For Decades, These Cartoons Made CTA Workers Smile
Ferd Himme’s instructional cartoons graced the pages of the CTA’s employee magazine for nearly 30 years.
Published June 24, 2019, at 5:16 p.m.
Text by Jeff Nichols
In January 2019, Chicagointerviewed a dozen CTA employees to speak about their work lives. Transit workers “routinely have to deal with sick passengers, rowdy teenagers, violent drunks, fare skippers, suicide jumpers, and homeless people desperate for shelter, to say nothing of the demands of keeping trains and buses running on time 24 hours a day in a congested city in all kinds of weather,” wrote Kim Bellware.
In contrast to the realities of the Red Line at 2 a.m., the artwork of Ferd Himme, the CTA’s resident cartoonist from 1947 to 1972, offers a gloriously corny vision of Chicago transit.
Born in Vienna, Austria in 1901, Ferdinand Himmelsbach came to Chicago at the age of five. The son of a baker, he started cartooning for a dry goods trade magazine while he was still a teenager. As a cartoonist and commercial artist, he signed his work “Ferd Himme.”
In 1945, Himme started contributing to the employee magazine of Chicago Surface Lines, the company that operated the street railway system in Chicago. After Chicago Surface Lines was purchased by the state and combined with the Chicago Transit Authority, he continued cartooning for the CTA’s employee magazine, CTA Transit News.
There’s a certain busy whimsy reminiscent of Dr. Seuss in Himme’s early cartoons in Transit News. From the start, Himme’s cartoons conveyed the message that rude or inattentive transit workers made an impression on commuters, whose fares and goodwill the Chicago Transit Authority depended upon in order to grow. But as Himme settled at the CTA, his cartoons took on a level of hokeyness that seems at odds with the aim of reaching hardened transit workers.
Himme’s work cannot be dismissed as the product of a happier, simpler time in Chicago’s public transit history. Transit workers in 1968, for example, not only faced unrest following the assassination of Martin Luther King and the Democratic National Convention, but also a bitter wildcat strike initiated by black transit workers to protest discrimination by management and union officials. Ever sanguine, Himme’s cartoons often belie their more complicated context. (“Extra traffic in summer,” the caption for one June 1968 cartoon read, “means extra opportunities for winning friends for CTA!”)
Himme continued to draw his unsubtle, sunny cartoons for CTA Transit News until 1973. His last cartoon was variant of several he had drawn for the yearend issues— Santa Claus as a role model for CTA bus driver and train conductor. He died in January 1982.