Isabella Alden was a great traveler. In her young adult years, she traveled all over the eastern part of the United States—from New York to Ohio, Pennsylvania to Washington, D.C.—as her husband took charge of different Presbyterian churches.
When her writing career took off, so did Isabella’s travel schedule. From California to Florida and everyplace in between, Isabella spoke at churches, taught Sunday-school classes, and delivered lectures on a variety of topics before women’s groups.
At the time, train travel was the only transportation option available to her for traveling long distances.
But there was a problem with train travel: it was a dirty business.
Soot and smoke and dust from the steam engine’s exhaust permeated everything it touched; train stations, passengers, and luggage were all tainted.
But all of that changed when the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad (a Pennsylvania-based rail company) introduced a new power source for their train engines: Anthracite.
While Anthracite is a coal, it has fewer impurities than common soft coal, and it burns cleaner. The Lackawanna Railroad company had almost exclusive access to America’s Anthracite source.
Realizing their clean-burning Anthracite-powered engines were an advantage for travelers, the Lackawanna Railroad came up with an ingenious marketing plan to highlight Anthracite’s advantages.
They launched an advertising campaign that featured a fictional character named Phoebe Snow.
Gowned in white, and wearing only a corsage of purple lilacs for a touch of color, Miss Phoebe Snow confidently traveled “The Road of Anthracite” and arrived at her destination as fresh and clean as when she first set out.
In addition to Phoebe’s image, each advertisement contained a short poem, written to mimic the cadence of a moving train.
The ad campaign was a hit. Soon Phoebe Snow’s image and the catchy railroad jingles began appeared in newspapers and magazines, and on postcards and posters.
As her popularity grew, so did Phoebe’s adventures.
She was spotted camping in the Rocky Mountains, and strolling along Broadway in New York City.
She even counseled mothers on the pleasures of traveling with children on “The Road of Anthracite.”
In 1903 Thomas Edison’s newly-formed motion picture company jumped on the Phoebe Snow band-wagon, and produced a short silent film about Phoebe and her railroad-riding adventures.
In the film, Phoebe’s travels include finding love and getting married to a fellow train rider dressed in (what else?) white.
Phoebe Snow’s adventures might have gone on forever, were it not for World War I. In 1917 the Lackawanna Railroad’s source of Anthracite was rerouted to help with the war effort, and Miss Phoebe Snow’s traveling days came to an end.
In her almost twenty-year career, fictional Phoebe inspired a generation of young women to travel. She was also the inspiration behind an entirely new genre of American advertising: the character-driven ad campaign, which we still see used in advertising today.