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    

Early Walker China Nickel Plate Road Railroad Cup & Saucer On StandRock Island Railroad Diner Car China Lasalle Pattern By Buffalo ChinaNice Pullman Calumet Dining Car Coffee Cup And Saucer RailroadLot 9 Pc Vtg Syracuse China Traveler Milwaukee Road Railroad Dining Car-egg Cup+Pennsylvania Railroad China Demitasse Cup And SaucerSouthern Pacific Lines Railroad China Salad PlateVintage Milwaukee Road The Traveler Syracuse China Platter Railroad Dinnerware5 1/2 In Southern Pacific Railroad Dining Car China Bowl Large FlowerBowl: Western Pacific RailroadMissouri Pacific Lines Railroad Train Locomotive Porcelain Plate Syracuse 9 1/4 Inch Southern Pacific Railroad Sunset Dining Car China PlatterVintage Santa Fe Railroad "griffon" China Soup BowlNyc New York Central Railroad Syracuse China 9 & 7/16" PlateUnion Pacific Railroad China Gravy BoatNew York Central Railroad China Coffee Cup And SaucerRare Pennsylvania Railroad " Gotham" Service Pattern 10 1/2" Plate Collectible 2Pennsylvania Railroad China Keystone Pattern Demi CupB&o Railroad Blue China, 9 In.soup Plate Rare Intercolonial Railway Cup Ca.1900 CanadianMimbreno Railroad At&sf ( Santa Fe) Platter (15") Authorized ReplicaIllinois Central Railroad China BowlPennsylvania Railroad China Bread And Butter PlateVintage Canadian Pacific Railway China Plate - Maple Leaf DesignVintage Le Creuset France Orange #28 Oval Handle Cast Iron Enamel Baking Dish RrRare Intercolonial Railway Luncheon Plate Ca.1900 CanadianErie Railroad China Rectangular Platter Gould Pattern 8 3/4 By 6"4 Vintage B&o Railroad China BowlsPoland Spring Railway Small Bowls Shenango ChinaReading Railroad China Bread And Butter PlateLast One Vintage Scammell Pennsylvania Railroad Dinner PlateMissouri Kansas Texas Railroad China Small Oval Plate 7 1/8" By 5 1/4"Original Railroad Slide Norfolk & Western N&w 1218 + Nickel Plate Nkp 527 9/89Vtg Greenbrier Hotel Plate Ca 1921 Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad Sulphur Springs VaIllinois Central Railroad "coral" Cup And Saucer Vintage 1955 Southern Railroad Sterling China, Demi Cup Piedmont PatternPoland Spring Railway Small Platter Shenango ChinaChicago & North Western Railroad China PlateU887 Rp 1970 Nkp Nickle Plate Railroad Train Station Kent Ohio Vintage Union Pacific Overland Railroad Oval China Dish, 4 By 10”1897 Folding Collapsable Railroad Conductor Drinking Cup1920 Gorham Silverplate Missouri Kansas & Texas Mkt Katy Railroad Rr Sugar BowlJunk Drawer Coin Lot Mint Set Half Dollars Gold Plate Old Coins Railroad StockFred Harvey Santa Fe Railroad Syracuse China Webster Creamer El Tovar HotelUnion Pacific Railroad Uprr Winged Streamliner Oval Plate 8.25 Inches ChinaChicago Railroad Fair Commemorative Plate 1949Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Collector Plate,hittin The DiamondRailroad Slide Nickel Plate Nkp 26 S2 Great Northern Railroad Spokane Rose Airbrushed Syracuse China Grease Jar - Nr