Orient-Express: Relive the legend in 10 photos

December 2020

Exclusive / Emotion

Published by Textuel and co-authored by historian Arthur Mettetal and exhibition curator Eva Gravayat, the book “Orient-Express & Co” unveils a never-before-seen photographic archive from the world of Orient-Express, an exploration into the industrial and social history of these legendary trains.

1. Behind the scenes

When it launched in 1876, the CIWL (La Compagnie Internationale des Wagon-lits aka the International Sleeping Car Company) developed a commercial strategy based on a network of its own agencies, established to enable travelers to purchase and reserve seats in its cars. The 1920s saw the transformation of these agencies into modern travel agencies, where customers could find all the information they needed to plan their trips from schedules for different means of transportation to guides and tickets for archaeological or cultural sites, hotel rates, and even luggage pick-up at their homes. In 1883, the CWIL was made up of 24 agencies. It went on to acquire Thomas Cook & Son 45 years later to form the world’s largest network of agencies with 628 locations around the world.


Photography: 1900, in Belgium, a rare photograph of a travel agency and its director posing for posterity.

2. Advertising posters

Between 1883 and 1977, the CIWL provided several connections to the East, with different routes and travel times. The Orient-Express (1883), Simplon-Orient-Express (1919) and Arlberg-Orient-Express (1932) trains constituted a veritable rail transportation team that fostered a relationship between the East and the West. London, Ostend, Berlin, Prague, Athens and Warsaw were connected with Paris and Constantinople. The company promoted this unique invitation to travel using various media including magazines, journals and posters with full-color graphics that invited future travelers to dream.


Photography: Advertising poster for the Simplon-Orient-Express train by illustrator Jérôme Touchet (1930).

3. Through the eyes of Life magazine

In June 1950, American photographer Jack Birns and journalist Roy Rowan traveled aboard the Simplon-Orient-Express for the American magazine Life. Between London and Istanbul, they painted a portrait of a worn-out train that was no longer the picture of luxury. As the train traveled through different countries, the photographer observed the landscapes and the stops at the station, the passengers and the train crew. He drew portraits of the people encountered in the daily life of train travel including conductor Alfredo Piccinini. Emblematic figures of the company, the conductors didn’t drive the trains, but instead were in charge of all the passengers in a sleeping car.


Photography: Aboard the Simplon-Orient-Express, a photograph for Life magazine, 1950.

4. The charms of the East

With the creation of the Taurus-Express train in 1930, a new chapter began for the relationship between the East and the West. Departing from Istanbul, the new express train reached the city of Aleppo (Syria) where it split into two branches: the first towards Baghdad and a second one towards Cairo. As some sections were not served by railway lines, automobile services were added. For the colonial European powers of the time, serving the Middle East represented a major strategic challenge. The London-Paris-Cairo link was completed in just 7 days. Baghdad was connected in 8.


Photography below: Passengers aboard the Taurus-Express train to Baghdad, 1969.

5. The workshops in the shadows

The construction of the train cars and their maintenance required the savoir-faire and skills of several workshops around the world. Their workers were essential cogs, guaranteeing the extreme quality of the services offered to passengers, who often had no idea they existed. In the 1920s, the company had 16 workshops with a workforce divided into industrial and craft trades including upholsterers, boilermakers, markers, varnishers, cabinetmakers, electricians, tinsmiths and fitters…


Photography: In the heart of the new CIWL workshops under construction in Saint-Denis (France), by architect C. Raquin, Albert Chevognon – November 1908 – April 1909.

6. Ad Culture

Through numerous advertisements, the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits publicized the exceptional experience of traveling aboard one of its trains. These ads showed travelers that it was finally possible to travel and sleep just as well as in one’s own bed, to taste refined cuisine, to freshen up anytime or enjoy a glass of Sherry while watching the beautiful landscapes pass by…


Photography: Models posing aboard a Pullman saloon car with René Lalique designs, circa 1970.

7. In bed with the Orient-Express

Betting on the comfort of its sleeping cars, in which “traveling by night becomes a pleasure”, the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits created campaigns advertising its new on-board services. After the introduction in 1929 of the luxury “Lx” (for luxury) sleeping cars, decorated with exotic woodwork and pewter and ivory marquetry, in 1954, the company launched “P” type sleeping cars (for Albert Pillepich, designer and chief engineer of technical services) made entirely of stainless steel.


Photography: Advertising photography for the promotion of the new CIWL “P” sleeper cars, 1959.

8. Wrapped in beautiful sheets

Originally outsourced, the laundry from the sleeper cars was quickly integrated into the company’s operations. The quality of the linen was a strategic issue: it had to be of outstanding quality. As early as 1883, a laundromat was opened in Saint-Ouen, followed by Ostend, Vienna and Milan. While the end of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century were marked by the omnipresence of women in laundry facilities, the 1950s saw the hiring of immigrant workers assigned to the most arduous tasks.


Photography: A rare image, the work of the laundresses at the CIWL laundromat in Saint-Ouen. CIWL Press Office, 1958.

9. Eating and drinking

With the arrival of the first dining cars in the 1880s, the CWIL aimed to embody the French art of living, with a focus on gastronomy and the culinary arts. On-board menus varied from country to country. On the train between Cairo and Alexandria, passengers could enjoy an artichoke heart with cream or a few bites “à la reine” (the Montglas version), lamb chops, beef sirloin, cake with whipped cream or a fancy dessert… The dishes, like the silverware designed by the company’s design office, was unbelievably beautiful and hailed from prestigious houses like Haviland, Lalique and Christofle…


Photography: Service aboard a CIWL dining car, circa 1930.

10. An inside look at the staff

Considering its staff as true living advertisements and as the ambassadors of a company that promised its passengers the experience of a singular journey, the company made sure its conductors, cooks, maître d’hôtel and welcomers were always impeccable, both in the services they offered to customers and in the way they dressed in their uniforms. Military-like regulations detailed the tasks and missions of each category of personnel. An international company, the CIWL employed many nationalities and required each to learn several languages.


Photography: Staff of a dining car and passengers aboard the luxury train Transmandchourien, 1923.

Livre « Orient Express & co »

Based on the photographic archives of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, this book features valuable documents, many of which are being unveiled for the first time. Published on October 21, 2021, by Éditions Textuel.

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