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]

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]

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]

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 Top Mark Union Pacific Railroad Harriman Blue Maddock China Creamer I. C. Railroad "city Of New Orleans" China Plate In Good Condition. Rare Union Pacific Railroad Columbine Syracuse China Ice Cream ShellGreat Northern Railroad Rocky Syracuse Children / Baby PlateB&o Baltimore And Ohio Railroad China Coffee Cup Lid Cover RareVintage International Silver 6pc Grill Plates Railroad Louisville & NashvilleGlory Of West Great Northern Railway Syracuse China Y3 1944 Dinner Plate W/ GoatEarly Canadian Pacific Cup Mug Railroad Maple Leaf Blue DesignRare Union Pacific Railroad Columbine Syracuse China PlateVintage Lamberton Scammell Norfolk & Western Railway Oval Platter Dish + BowlMopac Missouri Pacific Railroad Dinning Car China The Eagle Cup Saucer Back StmpVintage Sp Southern Pacific Train Railroad China Pink Floral Dining Car Egg CupObsolete Nkp Nickel Plate Railroad Lock (12)Syracuse China Fred Harvey Santa Fe Railroad PlateVintage Northern Pacific Railroad Passenger Dining Car Silver Sugar Bowl +lid NrNyc New York Central Railroad Silver Plate 2 Dinner Knives Insco Century Syracuse Railroad China Delaware Lakawanna & Western St Albans Demi Cup & SaucerB&o Railroad Shenango China Capital Pattern Dish, Hp Chandlee Sons, No Reserve!Railroad Silver Plate Vase Ny New Haven Ct Hrr International Rr Train OldGreat Northern Railway Glory Of The West Syracuse China PlatterBeautiful Santa Fe Railroad Silver Bowl And Plate With Elegant DecorationMopac Missouri Pacific Railroad Dinning Car China The Eagle Bread Plate Bck StmpGulf Mobile & Ohio Gm&o Rr Silver Plate Cream Soup Spoon Insco Broadway PatternSan Francisco: State Belt Railroad #9 Pier 21 -1920 Glass Plate NegativeB&o Railroad Shenango China Capital Pattern Dish, The Stearnes Co. No Reserve!Early Passenger Car Train Or Railroad Brass I.d. Plate, Wason, Springfield, MassSan Francisco: State Belt Railroad #1 & Crew Pier 36 -1910 Glass Plate NegativeMopac Missouri Pacific Railroad Dinning Car China The Eagle Custard Fruit CupVintage Louisville & Nashville Acl Railroad Train Decal Dining Car Tumbler Cup5 Piece C&o Railroad China Set Chessie Cat 1988 New Old Stock. Beautiful! Union Pacific Railroad Uprr Zephyr Silver Plate Teaspoon Soup Spoon Fork Florida East Coast Railway Fec Silver Plate Soup SpoonChicago & North Western C&nw Railroad Silver Plate Soup Spoon Modern Art R&b 6 Original New Old Stock C & O Railroad Car Ferry Service Paper Dessert PlatesLiberty Bell Route Creamer Yeager Allentown Pa Railroad Trolley ChinaSyracuse China Canterbury D & H Railroad Coffee Cup OnlySyracuse Canterbury D & H Heavy Soup Bowl Railroad Dinnerware Delaware & HudsonPennsylvania Railroad PlateAntique "b & O Railroad(?) Tin Cup" Nyc Railroad New York Central Lines Silver Plate Dinner Knife R&b CommonwealthGreat Northern Railroad Brass Id Plates Lot #6Great Northern Railroad Brass Id Plates Lot #7Delano California Atsf Santa Fe Railroad Depot - C.1910 Glass Plate NegativeWestern Pacific Railroad - Cattle Car - Northern Ca. - 1920 Glass Plate NegativeNorthern Pacific Railway Shenango China BowlNickel Plate Road Railroad Company Flag 2’x3’ Made In Usa W Free Ship!Gwinn Mi Michigan Early Souvenir China Plate Munising Railroad Depot RailwayRailroad Dining Paper Cup Chicago & North Western SystemNkp Pa1 Meets Steam In Snow Semophore Nickle Plate Railroad 35mm SlideGreat Northern Railroad Brass Id Plates Lot #5Great Northern Railroad Brass Id Plates Lot #4Railroad - Union Pacific - China Dinner Plate - Desert Flower Pattern - MarkedVintage Super Chief Santa Fe Railroad Turquoise Room Glass Ashtray Dish1985 Vintage Set Chessie For Children Chesapeake & Ohio Railway Cup,bowl & PlateSp Southern Pacific Lines Pmwf Prairie Mtn Wildflowers 5½" Plate Not Rr MarkedVintage Rio Grande The Action Railroad Anchor Hocking Fire King Coffee CupGrand Northern Railroad Brass Id Plates Lot #2Reading Railroad Rdg Locomotive Engine Train Brake Diagram Steel Plate. Grand Northern Railroad Brass Id Plates Lot #1Grand Northern Railroad Brass Id Plates Lot #3