Railroad china, like railroad silver, was a product of the boom in comfort offered to train passengers in the last part of the 19th century and first part of the 20th. Collectible railroad china is different than railroad silver, however, in that china designs are often specific to a single railroad company—stamps and markings are generally the only differentiators for silver.
Early train trips were endurance tests for passengers. Travelers were subjected to long journeys without proper restrooms or eating and sleeping facilities. For a while, in the early-to-mid-19th century, people just accepted it because train travel was still a novelty. There was something charming about this new means of transportation, and it was definitely a step up from the horse and buggy.
Prior to George Pullman’s decision in the late 1860s to refurbish train cars and turn them into the Ritz Carltons of transportation, food service happened at train depots. Early on, it was a lucrative business for depot owners because customers would pay for their food—historical accounts suggest the word “slop” is not inaccurate—and not have time to eat it because they had to get back on the train. Allegedly, some particularly unscrupulous food providers would incentivize—read “bribe”—train conductors to shorten stops to increase profits on the abysmal meals they were serving.
Fredrick Henry Harvey changed that in 1876 when he took the job as manager of the depot restaurant at the Topeka, Kansas, train station. He began serving good, warm food on clean dishes. Service was speedy so passengers could eat their meals and still make their trains. By 1901, when Harvey died, he had 47 depot restaurants, all staffed by Harvey Girls—attractive 18- to 30-year-old waitresses who were prone to marrying the men passing through.
It didn’t take long before Harvey’s innovations had become obsolete, as rail companies decided to pamper their riders by improving the dining experience. One way they did this was through the use of very fancy china in their dining cars.
Some railroad companies used production china that could be bought anywhere and simply had their logos stamped on them—such pieces are less collectible today. Most of the better railroads had custom china patterns and styles made for their dining cars. These pieces often depict scenes along the particular route the train ran on—desert scenes for the Santa Fe, etc. Such custom pieces are especially popular with railroadiana collectors.
China is often collected in sets, from plates and cups to ashtrays and compotes. Completing a set can be difficult because there are often many different sizes and slight variations to each item...
Probably the most memorable set of railroad china is the Baltimore & Ohio (B & O) Railroad’s blue china made in 1927 to celebrate its hundredth year. Scammell China Company made the set, though the Buffalo Pottery Company put out a trial set which is tough to find. The pieces show historical scenes of the train route from the previous 100 years in the center, with a blue border on the larger pieces showing variations of the B & O trains through the years. Although this style china is still being manufactured today, early examples are very rare and sought after.
Not to be outdone, the Chesapeake and Ohio (C & O) Railroad commissioned the Buffalo Pottery Company in 1932 to make china with a gold rim and a reproduction of Gilbert Stuart’s portrait “Athenaeum” of George Washington in the center. The dinnerware was intended to celebrate the 200-year anniversary of the first President’s birth.
Other collectible patterns include Missouri Pacific’s State Flower series, which depicted the flowers from each of the states that the train line ran through. Later, in 1948, Missouri Pacific changed over to the State Capitol pattern, which it produced it until 1961. The Milwaukee Road had sets of china with birds in various shades of pink.
Most rail companies copyrighted their proprietary designs. Union Pacific had its Herriman Blue, The Great Northern had Mountains and Flowers, the Pullman Company had Indian Tree, and, as you might expect, the Oriental Limited had an Asian-themed design. Look for railroad china with either a stamp on the back indicating which company it was made for, or a railroad’s insignia on the front. China without these marking are less collectible because the possibility exists that they were used for something other than railroads, like hotels.
Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)
The Bowes Museum: Ceramics
Ceramics at The V&A
Clubs & Associations
- Key, Lock and Lantern, Inc.
- Railroadiana Collectors Association, Inc.
- National Association of Timetable Collectors
- National Railway Historical Society