Union Pacific's Gothic Lettering

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This page was last updated on October 10, 2015.

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By Dick Harley & Don Strack


Union Pacific's Gothic lettering style is a hand drawn, geometric style that includes vertical and horizontal components (known as "strokes") that are uniform across all letters within a particular size. The spacing between the letters, except in a few cases of spaces between certain letters, is completely uniform. This geometric style allows the layout of letters on railroad equipment to be done by use of simple measuring tools.

Extensive research using Union Pacific's own engineering drawings and records has found that there was no UP Gothic font, or typeface. Yes, there was UP Gothic style lettering, but it was NOT a font. Creating a scalable computer font will NOT give accurate results for UP Gothic lettering.

Every individual size of UP Gothic lettering used on rolling equipment had its own drawing -- from as small as 3/8" (passenger car interiors) to as large as 35" (sides of freight cars and diesels) -- all drawn full size. The characters were all individually shaped and drawn, and they were generally NOT scaleable one size to another. In addition to there being a different drawing for each size, there were separate drawings for freight cars, passenger cars, and locomotives even for the same size lettering, with different shape and aspect ratios. That applies to both letters and figures (numbers).

There were also shape changes over time. Specifically, the 1937 style oval lettering and "skinny" numbers gave way to the circular 1939 style. Then in 1956, different shaped oval "O" and "C" characters began to show up, but never fully replaced the circular letters in all sizes. There may have been changes since the 1980s, but that information is not currently available.

Gothic Lettering

Research has not yet found the basis for the initial use of the name "Gothic" to describe Union Pacific's sans-serif geometric lettering style. Geometric lettering is any style of lettering that can be drawn using drafting tools.

Union Pacific's Gothic sans-serif lettering is very similar to the Futura typeface, designed in 1927 by Paul Renner, a designer in Germany, and adopted for commercial printing by the Linotype Company also in Germany. Futura was a very successful lettering style, and many copies were designed by other type foundries to cash in on Futura's success.

In "The Official Pullman-Standard Library, Volume 13, Union Pacific 1933-1937," the caption for the two photos of cars Hawaii and Honolulu (both built in May 1936) on page 56 states that the new lettering was Futura style. This suggests that although the actual lettering was hand drawn full size by both Pullman and Union Pacific, the new lettering style may have been patterned after the Futura style.

An early copy of Futura was known as Gill Sans, released in competition to Futura in 1929 by the Lanston Monotype Company in Great Britain, and in 1931 by the Linotype Company in the United States. Gill Sans was adopted in 1929 by the London and North Eastern Railway as a unique typeface for all the LNER's posters and publicity materials.

The subject of "stroke" was mentioned above. Stroke has a similar definition to what is known to typeface designers as "contrast," which is the variance in stroke width within each character. As examples, Optima typeface is a high-contrast face. Gill Sans typeface is of medium contrast. Futura, with a uniform stroke width, has no contrast. (Mike Musick, email dated August 3, 2014)

Research into the names given to fonts and typefaces suggests that the name Gothic has been regularly used to describe many different sans-serif geometric lettering styles. The name seems to have first been used in the mid 1800s by (mostly German) architects to describe designs that were not part of a growing revival of Roman and Greek architecture, meaning that the Gothic name was used to describe anything that was not Roman. In lettering styles and their use in printed materials, as early as the 1890s, this meant that Gothic, or sans-serif, was used for any lettering that was not Roman, or serif.


March 1937 - Gothic Lettering On Steam Locomotives

In a reflection of Union Pacific's new awareness of its public appearance, lettering on steam locomotives was changed from Roman (serif) to the new Gothic (sans-serif) Streamliner style lettering in March 1937. "Union Pacific" was spelled out on the tender sides in the new Streamliner style. Locomotive numbers were moved from the tender sides to the cab sides. Possibly the first use of Gothic lettering was on the 4-6-2 (UP 2906) and 4-8-2 (UP 7002) that were modernized with roller bearings and other up-to-date features in late 1936 for service as protection power on the Streamliners, prior to their being streamlined in April 1937, and later as regularly assigned power on The Forty-Niner.

(Read more about UP 2906 and 7002)

The first new steam locomotives to receive the new lettering were the first order of 800-class 4-8-4s (FEF-1), delivered as UP 800-819 in July 1937, and the second order of 4-6-6-4 CSA-class Challengers (CSA-2), delivered as UP 3915-3939 in August 1937.

(Read more about the 1937 changes to UP steam locomotive painting and lettering)

The general drawing for the early version of UP's Gothic lettering is 993-CA-24992, originally dated March 1, 1937. That drawing lists 11 reference drawings for various size letters and numbers. Those detail drawings are the definers of the letter and number shapes - not 24992. If someone uses 24992 to define letter and number shapes, they are not strictly following the drawing. A review of revision D of that drawing shows that a new design was done and numbers were removed from the steam dome and sand box on May 10, 1939. A similar review of the detail drawings shows that all were also changed to a new design in 1939. That new design in 1939 changed the shape of the "U", "O", "P", and "C", plus most numbers were made wider. It is the 1939 "O" and "C" that are round. The 1937 to 1939 "O" and "C" are somewhat oval, but not the same shape as the post 1956 "O" and "C".

The numbers also changed to be broader in 1939, with the 1939 style 5, 6, 8, and 9 having circles for their inside shape. The easiest way to identify the 1937 style is that it continued the pre-Gothic practice of 6" cast aluminum numbers on the sandbox or steam dome. Those cast numbers were dropped in 1939.

August 1938 - Gothic Lettering On The Streamliners

More research is needed, but it appears that the first use of Gothic lettering on the Streamliner trains was at some time shortly after June 1937 when the City of Denver cars and locomotives were renumbered from their original 10000-series numbers to their CD-series numbers.

Two photos by Otto Perry of the CD-07 on City of Denver in June 10, 1937 (DPL OP-17404), and CD-05 in July 13, 1937 (DPL OP-17402), each show the City of Denver units with serif lettering. This indicates that the change to Gothic sans-serif lettering was after July 1937.

The new Gothic lettering style was used in August 1938 when the cars of the 4th Train (former City of San Francisco) were reconfigured and reassigned to City of Los Angeles service, after having been removed from COSF service in January 1938. At the same time, the cars were renumbered from their original 10000-series numbers to new LA-series numbers. (see photos in The Official Pullman-Standard Library, Volume 13; the caption on page 56 specifically states that the new lettering was Futura style.)

The transition from the original 1937 oval "O" to the circle "O" appears to have happened during this August 1938 change in assignment. The train names on the letterboards and the car names were both 5-inch. That train apparently also had the transition from Gold Leaf lettering, with black edging, to all Black lettering, then to Red lettering with black edging. But this is only one train with two locomotives and 11 cars.

Another early use of Gothic lettering on the Streamliner diesel fleet was on the City of Denver trains in mid-1939 when the two trains became three trains, and had their car consists expanded. These expanded trains required an added second booster diesel unit on each train. This change in configuration of each train's consist required repainting, and thus an opportunity for the application of the new lettering style. At the same time, Union Pacific changed from yellow and brown color scheme, to the new (and still current) yellow and gray scheme. The first unit added was the booster unit from the 4th Train (LA-4), which was simply renumbered to CD-05-C in July 1939. The former cab unit from the 4th Train (LA-4) was rebuilt without its cab and numbered as CD-06-C in September 1939. The third unit, CD-07-C, completed in December 1939, was a new carbody with components from the retired M-10001.

There is a Richard Kindig photo of CD-06 at Denver on May 27, 1939 with serif lettering. Another Kindig photo of CD-06 on December 1, 1940 shows the train with gothic lettering. (Jim Ehernberger, email dated September 26, 2002)

Similar narrow date range for serif lettering vs. gothic lettering on the COD trains comes from two Jackson Thode photos. One photo on September 4, 1939 shows CD-07 with serif lettering. The second photo on April 21, 1940 shows CD-07 with gothic lettering. (Jim Ehernberger, email dated September 26, 2002)

There is a Kindig photo of LA-4 at Denver on May 28, 1939, with name board reading CITY OF LOS ANGELES, in the new Gothic lettering, a smaller version than later name board size letters. (Jim Ehernberger via email on September 26, 2002)

June 1939 - Gothic Lettering On Freight Cars

The lettering on UP's freight car fleet was changed from Railroad Roman to Gothic in June 1939.

May 1940 - Gothic Lettering On Diesel Switchers

Union Pacific's first diesel switchers were delivered beginning in May 1940 in an all-black scheme with yellow striping and lettering. The lettering was the standard 11-inch circle "O" and "C" Gothic lettering then used on small steam locomotives. The first use of the black switcher scheme with Gothic lettering on diesel locomotives was actually on the NW2 demonstrator from Electro-Motive Corporation. Numbered as UP 1000 and built in October 1939, UP's first diesel switcher was delivered for a six month demonstration period that ended in March 1940, when UP decided to buy the unit. The first diesel switcher purchased new was UP 1001, delivered in May 1940.

April 1946 - Gothic Lettering and Two-Tone Gray

UP 4-8-4 no. 809 was the first locomotive to receive Union Pacific's new Two-Tone Gray paint scheme for non-Streamliner passenger trains. The new color scheme included Gothic lettering.

1947 - Yellow and Gray Paint Scheme

Gothic lettering remained as the standard in 1947 when the color scheme of the diesel switchers was changed from all-black to yellow and gray, to match UP's Streamliner passenger trains, which began daily operations in 1947.

More Information

Union Pacific's Gothic lettering is similar to the Futura typeface, designed in 1927, and to the Gill Sans typeface designed in 1929:

Wikipedia article for Font

Wikipedia article for Sans-Serif Typefaces