Kevin’s Komments 07/08/2021

What happened to the billboard reefers? In 1934, the Interstate Commerce Commission created a rule that in essence outlawed the advertising of products on a car unless the car was shipping that product. You could return an empty, but you could only load it with the products advertised. So the billboard reefers quickly disappeared from car rosters. The ICC gave the car owners 3 years to reach compliance, so by 1937, essentially all billboard reefers were gone.

Billboard Reefers

Here’s a modern situation of the rule being applied. In 2008, the Wisconsin & Southern painted a 50’ plug door boxcar for an event sponsored by the Sargento Cheese Manufacturer. It ran in a special train pulled by a renovated SOO Mikado, # 1003

When the car reentered service, the logo had to be painted out.

Here’s another modern example of a billboard car. Note the markings – it’s owned by Tropicana and likely remains in Tropicana service – so as long as it only transports Tropicana products, the logo is legal.

There were a few exceptions to the rule, like the Bangor and Aroostik “State of Maine Potatoes” – these slipped by the rule because it was not a specific product/manufacturer, hence they could be used for other services. (Or so that was how it was told to me!) These were a bright red, white, & blue.

Here’s a more modern version where “potatoes” have been switched out with “products”.

…Another great shot of a couple of BAR boxcars.

Swift Meat Packing maintained their reefers because they owned the reefers and they were used solely for their own meatpacking. This is a great shot of an early Swift reefer. (Pre ICC rule.)

Here’s a more modern Swift reefer. Note that it promotes the company, but doesn’t specify a product. (I guess this means that Swift reefers can’t be used at our meatpacking plant!)

…Another modern pic of a Swift reefer – up in Canada.

Here’s a modern steel reefer with the white Swift paint scheme.

Armour was like Swift and owned their own fleet of reefers. So you have more modern reefers under the Armour logo.

Here’s another modern reefer.

Sometimes you have to settle on a sketch of an early car! Again, pre ICC rule, products are included along with the company logo. Note the truss rod frame.

Decker had a similar fleet of reefers used by their meatpacking plant. But (I believe) Decker leased the reefers, hence the logo disappeared in the late ‘30s (I think). (Not 100% sure about the leasing – check out the car mark, DMPX – probably Decker Meat Packing.)

A little research shows that there were two Decker meat packing companies: Jacob E. Decker Packing in Mason City, Iowa; and Val Decker Meat Packing in Piqua, Ohio. Both companies ended up as major independent meat packing companies. As far as I can tell, the reefer fleet was for the Iowa plant. BTW – for our Germantown meat packing plant, the Val Decker meat packing plant in Piqua, OH is about 30 to 40 miles north of Germantown. We could easily justify our fictitious meat packing plant to be a Decker facility (??). And it sounds like we don’t have to deviate to Decker reefers since they were for the Iowa based company. …A bit off topic, below is a colorized photo of downtown Piqua, OH, around 1901. The carriage on the left belonged to Val Decker Meat Packing.

I saw an article that said that Miller Brewing Company owned their own reefer fleet. But these cars are URTC reefers (probably leased) – they were likely repainted in the mid- ‘30s to meet the ICC rule.

Here’s a better look at a URTC Miller reefer. It has a 1933 date on it – just post prohibition, but pre ICC rule. Notice the low “fishbelly” steel frame.

Anheuser Busch was one of the first breweries to transport beer using reefers. This is a classic truss rod reefer; pre-dates the fishbelly steel frames. Anheuser Busch was the first brewery to pasteurize beer so it could be transported over long distances (1870) – hence the first beer reefers.

Here’s a restored Coors reefer at the Colorado Railroad Museum:

Another brewery; wood reefers with a more modern steel frame.

Here’s another sketch of an early beer reefer.

Moving on to fruits and veggies…

…And dairy – Here’s an early MDT truss rod reefer with a generic dairy billboard. It’s listed as a 1904 car.

A whole row of MDT dairy reefers. I’m thinking that as long as these MDT reefers stayed in dairy service, the logo could stay intact.

Sticking with dairy…a Hoods Dairy reefer in 1932.

Here’s an ART dairy reefer – again, generic.

…A string of Sheffield Farms dairy reefers, 1928.

We’ve seen this pic previously – a billboard boxcar. Dave told us about the Cub / Case plow relationship, though I can’t remember the exact story…great boxcar with an end loading door.

This car is interesting because it advertises a company, but not a products. It looks modern, steel sides and ends – probably built post the ICC rule (mechanically refrigerated).

an older West India Fruit reefer – typical wood sides and ends.

This must be the ultimate billboard reefer! Actually, the reefer has been modified to haul coal. You can just pick out the two loading hatches in the roof. Another note: The car is very clean – either a fresh paint job, or maybe Dustless coal was really dustless!

Two things that I found while researching the billboard reefers:

  1. It’s often hard to determine color since most of them were gone by 1937 (black & white…faded and poor quality…pics).
  2. There’s lotsa model pics, but digging up the prototype pics takes a bit more patience.


Do you know what the reasoning was for the ICC ban?
Monty, all,

I've picked up most of my "knowledge" through reading the blogs while looking for pics - so this is all hearsay.  My understanding is that the ICC looked at the product billboards as an illegal rebate to shippers.  Think along the lines of a reefer or boxcar advertising a particular product while the contents being shipped were from a competitor.  That's why private owners could still put their company name on the cars, but it was probably against the ruling to put products on the ad unless that was the only product shipped in that car.

I tried to do a quick search on the actual ICC ruling, regulation #201, 1934; but didn't get a direct link to the ruling or a historical document that describes the ruling.  So all is hearsay, and the blogs provide different twists and reasoning that I question as valid background.

Since I've always tended towards the transition era modeling, I've stayed away from billboard reefers.  But, I do have a collection of old car kits that represent the billboard reefers from turn of the century to mid '30s - they're kinda fun.

Still on this topic:  The beer billboard reefers have a really fun history.  Anheuser Busch started pasteurizing beer so it could be transported around 1870 - This started a mad rush/demand for reefers.  In turn, beer billboards started appearing on the reefers.

Prohibition starting in 1920 put a nix on the beer billboards.  Some of the larger breweries survived by producing other products - Anheuser Busch was producing baby milk/formula.  But obviously the beer reefers disappeared because you could not brew beer.  So you might see the name of a brewery, but not for beer.

When prohibition was repealed in 1933, the breweries immediately jumped back into their specialty - beer.  Beer billboards popped up quickly on reefers again.  But 1934 brought about the ICC ruling on billboard reefers.  So, all the beer reefers disappeared again within a few years.

When you check out the model billboard reefers - beer reefers are very popular.  But it's a rollercoaster ride trying to decide whether you can roll them on your era based layout!


This was the first time I have seen writing on the wheels of any boxcar, reefer,etc…anyone know why they did that ? Mark

I was thinking that a lot of wheel manufacturers embossed they’re company name and wheel info on the steel inside the rim of the wheel. But when I started looking, modern roller bearing wheelsets do not have lettering. In fact, most of the pics I have of Bettendorf trucks sport wheels without lettering. The only wheel sets I found with lettering were the ribbed wheels – check out the spiral ribs on the back side of the wheel. (Ribbed wheels were banned from new cars in 1957, and banned from interchange service in 1970.) Generally, the lettering is rusted and blends in with the rest of the wheel – so not as visible as in the Swift reefer photo.

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2 thoughts on “Kevin’s Komments 07/08/2021

  1. If I remember my engineering correctly, Cast letters and ribs on wheels caused stress risers which would make the wheel crack or break more easily.

  2. Mark – The old Swift reefer isn’t the only pic in this collection that shows painted lettering on the wheels. Check out the Anheuser Busch reefer – It’s difficult to see unless you’re looking for it, but there appears to be painted lettering on the wheels. Like the Swift reefer the Anheuser Busch reefer pic appears to be a builder’s photo – So the wheels are sharp and new and the paint stands out.

    A little research showed that the ribbed wheels were cast iron wheels. Later steel wheels lack the ribs and lettering. The Manufacturer data was probably cast on with the mold (along with the ribs). I didn’t yet find the reason for the eventual banning, but we know that cast iron is more brittle than steel. So Kurt’s reasoning above makes a lot of sense – the ribs and lettering likely create or add to any issues if a weak spot starts to crack.


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