Q From Jon Whiting, UK: A BBC news item stated that ‘civic dignitaries and local leaders will lead the group on a whistle-stop tour of the city over the weekend.’ What is the origin of the term whistle-stop?
A It’s common to see this expression in the UK and other countries as well as its homeland of the USA. This example keeps the original idea of a tour in a political campaign that makes many brief stops in small communities, though it’s now also commonly used for any travel that’s done very quickly and with only brief pauses.
We’re out in the mid-western United States, in the interwar years when small communities were still served by railways. It was common practice for trains not to stop at such places unless a passenger wanted to alight. (The passenger told the conductor, who signalled the engineer by pulling on the signal cord; the engineer sounded the whistle twice to acknowledge the request.) As a result, the original meaning of whistle stop was some small place out on the plains that nobody had ever heard of except those who lived there. This idea starts to appear in print in the 1920s, as here in the Nevada State Journal of February 1928: “He is the sort you fear will ask you where you are from and you will have to tell him some outlandish whistle stop with the conventional red depot.”
The term was first applied to a fast-moving political campaign tour just after World War Two. President Truman organised an extensive railway trip during his re-election campaign of 1948, which visited Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, Utah, Nevada and California. He travelled in a special train and made up to eight speeches a day from the observation platform at the rear, though usually in cities rather than actual whistle-stops.
The first reference I can find is on the front page of the Bradford Era for 6 September 1948, announcing the start of Truman’s election campaign (in those days, they were mercifully short): “Smiling, President Truman headed toward Michigan today on the first lap of a whistle stop campaign in which he will criss-cross the nation before election day.” Whistle-stop tour itself isn’t recorded until the following year.