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.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Restaurant Ware Collectors Network

Restaurant Ware Collectors Network

Don't miss this collaborative reference guide to china and dinnerware used in public, commercial venues. The site c… [read review or visit site]

Railroadiana Online

Railroadiana Online

If you've ever wondered how to tell real from fake railroad china, or how brass baggage tags originated, this extre… [read review or visit site]

The Bowes Museum: Ceramics

The Bowes Museum: Ceramics

This gallery showcases highlights from the 5,000 items in the museum's ceramics collection dating from 1500-1900. I… [read review or visit site]

Ceramics at The V&A

Ceramics at The V&A

A great reference on ceramics from the Victoria and Albert Museum. Learn about different ceramics techniques and st… [read review or visit site]

Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Rare Original Milwaukee Road Hiawatha Railroad China Bowl Cm&st.p 1935Railroad Locomotive Plate - Mountain TypeDuluth, Missabe & Northern Railway Tender Car PlateElesco Railroad Locomotive Superheater PlateVintage Southern Railway Railroad Butter Pat Dish Buffalo China Peach RareNew York Central Railroad Mercury Pattern China Cup & SaucerRailroad Locomotive Maximum Speed 75 Mph PlateNew York Central Railroad China Pacemaker Dinner PlateVintage Railroad China Burlington Route Demi Saucer Syracuse ChinaRare Ancient Mimbreno Indian Design Oval Ice Cream Dish Sante Fe Railroad ChinaSuper Rare Grand Central Station Terminal Nyc Railroad Greenwood China PitcherAlco Patent Plate May 2, 1911 Railroad Locomotive PlateRailroad Locomotive Plate - Built 1940 SuperiorVintage Atchison Topeka Santa Fe Railroad China California Poppy Cream PitcherVintage B&o Railroad €4 Pennsylvania Railroad Prr Dining Car Restaurantware Demitasse Cups Buffalo New York Central Railroad China Dinner Plate Pacemaker PatternVintage American Paper Cup Dispenser..streamlined ..art Deco..railroad Nickle Plate Railroad ~ Yale ~ Pad Lock ~ No KeyVintage Union Pacific Railroad Restaurant Ware China Portland Rose Plate1953 General Motors Emd Locomotives Wabash Railroad PlateChinese Man Ticket Clerk Woosung Road First Railway In China Shanghai 1870s CdvMontreal Locomotive Works Pipe Casing Patent Plate RailroadRailroad China Soo Line - Hot Food Cover 6 1/4" With Matching Plate Logan Ptrn.Pennsylvania Railroad Dining Car Silver Plate Corn Cob Holder Prr Marked1951 General Motors Emd Locomotives New York Central Railroad Plate0-8-0-a Railroad Locomotive Plate2-10-2-a Railroad Locomotive PlateChicago Milwaukee & St. Paul C.m.st.p. Rr Dining Car Silver Plate Tea Pot R&b 29Railroad Locomotive Superheater Units Plate Engine No. 2464Vintage Syracuse China Florida East Coast Railroad Plate, 9”Original Southern Railroad China - Large 14" Platter - Pelican Pattern LambertonRare Pennsylvania Railroad Broadway Limited Deco Design China 9 In Dinner Plate2 Rare Pennsylvania Railroad Scammell's China 6.25 In Cups Mugs Prr Art DecoNew York Central Railroad Train Dining Room Coffee Cup Mug Syracuse China UsaSouthern Railway Demitasse Cup & Saucer Set By Sterling - 1 Day Only Vintage L & N Railroad Silver Soldered Divided Plate From Passenger TrainRailroad/syracuse China;union Pacific Green Egg Cup Bs;as Is;old;unusualSanta Fe Railroad Fred Harvey Dining Car China Salad Plate And Butter PatVtg 1927 Centennial B&o Railroad Horse Drawn Car Butter Pat Blue Transfer Dish Syracuse China Russell Kentucky Ymca Plate C&o Railroad Palm Beach Pattern Footed Bowl Seaboard Air Line Rr Mint Syracuse China 1946Csx Railroad Coffee Mug Or Cup W&le Wheeling & Lake Erie Greenwich ConnectionWashington Terminal Restaurant Senango Dulin & Martin China 7" Bowl Railroad Southern Railway Railroad Buffalo China Business Office Car Dinner Plate 1922B&o Railroad China Coffee Cup And Saucer - CentenaryEarly 20thc Railroad Ticket Punch Brass W Nickle Plate SurfaceSeaboard Air Line Orange Blossom China Pattern Creamer Railroad RrVintage Nickle Plate Road Railroad Playing Cards With Original Tax StampDd497 Rp 1950/1970s Nkp Nickel Plate Railroad Engine #770 Chicago Il Looks NewLot Of 7 - Railroad Plate Collection Golden Age Of American Railroads1947 Union Pacific Railroad Dining Car Silver Ice Cream Bowl, 4" Diameter, UprrChina 1920' Pc tientsin railway East Station01 /90 28 Railway 35mm Slide China Steam Copyright FreeRailroad Slide China Railway Front Of Qj Class (qj 1452) Beijing China 1981Duplicate Railroad Slide Norfolk & Western Railway 2875 Ohio Nickel Plate RoadBnsf Railway Travel Mugs With Lids Coffee Soda Drink Cups Railroad Train Al-birmingham-fairfield-t.c.i. & Railway Co. Tin Plate Mills-aerial View-h19185 Missouri Pacific Marked Silver Soldered 1928 Railroad Sm. Serving 4.5" BowlSanta Fe Railroad Train Super Chief Coffee Cup Mug