An Overview of Railroadiana Collecting

March 17th, 2008

Paul Koren is the webmaster of Railroadiana Online, a resource site for railroadiana collectors and a member of our Hall of Fame.

Many people are fascinated by railroads. At one time, railroads were connected to most aspects of community and economic life, and almost everyone had the experience of taking the train to some distant destination. Today, railroads are still a vital part of the nation’s commerce, but they have largely evolved into less publicly visible movers of freight. For the most part, the romance and glory of the great age of railroads has passed from the scene.

One way of remembering this bygone era is through collecting artifacts that have survived the years. Most railroad lines were (and are) large enterprises requiring vast amounts of material and equipment to operate. While much of this material and equipment like locomotives, cars, buildings, etc. are “collectible” for only a small number of people and organizations with the resources to maintain them, smaller items like lanterns, china, paper, and locks are well within the reach of individual collectors. Therefore, many people seek out such items — often called “railroadiana” — at auctions, garage sales, antique shows and collector events.

There is no standardized set of categories for railroadiana. In fact, the items associated with railroads are vast and almost defy classification. However, here are some of the more popular types of items that railroadiana collectors have in their collections.

China

railroadiana china

During the grand era of passenger train travel and extending to the 1960′s, railroads made an effort to attract business by making travel an enjoyable and even elegant experience. For long distance runs in particular, a major part of this experience was dining. Consider that a cross-country trip might take several days by train, and this added up to quite a few meals taken en route. To make dining cars like fine restaurants, railroads gave a lot of attention to the china that was used. Often custom patterns were employed with the railroad’s name or logo incorporated into the design or at least marked somewhere on the piece. Nowadays collectors prize this china, and it has become one of the most popular categories of railroad collectibles.

Within any given pattern of railroad china, a variety of different types of pieces may have been produced. These include plates, saucers, coffee cups, demitasse cups, compotes, teapots, chocolate pots, butter pats, egg cups, bouillon cups, ashtrays, and others. Within any category such as plates or teapots, there may be different sizes, manufacturers, and slight variations in the pattern. Like lanterns, china that is explicitly marked for a railroad, either “top-marked” or “back-stamped”, is especially valued. This distinction takes on special importance in light of the fact that some railroads used stock patterns that did not have an explicit railroad marking. Therefore a particular piece may exhibit the characteristics of a particular pattern, but there is no guarantee that it ever saw railroad service — it may have been used in a hotel for example.

Hollowware and Flatware

railroadiana holloware and flatwareTo accompany the china used in dining car place settings, various types of hollowware such as teapots, pitchers, and tureens as well as flatware (spoons, forks, knives, etc.) were used by railroads. These were usually silver-plated, heavy, and of high quality. Ornate and elaborate designs were often used to ornament these items, reflecting the tastes of the era. Railroads tended to adopt particular patterns of hollowware and flatware, so that today’s collectors associate particular patterns with particular railroads. As with other company items, railroads tended to mark their hollowware and flatware with initials or logos.

Lanterns and Lamps

railroadiana lanterns and lampsLighting devices of many kinds were used on the railroads. The two major categories of railroad lighting are lanterns and lamps, distinguished mainly by their construction. Most lanterns are essentially a metal “cage” containing a transparent or translucent globe that protects an interior light source. Lamps are essentially a solid metal cylinder with one or more lenses used to transmit light from an interior light source. This general distinction does not cover the more modern, electric lanterns which are essentially a battery container with an exposed light bulb.

For railroad crews of yesterday, lanterns were an essential tool of the trade for relaying signals and inspecting trains at night. While modern electric lanterns are still used in railroad service, most collectors look for earlier lanterns that burned kerosene, signal oil, or other types of fuel. Most of these lanterns are “trainmen’s lanterns”, meaning that they were used by railroad crew members. There are also “conductors’ lanterns” (sometimes called “presentation lanterns”) which were used by conductors in passenger service and “inspectors’ lanterns” which were used for inspecting trains in terminals and yards. Among collectors, any lantern or globe that carries a railroad marking is especially valued; the rarer the marking the higher the value.

Many types of lamps were used in railroad service. The most common types were marker lamps, which were hung on rolling stock like cabooses to indicate the rear end of a train, semaphore lamps, which were used in signaling, switch lamps, which were used to indicate how a switch or turnout was lined, and classification lamps, which were hung on a locomotive to indicate the class of a train. Depending on their function, lamps could have a single lens or multiple lenses, and some lamps had lenses of different colors. Although the railroads gradually phased out combustible-fuel lamps year ago, many were saved, and today they constitute a special category for collecting and restoration.

Paper

railroadiana paper
An immense amount of paper of various kinds was (and is) used by the railroads. Some examples: public timetables to inform passengers about train schedules, maps to advertise routes and attract freight business, employee timetables to inform crews about rules and operations, brochures to entice the public to tourist destinations served by a particular line, passes to allow guests and dignitaries free travel on trains, and railroad-marked wall calendars that served a practical household function while advertising the company year-round.

For paper items that were produced for the public, railroad companies gave a lot of attention to attractiveness and design. Some companies went so far as to commission artists to paint special artwork that was then reproduced on timetables, brochures, calendars, and other items. One of the most remarkable examples was the series of Native American portraits done by Winold Reiss (1886-1953) for the Great Northern Railway. In fact, the advertising needs of the early railroad industry were a major impetus in the growth and sophistication of the commercial advertising field in general.

Even though some railroad paper was produced in relatively large quantities, the fragile nature of paper combined with the tendency of most people to throw it away after use has resulted in some of it being rather rare. Today, railroad paper seems to have “come of age”, and rare examples have begun to command impressive prices at auction. Still, much railroad paper can be found rather easily and, overall, it constitutes one of the least expensive types of railroadiana.

Locks and Keys

railroadiana locks and keys
From the first days of railroad operations, safety and security have been closely tied together. A misaligned switch or vandalized signal could have catastrophic consequences, so railroad companies have used locks of many kinds to secure their physical plants. Some collectors specialize in collecting railroad locks and keys, particularly ones that carry a railroad marking. Their interest is due to at least two main reasons. For one, since security has always been an operational issue for railroads, many locks and keys date back well into the last century and carry markings that have historical significance. Second, early locks were made of brass to resist corrosion and often had ornate, sometimes even beautiful, castings of railroad names to identify ownership. These are sometimes called “cast backs” or “fancy back locks.” In late years, railroads switched to locks of plainer design, usually made of steel. These are less sought after than the earlier brass examples but are still of interest to collectors.

Badges

railroadiana badges
Badges of many different styles and types were used by railroads. Their purpose was to both designate authority and indicate employees’ jobs. These functions were especially necessary because of the many different occupational categories that railroads used as well as the large geographical size of their territories. Employees who performed the same jobs over perhaps hundreds of miles needed some way of indicating their authority, and badges were a major means of doing this. Among the job categories designated by badges were: engineer, porter, conductor, gateman, station agent, police, detective, ticket agent, information clerk, time clerk, and many more.

Other Categories

The categories described above represent only a fraction of the items that are encompassed by the term “railroadiana”. Basically anything used for authentic railroad purposes falls under this very broad umbrella. In addition to the afore-mentioned categories, the list includes locomotive bells, builder’s plates, uniform buttons, tinware, telegraphy devices, baggage tags, sealers, signs, station furniture and much more. Railroad-marked (or railroad manufacturer-marked) items are generally more collectible than unmarked items, since the provenance of the item is easily shown. An important distinction though is that the marking should be one that was done by the railroad for business purposes. Souvenir or commemorative items have limited value to the serious collector. In other words, the focus is on genuine antiques.

Fakes and Mistakes

No discussion of railroadiana categories is complete without mentioning the problem of fakes. Like many fields that deal with antiques and historical artifacts, railroadiana collecting has been increasing plagued by fakes and fraud. With interest (and consequently, values) rising so dramatically in recent years, the hobby has begun to see intentional efforts to produce counterfeits of various kinds. Moreover, the growing popularity of internet collecting – where items cannot be inspected up close and personal – makes this problem even more acute. Some recent examples of fake railroad items include a series of reverse-painted glass signs, brass spittoons and locks imported from overseas, reproduction railroad china, and recently printed paper items such as timetables and calendars that are designed to look decades old. In some cases, detection of such fakery is easy; in other cases even the experts argue. As in other fields of antiques, the problem has become a cat-and-mouse game with new examples appearing regularly as the hobby tries to keep up.

A related problem is the tendency of general antique sellers to mistakenly assume that an item has a railroad provenance based on hearsay or assumptions. For example, it is very common to see common tubular barn lanterns described as “railroad lanterns”, when in fact the vast majority of true railroad lanterns conform to one of several distinctive design styles. Similarly, a lot of commercial grade china in various patterns has been touted by antique sellers as “dining car china” when in fact there are only a limited number of patterns documented to have as been used by railroads. In such instances, collectors rely on published references, documentation, and shared consensus to identify what’s real. They also fall back on the idea that it is the seller’s responsibility to prove a claim of authenticity, not on the railroadiana field to disprove such claims.

Values

Railroadiana values have been increasing in the last decade or so, for probably the same reasons that other antiques have increased in value. Some of the factors that determine values are also the same — age, condition, and rarity. In addition there are special factors to keep in mind with specific railroadiana categories. For example, lantern-collectors generally don’t mind a certain amount of rust and wear, so minor amounts are not only OK but even good — as an indication of authenticity. But a china collector wants to see only minor utensil marks at most, and other imperfections like chips, cracks, and spotting can seriously diminish value (unless the pattern is so rare than something in any condition is valuable). Lock and key collectors generally don’t want polished items – some wear and patina is good, even expected. Locomotive builders’ plates should not have the rear of the plate polished – grime and tarnishing is an indication of authenticity. Each collecting category has its own set of characteristics for determining value.

There is another other “wild card” factor that must be mentioned in any discussion of values: the popularity or appeal of the railroad itself. This is easily something that a non-collector or general antique appraiser could miss. For that matter, even a veteran collector could miss it.

Many if not most railroadiana items are marked for a specific railroad, and this connection can make a huge difference in value. Some railroads have a certain romance or allure about them that provides additional value. For example, anything associated with Colorado, especially the narrow gauge lines, tends to bring a higher price, and certain railroads such as the New York, Ontario & Western, Western Maryland, Virginian, and Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe have the same effect. Each geographic region also tends to have its “favorite” lines that command more interest among collectors from that region and therefore more market value. If you’re not from the region, it may be hard to know what these are. As that old “Music Man” song goes, “You gotta know the territory.”

Sometimes the combination of two common characteristics can add up to a valuable rarity. Example: The Dietz Vesta is one of the most common railroad lantern models. Those marked for the New York Central (NYC) are an inside joke within the hobby and may bring less than $40-$50 at auction (if that). Similarly, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad was a large Eastern line, and B&O-marked lanterns are common. Numerous examples can be found on internet auctions at any given time. But the combination of a B&O marking on a Dietz Vesta is an extreme rarity – one went for around $1500 at auction some years ago and may be worth even more today. Someone not knowing this and generalizing from a NYC Vesta value would be making a big mistake. Sometimes such precise information is needed for an accurate appraisal.

How do you find such information? Unfortunately, there are only so many resources that can be suggested.

(1) Consult available Railroadiana price guides. There have been two reputable price guides published in recent years. One is “Railroad Collectibles: An Illustrated Value Guide, Fourth Edition” by Stanley Baker, published in 1997. This is out of print, although used copies can be found. It’s also fairly out-of-date, although prices can be adjusted upwards. A second one is “Railroadiana: The Official Price Guide for the Year 2000 and Beyond” by Bill and Sue Knous, published in 2000. This guide was based largely on real auction prices from the Knous’ 20+ years of auction experience. There are also a number of general antique guides that provide values for selected railroadiana items. These can be found in any bookstore and are usually updated annually. While they *may* be accurate for the items covered, they tend to be limited in overall usefulness. Most collectors have stories of seeing items in antique shows with laughable prices based on over-generalizations from such guides.

(2) Do the research. Anyone with an internet connection can monitor Internet auctions and thereby get the same kind of information that once took a lot of time and money to accumulate. Ebay is the main example, of course, and it has close to 20,000 railroadiana items up for auction at a given time. A small amount of time invested in following and noting final prices of items similar to the one in question can provide great insight into true values. There are also for-pay services that can be used to obtain historical information on past prices.

(3) Attend Railroadiana Shows. If you have an item that you think is valuable, take it to a railroadiana show or two and get reactions from dealers and attendees. Many (but probably not all) dealers will at least give you an opinion, and you can get a reaction from collectors who will certainly show interest if your item is indeed valuable. Collectors *love* these “walk-in” items at shows because (1) sometimes real treasures show up this way and (2) they add something more than the usual round of dealers. A calendar of shows is maintained on the website listed below.

For more information

Information on various categories of railroadiana can be found at Railroadiana Online (http://www.railroadiana.org). This all-volunteer and non-commercial site maintains a Question and Answer Board, a calendar of shows and auctions, and a large collection of photographs and historical information. The site has a strict policy against providing appraisals or values, however. There are also two national organizations that provide regular magazines and opportunities for contacts among collectors — Key Lock & Lantern (http://www.klnl.org) and Railroadiana Collectors Association Incorporated (http://www.railroadcollectors.org). There are also some publications on railroadiana – a reference list can be found on the Railroadiana Online site – although these are sometimes hard to find compared with books in other antique collecting categories.

The Future of Railroadiana Collecting

While some collecting areas have a faddish appeal that comes and goes, the future of railroadiana collecting is optimistic. Despite premature predictions of its demise, the railroading industry is not only surviving but flourishing, and railroadiana collecting provides a connection to an enterprise that has had a pivotal role in shaping the nation’s destiny. The connection is not only to the grand historical aspects of railroading but also to the ordinary, everyday lives of railroaders throughout the years, and for that matter, the lives of ordinary people whose lives have intersected with railroads in some way. A lantern that was used daily by some long-ago brakeman, a plate that was used on a famous passenger train, a brochure advertising a 1920’s resort reached by rail — these are artifacts that can be appreciated not only for their industrial or commercial design but also for the link that they provide to an unfolding, multi-layered history. And of course railroading’s history is still being written.

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5 comments so far

  1. Diane Cannon Says:

    My father worked for the Chicago & Northwestern railroad for over 50 years. He has a good amount of railroad paraphenalia that he collected during and after that long career. He is very ill now, unfortunately, and is curious to know what the value of the items might be. What is the best way to proceed, as he may want to sell some of these things now.

    Thank you,
    Diane Cannon

  2. lohren stevenson Says:

    I recently acquired a piece of rr china (denver rio grande senic eoute) tray, syracuse back mark, aprox. 10 1/2 x 6 1/2 I have not been able to find very much info about the piece, price or rarity. could any one help?? thanks in advance lohren

  3. Danny Says:

    asa far as the D & RG china goes, check the railroadiana section on Ebay and see if any similar pieces tuen up. That is about the bext way to check prices now days.

  4. larry windish Says:

    Hi, i have a railroad number plate that was on a train many years ago that i havent been able to identify, can any one help? it is 19 1/2 x 11 3/4 made of cast iron with the number 1909 on the front and A-10 on the back rusty side. it is very heavy about 25 lbs. there are 2 large bolt holes that are on the sides where it had been mounted . i can send pictures if anyone can help, thanks

  5. Jason Sanford Says:

    The guy at this site can probably help
    http://www.pacificrailroadantiques.com


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