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    

Pere Marquette Railway Ferry Cup And Saucer Buffalo China Santa Fe Railway, Small Oval Mimbreno Plate Turkey Pattern, Syracuse ChinaChicago Milwaukee St. Paul & Pacific Railroad Dining China Traveler Butter PatSanta Fe Railroad China Turquoise Room Dinner Service Plate Syracuse China 1950Empress Of Ireland Ship/canadian Pacific Steamship/railway Minton Soup Bowl1914Very Rare Original Milwaukee Hiawatha Railroad China BowlCentral Vermont Railway Steam Locomotive Number Plate - No. 466Sante Fe Railroad Dining China Authentic Mimbreno Pattern SaucerPennsylvania Railroad Silver Plated Dish #05061 - International Silver Co. !!!Sante Fe Railroad Dining China Authentic Mimbreno Pattern 6" SaucerChesapeake & Ohio Ry George Washington Square Tea Plate-rare-nrVtg 1963 C&o Chessie Kitten Ashtray Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad Syracuse ChinaGreat Vintage Pere Marquette Railroad Sugar Bowl By R Wallace Silver SolderedScarce Mimbreno Sante Fe Railroad 3 1/2 Back Stamped BowlLehigh Valley Railroad Dining Car Service Silver Soldered Sugar Bowl Reed BartonRailroad China Variation New York Central Mercury PatternCalifornia Poppy - Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad Demi CupChicago Milwaukee St Paul & Pacific Railroad Dining China Traveler Pattern DishNew York Central Railroad Train Car Dinnerware Bowl International Silver 1930 Southern Pacific Railroad Dining China Prairie Mountain Wildflowers Cup & SaucerBaltimore & Ohio Railroad Harper's Ferry, Wv Plate Shenango China-excellent CondOld New York Central Railroad Ceramic Coffee-tea Cup-syracuse China-nice-nrPennsylvania Railroad Philadelphia Pattern Oyster DishAtchison Topeka & Sante Fe Railroad Dining China California Poppy Butter PatBaltimore & Ohio Railroad Dining Car China Lamberton Centenary Cereal BowlLehigh Valley Railroad Silver Finger Bowl Rare Western Pacific Railroad Silverplate Sherbet Dish Vtg Union Pacific Railroad China Winged Streamliner 10.5" Dinner Plate UprrWarren-teed Vtg Nkp Railroad Hammer Tool From Nickel Plate Road Ohio RailroadRailroad Slide Nickel Plate Road Alco Pa #188 Sept1961 Nkp Ltd Chicago Il New York New Haven Hartford Railroad Plate Merchants PatternChicago Milwaukee St Paul & Pacific Railroad Dining China Peacock Pattern DishRare Fire-king "scott & Bearskin Lake Railway" R.r. Advertising Mug Or Cup Rare Santa Fe Railroad Bleeding Blue Saucer By LambertonExcellent Pennsylvania Railroad Broadway Ltd Salad Plate-full BackstampUnid Railroad Railway Silverplate Bowl With Topper Railroad Slide Nickel Plate Road Alco Pa #186 7/14/1957 Erie Passenger Train NkpRare Santa Fe Railroad Bleeding Blue Saucer By Albert Pick & CoAtlantic Coast Line Railroad Acl "carolina"pattern Sterling China Dishes 2 Bowls1965 Series New Zealand Railway Train Wagon #259kp Number/licence PlateVintage Disney Land Railroad 40th Anniversary Collectors Plate Bradford ExchangeVtg Couroc Dish "chessie" Cat Kitten Inlay C&o Railroad Mascot Chesapeake & Ohio21) 1920's Grand Trunk Dining Car Railroad China ? Ceramic Teapot Creamer LidNkp Nickel Plate Road Berkshire #759 Gold Spike Centennial 1969 Railroad Slide Chicago & North Western System Railroad Egg Cup - Dinnerware, ChinaN. & W. Ry. Cavalier China Round Vegetable Bowl ~ Ex. Condition ~ See PicturesSanta Fe Railroad Vintage Finger Bowl Nickel Plate Railroad Rr Antique Pail Bucket Watering Can1963 Syracuse China Heavy Restaurant Illinois Central Railroad Coral PlatterExcellent Southern Pacific Railroad China Milk Pitcher-glendale Pattern 1923Syracuse China Railroad Berkeley Trend Fred Harvey Lot 3 Bowls Restaurant WareVintage Avon Train Milk Glass Shaving Mug Cup Locomotive Railroad Original BoxAa173 Rp 1958 Nickel Plate Nkp Railroad Engine #832 Brewster OhRailroad Dining Water Dispenser Cup New York Central For Big SavingsVintage Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad Violets & Daisies Dish SyracuseConrail Railroad Translucent Coffee Cup Mug Fire King Glass Anchor Hocking