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    

Canadian Pacific Railway China Plate, Empress Steamship Line, Minton Cpr 1880sEmpress Of Ireland - Canadian Pacific Railway - Dinner Plate From WreckAor1 Pro-tech Plate Carrier L/r/r/r & Assorted Eagle Pouches DevgruSyracuse China Great Northern Railroad China 4 Piece Lot !Canadian Pacific Railway China Eggcup, Empress Steamship Line, Minton Cpr 1880sExtra Rare Rock Island Lines Rail Road Rr Golden Rocket Silver 6" Bowl Hank SnowEmpress Of Irelnd - Canadian Pacific Railway - 1st Class Salad PlateB&o Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Lamerton Celery Dish Vintage Cheat RiverNice Vtg Fred Harvey Restaurant Railroad Syracuse China Grey Coffee Cup MugVintage Santa Fe Railroad China Poppy Design Dish Bowl "for Dining Car Service" Nice Vtg Fred Harvey Restaurant Railroad 9.5 Inch Dinner Plate Walker ChinaSouthern Railroad Peach Blossom Pickle DishOriginal Sp Southern Pacific Lines Railroad China 10 1/4" Plate Imperial PatternRock Island Railroad Lasalle Pattern Bouillon Cup Albert Pick Co ChicagoRailroad Hotel China - Fred Harvey - Denmark - Five Pieces - Egg Cup Etc.Southern Railroad Piedmont Pickle DishVintage Rare Pennsylvania Railroad Broadway Limited Deco Design China Plate Vtg Union Pacific Railroad China Winged Streamliner 10.5" Dinner Plate UprrMissouri Pacific Lines Rail Road Way Rr Silver Soldered Covered Handled DishOriginal Cp Canadian Pacific Railroad China - 9 1/4" Bowl - Maple Leaf DesignGreat Northern Railroad Syracuse China €Railroad China Bowl Chicago Rock Island Pacific Lasalle PatternAntique Railroad China Lunch Plate Southern Pacific Prairie Mountain WildflowerChicago Great Western Ry Dining Car China Cup "legionnaire" Buffalo 1925 Nice Frisco Line Rail Road Way Rr Gorham Silver Plate Covered Dish And PlatterCast Iron Seaboard Airline Railroad Equipment Engine Plate ExRailroad Silver Plate - Northern Pacific - 16 Ounce Pitcher - Hinged CoverVtg Union Pacific Railroad China Winged Streamliner Cup & Saucer UprrVtg B & O Rr Pesidential Rail Way Road Company Footed Soup Consomme Dish CupNorthern Pacific Railroad Silver Plate Spoon.B&o Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Lamerton Plate Vintage China Harper's FerryAntique Miners / Railroad 5 Piece Tin Lunch Pail W/ Cup Very Old Estate Item Nice Vtg Big Silver Plate Frisco Lines Railroad International Silver Co LadlePennsylania Railroad Silver Plate Spoon.Ww2 World War Ii German Nazi Soldier Bruscher Weiden 10 1/2" Railroad China Reading Railroad Reading Co. Ymca 8" Plate Excellent Scammells Trenton ChinaRailroad China Salad Plate Atchison Topeka Santa Mimbreno PatternDenmark Pattern Salad Plate Fred Harvey Santa Fe Rr And Frisco LinesE1160 Cuba Spain EspaRare Pennsylvania Railroad Prr Silver Large Railway Dining Car Vegetable Dish Lehigh Valley Railroad Silverplated Sugar Bowl - Flag LogoB&o Railroad Plate Harpers Ferry W.va. Scammells Lamberton China No DamageNice Vtg Missouri Pacific Lines Rail Way Road Rr "the Eagle" Buillon Cup BowlRailroad Silver Plate - Northern Pacific - Parfait SpoonReading Railroad Dining Car China Dinner Plate "stotesbury" 1920Railroad China Demitasse Cup And Saucer Union Pacific Desert Flower PatternDelaware, Lackawanna And Western Railroad Silver Plate Spoon.Vtg Union Pacific Rail Road Way Rr "the Challenger" Oval Bread Plate Econo RimUnion Pacific Railroad Streamliner Boullion Cup "sterling" BackstampTwo Santa Fe Railroad California Poppy Syracuse China Bread Salad Plate Lot Of 42 Kansas City Southern Railway "roxbury" Pattern Cups Railroad China SyracuseNice Vintage Silver Plate Frisco Lines Railroad International Silver Co LadleRailroad China Dinner Plate Southern Railway Piedmont PatternVintage Railroad Chattanooga Choo Choo Tennessee Rr Collector's Plate Must See!Wheelock Souvenir China, Santa Fe Railroad Bridge, Winfield, Kansas*southern Railway* Railroad Restaurant Ware Oval Dinner Plate Buffalo China 1925Syracuse China Railroad? Eggcup Bird Great DesignPennsylvania Railroad China Souvenir Plate 150th Anniversary Of Horseshoe CurveNice Pair Vintage Silver Plate R Wallace Frisco Lines Railroad TeaspoonNice Vintage Silver Plate R Wallace Frisco Lines Railroad Tablespoon