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    

Syracuse China Great Northern Railroad China 4 Piece Lot !Canadian Pacific Railway China Plate, Empress Steamship Line, Minton Cpr 1880sEmpress Of Ireland - Canadian Pacific Railway - Dinner Plate From WreckVintage Northern Pacific Railroad Restuarnt Ware Cup & Saucer Set No Damage Canadian Pacific Railway China Eggcup, Empress Steamship Line, Minton Cpr 1880sNorfolk & Western Railway Railroad N&wry Egg Cup Cavalier Pattern Bauscher 1923Railroad Platre Northern Pacific-northwest - 5 3/8" PlateEmpress Of Irelnd - Canadian Pacific Railway - 1st Class Salad PlateNyc Art Deco Brown Mercury Pattern Railroad Syracuse China Dish And Coffee CupIllinois Central Rr China Service PlateOriginal Sp Southern Pacific Lines Railroad China - 9 1/4" Oval Imperial PatternRare Pennsylvania Railroad Prr Silver Large Vegetable DishNew York Central Railroad China Dinner PlateVintage Santa Fe Railroad China Poppy Design Dish Bowl "for Dining Car Service" Pennsylvania Railroad Broadway Pattern 8 1/4" Plate By MayerSante Fe Railroad Teapot Dining Car Service Syracuse ChinaSante Fe Railroad Cup And Saucer Dining Car Service Syracuse ChinaOriginal Sp Southern Pacific Lines Railroad China 10 1/4" Plate Imperial PatternGreat Northern Railroad Syracuse China €C B & Q Railroad Violets & Diasies Pattern Syracuse ChinaB&o Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Lamerton Celery Dish Vintage Cheat RiverSouthern Pacific Lines Sunset Pattern Railroad China Oval PlateChicago Burlington & Quincy Rr Dining Car Violets & Daisies, Single Salad BowlVintage Rare Pennsylvania Railroad Broadway Limited Deco Design China Plate Railroad China Butter Pat Winged Stream Liner Pattern Union PacificOriginal Southern Railway China - 9" Bowl - Peach Blossom Pattern - RailroadOriginal Cp Canadian Pacific Railroad China - 9 1/4" Bowl - Maple Leaf DesignN.& W. Ry. Yellow Bird China Vegetable Bowl ~ Powhatan Arrow & Pocahontas ChinaChicago Great Western Ry Dining Car China Cup "legionnaire" Buffalo 1925 Denmark Pattern Salad Plate Fred Harvey Santa Fe Rr And Frisco LinesVintage Southern Pacific Railroad Restuarnt Ware Saucer No Damage Original B&o Baltimore & Ohio Railroad China - Bowl 7 3/4" - Capitol Gold/blackB&o Railroad Museum Nostalgia Station '80 "chessie & Kittens" Collector Plate 5"Baltimore And Ohio Railroad Shenango China Butter PatAntique Railroad China Oval Bowl Southern Pacific Sunset PatternAntique Railroad China Lunch Plate Southern Pacific Prairie Mountain WildflowerNorthern Pacific Railroad Silver Plate Spoon.B&o Railroad Museum Nostalgia Station Chessie Collector Plate 5"B&o Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Lamerton Plate Vintage China Harper's FerryReading Railroad Dining Car China Dinner Plate "stotesbury" 19204 X 6 Print Filmore, Il Nickel Plate Rr Depot 1907 Nkp Clover LeafGn Great Northern Railroad Dining Car China Platter Mint UnusedSouthern Railway Railroad Buffalo China Business Office Car Dinner Oval Plate B&o Railroad Plate Harpers Ferry W.va. Scammells Lamberton China No DamagePennsylvania Railroad Butter Pat, Purple Laurel Pattern By Buffalo ChinaReading Railroad Reading Co. Ymca 8" Plate Excellent Scammells Trenton ChinaGlass Plate Negative 1890s Railroad Train Tracks Unknown Location 5x8Cyrus K Holliday The First Santa Fe Train Railroad Ad Clear Glass Plate PlatterDisney Collector Plate Disneyland Railroad Disneyland 40th Anniversary PlateVintage Reed & Barton Silver Soldered D.l. & W. R.r. Railroad BowlSyracuse China Railroad? Eggcup Bird Great DesignPennsylvania Railroad China Souvenir Plate 150th Anniversary Of Horseshoe CurveSyracuse China 2 Cup Saucer Sets Trend Berkeley Fred Harvey Santa Fe RailroadAntique Nickel Plate Road Railroad Railway Train Timetable January 8,1937*southern Railway* Railroad Restaurant Ware Oval Dinner Plate Buffalo China 1925Railroad Rr Ry Lehigh Valley Silver Plate Butter PatLamberton B & O Railroad Blue White Plate Harper's FerryTwo B & O Railroad And Great Northern Railway Coffee Mugs/cups TrainsMetro-north Railroad "30 Year Anniversary & Gct 100 Year Drinking Cup"