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    

Union Pacific Rr Railroad Columbine Cup & Saucer - Old Ivory Syracuse China Vintage Chicago & Alton Railroad Oval Ironstone Platter PlateSanta Fe Railroad Mimbreno Original Pattern Tea Pot/coffee Hot WaterUnion Pacific Rr Railroad Columbine Soup Bowl Old Ivory Syracuse China Union Pacific Rr Railroad Columbine Cereal Bowl - Old Ivory Syracuse China B & O Railroad China Cup & Saucer Capitol Pattern Gold BlackFrisco Railroad Engine Number Plates Whoops!!!! # 906 Or 609 Great Northern Railway Glory Of The West 5" Sauce DishEmpress Of Ireland Canadian Pacific Railway Steamship Minton China Dinner PlateB&o Railroad China Footed Egg Cup CentenaryEmpress Of Ireland Canadian Pacific Railway Steamship Minton 1st Class PlateSanta Fe Railroad Salt And Pepper Set Used With Mimbreno China On TrainSanta Fe Railroad Mimbreno Pattern China Original Cup And SaucerSanta Fe Railroad Mimbreno Original Pattern Bowl Salad/soupVintage Yale & Towne Lock Nickel R.r Plate Signal Department Padlock W/ KeyVtg Pere Marquette Railroad Rr Car Ferry Steamer 7-1/4" Salad Plate DinnerwareMissouri Pacific Lines Railway Railroad The Eagle Coffee Cup Syracuse ChinaNorthern Pacific Railway Np Stampede China 9" PlateRailroad - Gulf Mobile & Ohio Small China Bowl - Top Marked- Rose 1a PatternTexas And Pacific Railroad Arrow Pattern Luncheon Plate Nrrbs ExcellentPere Marquette Railway Pm-1 Autoferry Cup And Saucer Buffalo China Vintage Pullman Indian Tree Pattern China - 7 1/2" Plate - Railroad - SyracuseRailroad = Western Pacific Baker Bowl -top Marked - Feather River PatternPullman Railroad China Ice Cream DishSeaboard Railroad China Platter - Palm Beach Pattern O.p.co SyracuseVtg New York Central Railroad Railway Railroad Rr 7-1/4" Salad Plate SyracuseSanta Fe Railway Railroad 5 1/2 Inch Adobe Plates Econo Rim Syracuse Dining CarPair New York Central Railroad Dewitt Clinton Two Handled Cups Restaurant WareNew York Central Lines Railroad Buffalo China Dewitt Clinton Rare Demi Cup Syracuse China 40's New York Central Railroad Mohawk Pattern 10 In. Dinner PlateWestern Pacific Railroad China Demitasse SaucerBaltimore & Ohio 1827-1927 Railroad Scammell's Lamberton China Mini PlatesFrisco Railroad Engine Number Plate #656**very Rare United States Bureau Of Fisheries Railroad China PlatterVintage Seaboard Railroad Train Car Silver Plate Tray Restaurant? Food? B&o Railroad Blue China "centennial" Egg CupVintage Canadian Pacific Railway China Plate - Maple Leaf DesignFred Harvey Railroad Cactus Pattern Celery Relish Tray Dish Syracuse China HtfWashington Terminal Restaurant Senango Dulin & Martin China 7" Bowl Railroad Old Original Photograph China. Railway Handcar / Pump Trolley. Yueh Han Railway?Southern Pacific Lines Railroad China Bouillon CupB&o Baltimore And Ohio Railroad Capitol Pattern Black & Gold Small Oval BowlVintage Canadian Pacific Railway China Plate - Maple Leaf DesignOld Original Photograph China. Railway Handcar / Pump Trolley. Early 20th CentryBaltimore Ohio B&o Railroad Scammell's Lamberton China 6 3/4" Blue Plate Nr!!Syracuse Railroad ChinaPair Of B&o Rr Demitasse Cups & Saucers-centenary Pattern-lambertonNew York Central Lines Rr Train Railroad China Pitcher Creamer DinnerwareRailroad China Salad Plate Atchison Topeka Santa Fe California Poppy PatternRailroad China Butter Pat Blue Denmark Pattern FriscoRailroad China Butter Pat Winged Stream Liner Pattern Union PacificChicago & North Western Railway Silver Sugar BowlRailroad China B & O Cententary Plate Design PatentedOld Original Photograph China. Railway Steam Engine. Yueh Han RailwayChina. Old Photograph, A Rural Chinese Railway Building, Tracks & Rolling Stock.Vintage C & O C&o Lines Railroad Token. Good For Sanitary Drinking Cup.* Rare Mcnicol Monongahela West Penn Traction, Railway, 7" Salad Plate, ExcB & O Railroad Mug Baltimore & Ohio (b&o) 1827- 1927 Lamberton China 1950s Or Older Baltimore & Ohio Rr Butter Plate Collected From Travels Demi Cup & Saucer Set Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Centennial 1827-1927 Lamberton