha, Wisconsin. There were two more similar stations in Mundelein (razed) and Niles Center (Skokie). In 2003 I was fortunate enough to be involved in getting the Skokie terminal on the National Register of Historic Places, and participated in the research and restoration of the building. A dream-job to say the least. Here’s a link to some info on the Dempster Terminal project: http://www.jjsedelmaier.com/Dempster.html




The railway’s safety campaign is what ultimately won it the Coffin Medal.




Art by Oscar Rabe Hanson.




The brief’s back cover.



The J.T. Armbrust litho.



A close-up of the mailing envelope graphic.



A watch-fob version of the NSL’s Coffin award medal given to the railway’s executives/employees.



The watch-fob’s reverse.


The article from Electric Railway Journal (the trade bible of the transit industry) below describes how the railway made the most of the award. . .


The following two images are additional promotional pieces used to advertise the North Shore Line’s 1920’s upgrading campaign.


A 1925 booklet (again with illustrations by J.T. Armbrust) promoting the railway’s Skokie Valley Route bypass extension. This was given to the people who participated in the campaign to name the stations along the new route.



A small booklet (with cover by NSL poster artist Willard Frederic Elmes) describing a typical journey on the line between Milwaukee and Chicago.


Here are links to previous articles I’ve written related to the North Shore Line and its design heritage:

1. The 1920’s Insull Utility Posters

2. The Electroliner

3. Ravinia Program Covers

Additional Resource for Graphic Designers Did you miss HOW Design Live? Or, perhaps you saw a dynamite session and want to share it with your team. HOW Design Live session videos are now available!

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