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    

Southern Pacific Railroad - Top Marked 7” Salad Plate Art Deco Streamliner Union Pacific Train/railroad/up Rr Vase Hotel Silver PlateRare Northern Pacific Railroad Garnett Pattern Celery Dish1944 Santa Fe Railroad Dining Car Service Plates, Playing Cards & Trip DocumentsSouthern Pacific Railroad Harriman Blue Maddocks China Sunset Ogden Shasta RouteVintage Lamberton Scammells China Oval Plate Baltimore And Ohio Railroad Bowl Signed Copy "the Official Guide To Railroad Dining Car China" By Doug Mcintyre Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Lamberton China Thomas Viaduct Small PlatterC&o Chesapeake & Ohio Railway Road Dining Car Creamer Buffalo China CentennialNew York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad Nynh&h Shenango China PlateAntique Union Pacific Railroad Harriman Blue Top Marked Platter Maddocks ChinaB & O Railroad China Harper's Ferry W. Va. Centennial Plate Buffalo China 10.5" Railroad Dining Car Hollowware, Sugar Bowl, Burlington Route Great Northern Railroad Oriental Pattern Dining Car China Cereal BowlRare Oval Union Pacific Railroad China Plate Art Deco Winged TrainSouthern Pacific Lines Railroad Train Dining Shenango Boullion Cup Calif PoppyChina Wang Tao Railway ( Plain Card) Pennsylvania Railroad Sponge Holder DishVintage Lamberton Scammells China 7 1/8' Baltimore And Ohio Railroad Bowl Vintage 1925 Nickel Plate Road Railroad Nyc&st.l Envelope & Stamped Ticket StubReplica Santa Fe Railroad Atsf Demitasse Cups Creatures (3) Ancient MimbrenoBaltimore & Ohio Railroad Gravy Boat Shenango ChinaSyracuse China - Vintage 10" Plate - 1960 - Chesapeake And Ohio Railway - MintBaltimore & Ohio Railroad Lamberton & Shenango China 3 Demitasse Cups 2 SaucersB&o Railroad American Legion Plate Topper2 Erie Railroad Starucca Cups & Saucers12 Unused Syracuse China Santa Fe Railroad Pattern Plate Bowl Poppy Rare Sherbet Santa Fe Railroad California Poppy Individual Teapot Buffalo ChinaFred Harvey Rare Blue Chain Creamer Butter Pat Vintage Railroad Shenango ChinaSyracuse China, Econo-rim Railroad China - Roxbury Pattern - Sugar CaddyNy Central Railroad DishesNorth Western Railroad China Double Egg CupCanadian Pacific Railway Dish Plate 1946Canadian Pacific Railway Dish PlateCanadian Pacific Railway Celery Bow & Leaves Dish Plate 1947Southern Railway Peach Blossom China SaucerLocomotive Brake Plate Cb & Q C-564 RailroadAntique Japanese Military 1910 Railroad Regiment Army Sake Cup1905 Rare Pc China Trans Siberian Railway Locos Cartoon; Harbin - St PetersburgReplica Santa Fe Railroad China 2 Turtle Butter PatAtchison Topeka & Santa Fe Fred Harvey Plate Vintage Syracuse Railroad ChinaFox Hunt Wall Plate Jf Herring Sen 1830's Eng. Artist Debonair Pot'ry IronstoneLot Of 2 Vintage Railroad Track Plate Tie Plates Double Shoulder Railroad, Kansas City Southern Plate And Coffee CupReplica Santa Fe Railroad China Black Rimmed Cereal BowlNice Santa Fe Railroad Berkeley China Cups And SaucersVintage Union Pacific Railroad Toy China Sugar Bowl, Creamer & Butter Pat8) China Tibet Silver Longevity Dragon Dragon Statue Tangka Amulet Rr292V & Sajs "overland" Railway Car - Touch Plate And HandleLinen Panorama Of Tci & Ry Tin Plate Mills ~ Birmingham Fairfield AlCollectible China Old Handwork Tibet Silver Carve Pair Magpie On Tree Statue Rr