Timeless Union Pacific Shield Reflects Iconic Brand

Written by Patricia LaBounty, Union Pacific Railroad Museum Curator
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Union Pacific installs full-color shields on its Omaha headquarters building (UP photo)

The iconic Union Pacific Railroad shield with its distinctive red, white and blue color scheme dates back to an original design that’s more than 130 years old, making the logo one of the oldest in continuous use in the United States. The railroad often appears on top 10 lists of historic American brands, notably as the only railroad and only business without direct sales to the public.

Chosen to represent a railroad created in 1862 by an Act of Congress and signed into being by President Abraham Lincoln, the distinctive shield calls to mind the elements of the U.S. flag and the various patriotic symbols used by the military.

Patricia LaBounty, Union Pacific Railroad Museum Curator

The shield is imbued with meaning and significance, chosen not only as a patriotic symbol but also to evoke feelings of security, stability and protection to hopefully be embodied by the railroad. The colors, reflecting those of the American flag, also hold the implied meanings of those colors: red for valor and bravery; white for purity and innocence; and blue for vigilance, perseverance and justice.

For a 19th century railroad, those values might have been largely aspirational. At the time, the financial unrest and upheavals caused by rapid settlement and expansion in the West meant portraying a solid American brand was beneficial for the railroad as Union Pacific undertook the momentous task of building the first transcontinental railroad. The very name “Union Pacific” was created by the 1862 Pacific Railway Act, perhaps evoking the idea that this railroad would unite the union with the Pacific, reflecting the very real political unrest present at the company’s creation.

Through the years, Union Pacific continued to align with trends in American design and popular culture. The railroad created shield designs that reflected the Art Nouveau period, trends in Modernism, streamlined designs and once even the distinctive style of Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans (a design that lasted only a matter of months). The logos also reflected the evolving technology of printing and illustration, moving from hand lettering to typeset to finally all digital creations. Very few American companies contain this depth of history.

But despite being willing to experiment with current trends, the shield has remained the iconic symbol of Union Pacific. Just this spring, the railroad began updating the three 16-ft. tall silver shields on its Omaha headquarters building with full-color versions – a visual reminder of the longevity and endurance of this iconic American brand.

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